Category Archives: Unexpected

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.

AIDS to Ebola: Tech changes, rumors persist

As our communications technology has improved, what have we learned about avoiding the spread of medical misinformation and rumor in the three decades between AIDS and Ebola? Apparently, not enough.

Over at GeekWire, I draw comparisons and share lessons gleaned from my experience as a one-time health/science reporter, someone who began covering AIDS 30 years ago and before it received a lot of mainstream attention. I also add a perspective on how public health professionals today are using social media and the web — tools that didn’t exist three decades back — to propel good info and play Whac-A-Mole with the bad.

HIV-infected H9 T-cellBut as part of the research for the GeekWire column, I dug up an ancient digital file (probably written on an Apple IIe or early Mac) that summed up the advice I offered other broadcast news reporters at the time, in 1986. It was one of a series of columns I contributed to a newsletter of the Associated Press, AP Broadcaster.

A lot of this advice still holds true with Ebola. Let’s fire up the WABAC machine:

ON THE HEALTH/SCIENCE BEAT
AIDS: A Reporter’s Postscript
by Frank Catalano, Health/Science Reporter, KING-AM Seattle

The ambulance-chasing crowd probably isn’t going to like this at all. With AIDS, information is as important as news.

Let me explain. In my first column for AP Broadcaster, well over a year ago, I summed up what basics a reporter should know about AIDS: why there’s no reason to fear casual contact, emotion versus facts, what the AIDS blood test tests for, and how to choose an expert.

The column appeared mere weeks before the most celebrated AIDS patient died: Rock Hudson. And even though research on the actual virus and treatments continues at a break-neck pace, the basic information presented in that column hasn’t changed.

What has is how we’re responding to it.

AIDS is not just a “news” story, one based on events, or one to pull out on a slow day. While those of us in the business have been exposed to information on AIDS for at least a year, our listeners/viewers have probably not had a chance to assimilate all the information. Indeed, the constant “breakthrough/disaster about AIDS” headlines seem to be desensitizing the public, rather than calmly informing them.

But the basics are still there, about casual contact, about the blood test, about fear of AIDS. And they are not news. So what to do?

CatalanoKING1980ssmallYou might try a series of PSA’s. At KING-AM, we produced a series of a dozen 30-second “AIDS Updates.” For the series, we interviewed a variety of health officials. Then, in each PSA, we tackled a basic topic — casual contact, mosquito transmission, who should get the blood test, public pools and hot tubs, knowing your partner (gay or straight) beforehand, quarantine, where to call for AIDS information and five others. The officials’ explanations were bracketed by an open and close, with the question posed in-between. Each PSA opened with “This is AIDS Update,” and closed with “AIDS UPDATE is a public service of KING 1090.”

We ran them in public service rotation 40 times each week, and each week, the message would change. The entire series ran twice, for a total run of 24 weeks. Eventually, we’ll produce a new series relating to the current fears/questions.

And how do we find out about those fears and questions? In November of 1985, we produced a live, two-hour call-in show on AIDS. In studio were three experts: one from the Health Department, one from the local gay clinic, and a psychologist who deals with AIDS patients. All five lines never stopped ringing for the entire show, probably because the memory of Rock Hudson’s death was still fresh. A similar one-hour program aired this Spring, to lesser, but still good, response.

But some of the guidelines I mentioned in the Summer of ’85 still apply now. We still know AIDS is caused by a virus, and not everyone infected or exposed comes down with full-blown AIDS; that it has an incubation period of years in some cases; it’s transmitted by semen or blood (saliva, an open question in the previous column, appears not to carry enough of the virus to matter); and the greater number of sexual contacts you have, hetero- or homo-, the greater your risk.

We found if you have to be explicit to get the point across, grit your teeth and do it as tastefully as possible. Two reasons, both listeners, come to mind.

One, a middle-aged woman who called and wanted to know, exactly, what “intimate sexual contact” — a euphemism she’d heard a lot — was. Heavy petting? French kissing? What was safe? The other, a man who was asked by an on-air guest if he practiced “safe sex.” “Of course,” the man replied. “I lock my door before going to bed each night.”

Even though newsroom interest in AIDS may be linked primarily to events, our audiences’ need for the basics is still there. By focusing on solid information instead of the latest headline, not only do we help put the headline in perspective, but avoid needlessly alarming the public. And, we build a reputation as a news operation that can be trusted — a reputation no headline can buy.

For something a bit more current, read “From AIDS to Ebola: In rumor control, only the tech changes,” at GeekWire.

