Category Archives: Unexpected

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, an extended summer break) due to several other demands.

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 and a science-fiction writer 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

or

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.

and

… 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.

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.

The geeky tech of Rudolph

Christmas ornaments. Porcelain figures. DVDs. All because of a single, red, reindeer nose.

In my holiday GeekWire column, I explore the nerd-tastic continuing popularity of a 50-year-old animated holiday television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There is actually a fair amount of what, at the time, was state-of-the-art tech behind Rudolph, from the “Animagic” process to sound recording.DreamWorks Animation Rudolph 50th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray

This particular column was something of a labor of love. About 15 years ago, shortly after we married, my wife Dee Dee and I discovered we shared an affection for the stop-motion annual tradition. It wasn’t long after that — when I had just wrapped up four years as a freelance tech columnist for Seattle Weekly and its sister paper — I began researching Rudolph’s animated life as a topic, and then pitched an idea to my editor at the time:

The Cult of Rudolph
After nearly 40 years, the 1964 animated TV show “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is undergoing a rebirth among young and not-so-young: a remastered DVD with original footage, a line of best-selling toys, a reissued soundtrack recording, even a direct-to-video sequel. Yet the perennial favorite (featuring the late, local Burl Ives), upon close watching, makes Rudolph a poor role model … especially when it comes to parenting, coaching and gender equality.

HermeyPorcelainTwo successive editors didn’t bite at the idea. I put the pitch aside. This year, on its 50th anniversary, nearly four years into my stint as a freelance GeekWire columnist, I re-tooled the approach. Part of what appealed to me was the cool stop-action animation. What if I deeply looked into, and focused on, the tech? This time, Todd Bishop and John Cook at GeekWire bit.

Sometimes, all a good idea needs is better timing. And a tweak.

Of course, in the meantime Dee Dee and I had casually collected so much fun Rudolph memorabilia (from action figures to Christmas tree ornaments to porcelain displays to various DVDs) that I had no trouble coming up with images for the column. With the exception of a screen from the actual television special, all the photos alongside the GeekWire piece are of items I own. And there’s a frightening amount more.

With that additional background, please enjoy my holiday GeekWire column, “The geeky tech behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

There is no “I” in “impostor”

On the web, there is no “I” in “impostor.” It appears it’s easier than ever to co-opt parts of, or mimic entire, identities of others thanks to social networks and websites that encourages individual profiles. I should know.

Over at GeekWire, I outline my experience of being impersonated or having elements of my identity stolen on Facebook and Twitter. But my experience is nothing compared to that of Alec Couros.

Couros, whom I quote in my column, figures that at any one time, there are at least three fake “Alec Couros” accounts on Twitter or Facebook. He’s been playing Whac-A-Mole with them for several years, with varying levels of success. (I, atFacebookPhilipGrahamphoto3 least, was able to get Twitter and Facebook to take down my impersonators within a week of reporting them.)

Couros also, in the column comments, notes what appears to be a disturbing new turn in impersonator profiles:

A more recent problem I’ve had is with these scammers also setting up Facebook accounts of my children that are connected to the fake profiles of my identity. I can usually get the fake profiles (that are of me) taken down within a week. However, there is no real mechanism that allows you to report a fake account of someone else (such as my children). The reporting system tries to get you to alert the real person (e.g., my children), but if my children do not have Facebook accounts (which they don’t), there is no real way to get these taken down. You can report them from being underage, but that doesn’t guarantee that they are taken down because then Facebook contacts the account holder and asks the scammer. It’s frustrating. Facebook account reporting is broken.

We now may have no choice but to come to terms with the fact that digital social media has finally leapfrogged analog biological science. Human cloning has arrived. Like it or not.

Read, “How online scammers created a fake identity using little more than my picture,” at GeekWire.

Interstellar: Not quite a great science-fiction film

Let me start by saying I plan to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar a second time. In IMAX. It’s visually stunning. There’s lot of solid science, making it a smarter movie than most I’ve seen on screen in recent years. But is its combination of science and story great science fiction?

Interstellar_film_posterAfter one viewing, my take is no, not quite. I go into detail (without spoilers) in my GeekWire column. (In a second post about Interstellar in which Team GeekWire members share reactions immediately after a group viewing, I give it a grade of B-.) I’d almost say Nolan’s Inception has a better, more absorbing science-fiction story than Interstellar, even though there’s very little overt science in the former.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and the comments on my column lead to some over-my-head equations that debate the current-day scientific accuracy of Interstellar‘s plot drivers. To which, I’d only remind folks, this is fiction, not a documentary. Yet it is science fiction so the two elements need to be in some kind of speculative, believable alignment.

Watch me put on my nerdy, science-fiction writer beanie and read “Interstellar: Dramatic awe, with a science fiction flaw,” at GeekWire.