Category Archives: Technology

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.

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.”

Handling, not feeding, trolls

‘Tis the season. And “gifts” from trolls are everywhere. Not the fuzzy mythical kind, but the human kind that troll social media, online news sites and discussions boards with the intent of disrupting the conversations of others and drawing attention to their anonymous or, frequently, pseudonymous comments.

The advice used to be to just ignore them. However, research and ubiquity show it’s no longer safe to ignore all of them, or all of their ravings.

At GeekWire, I summarize the research (two fascinating studies) and provide five tips in how to respond, this or any season. They’re tips that have worked for me, but require great selectivity and self-restraint in application. They are:Internet_Troll_velu_ill_artlibre_jnl

1) Correct actual misstatements or falsehoods.

2) Maintain a neutral tone.

3) Be brief.

4) Respond promptly.

5) Don’t respond to everything.

To which a reader added:

6) Don’t cite dictionary definitions.

7) Don’t make comparisons with the Nazis. (cf. Godwin’s Law)

Get more detail, and perhaps think of your own additions, by reading “Happy Holidays, it’s the Christmas Troll!” at GeekWire.

All I want for Christmas is my 2.0

All those new tech toys? Forget it.

My wish list for Santa is far more straightforward: Make the products and services I rely on better.

Over at GeekWire, I eschew the latest gadgets and apps in my letter to Old Saint Tech. While I love my Sonos, Fitbit and Google Nexus 5, what I really want is small upgrades that make them even more useful.Santa's_Portrait_TNast_1881

And I share some wishes from friends, too. Both on what they want to receive, and what they wish to re-gift.

Read, “Santa, all I want for Christmas is my 2.0” at GeekWire.