Sharing bad news on social media

In some respects, what our parents and grandparents thought of as the “Big C” is now the “little c.” Cancer survival rates, for a variety of reasons, have improved overall. The earlier detection of many common types of cancer still comes as a emotional shock, but there is much more public information. And thanks to technology, more choices.

Such as how you share the news with family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances in a culture of social media over-sharing.

Over at GeekWire, I explore how to find a good way to share bad medical news on social media. I know, because the case study is one close to me: This summer, my wife Dee Dee was diagnosed with breast cancer.

We’re past the immediate treatment stage (surgery and radiation; no chemo was required) and hormone therapy will continue for five years. But early on we had to figure out the best way to communicate the diagnosis and ongoing steps to those used to getting updates of our personal lives on Facebook and other social networks.Janos_Kugler_(attr)_Schlechte_Nachrichten

So we came up with seven questions we asked ourselves, and could apply to sharing any really bad news, medical or otherwise, in a tech-communicative society. Plus Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative chimed in with three cautions, based on its social media manager’s experiences.

Social media, of course, is more than a communications mechanism. It also provides and points to many resources for those dealing with breast cancer. I didn’t delve into that aspect. But one column reader asked:

You don’t mention #bcsm and whether Dee Dee enjoyed reading the posts of others in the breast cancer social media community. I’m interested because some research suggests a benefit to patients.

Dee Dee responded, in part:

I haven’t been active in the breast cancer social media community — after diagnosis I spent a lot of time reading Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book and doing other research on breast cancer. Perhaps due to a quirk in my personality I didn’t feel the need to participate in conversations online (or offline), but focused on my own recovery. However, I know those resources are very valuable and helpful to many … Now that I’m past the treatment phase I’m very interested in breast cancer research and prevention, so I think I’ll be checking out more of these forums.

For more, read “Finding a good way to share really bad news on social media,” on GeekWire.

Time ship’s first stop on 400-year journey

A 400-year “generation ship” is preparing to make its first stop to take on new artifacts … in Washington State.

Over at GeekWire, I describe an unusual effort to preserve tech (and other) history in convenient capsule form. Time capsule form.

The Washington Centennial Time Capsule, sealed in 1989, is about to be re-opened and re-stuffed. That’s because this particular initiative isn’t a single “capsule,” it’s a vault with 16 capsules — one for each 25-year period between 1989 and 2389. The second capsule, marking the 25 years up to 2014, is about to be populated.KOTC_Logo_Vert_700x1000

What should go into it? That’s still being debated and decided. But here’s a sampling of what’s in the first capsule:

Items that were placed in the first box include over 10,000 microfilmed messages to the future written by Washington state residents; sealed messages from the state’s Congressional delegation, Governor, other state officials, and science fiction writers; Microsoft Bookshelf on CD-ROM; a Centennial banner carried into space in 1990 by Washington State astronaut Bonnie Dunbar; a handwoven Indian basket; Centennial reports and commemorative items; a 1989 Frederick & Nelson Christmas catalogue; and assorted coins, medals, buttons, and medallions.

Running in parallel with the artifact update is an unusual human effort, in which a second group of ten-year-olds is being recruited to maintain the Centennial Time Capsule until the next update two-and-a-half decades hence. That’s an effort overseen by 1989’s original Capsule Keepers, now all 35 years old.

Read, “We are the Keepers: Time Capsule makes 1st stop on 400-year journey,” at GeekWire.

It was 20 years ago (almost) today …

I recently realized I have passed a milestone: It has been 20 years since my first regular tech column.

PapersBack then, it was for Eastsideweek, one-time sister paper to Seattle Weekly (and my editor was the irrepressibly intelligent Knute “Skip” Berger). Turns out even then I was writing on a personal computer, likely my Apple II — and I still have the text file on my current laptop.

Since that four-year-long weekly adventure, I’ve been a regular contributor or columnist, in roughly sequential order, to Seattle Weekly, Puget Sound Business Journal, KCPQ-TV Seattle, TechFlash, MindShift, GeekWire and EdSurge (the last two are my current regular columnist digs). My writing for GeekWire probably is the most direct successor to the approach and tone I set two decades ago, to GeekWire’s benefit or otherwise.

So here it is: the very first Byte Me column from May 11, 1994. Yes. The Internet has improved since then. Except for the “hot burner” part.

Byte Me
or, Dispatches from the Digital Frontier

The Internet as Goat Trail Continue reading It was 20 years ago (almost) today …