Of Pittsburgh, edtech, and science fiction

Duolingo’s Pittsburgh headquarters. (Duolingo photo)

February is coming to an end. And with it, a rather unique initiative of GeekWire’s.

Back when Amazon announced it was accepting proposals from cities to be the location of that company’s “HQ2,” GeekWire’s founders were inspired (admittedly, during a happy hour).

If Amazon can solicit bids for an HQ2, they thought, why not GeekWire?  And thus was born the GeekWire HQ2 project.

GeekWire would only locate a co-headquarters in the winning city for a month, and just bring a handful of transplanted jobs (the RFP stated “up to three”).

Yet several cities responded, and Pittsburgh won.

Even though I didn’t travel to Pittsburgh, I did contribute. I happened to know that Pittsburgh is a hub of education technology activity, and developed a detailed round-up of how edtech is in Pittsburgh’s DNA — going back to Fred Rogers, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was airing on the edtech of its era (television).

My contributions took a different tack as the month progressed. Turns out Pittsburgh also is a hub for science-fiction activity — at least in 2017 and 2018. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is presenting its Nebula Awards in Pittsburgh again this May, as the Nebula Conference completes a two-year location rotation.


Plus, this year’s SFWA Grand Master, being honored for a lifetime of achievement, has roots in both Pittsburgh and Seattle. So I highlighted the career of author Peter S. Beagle (best known for the novel The Last Unicorn, but writer of so much more, including a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, film adaptations, and many other books) in the context of SFWA and the two cities.

Catch up on all of GeekWire HQ2 special coverage here. And, if you’re wondering what else I’ve been writing lately, my GeekWire author archive is here. (Spoiler alert: there’s edtech, science fiction, pop culture and a fascinating podcast with author and futurist Ramez Naam.)

Most memorable geek writing of 2017, recapped

Recording GeekWire’s “popcast” at Living Computers in Seattle. (GeekWire photo/Clare McGrane)

For those keeping track (and it may just be my close family, when pestered), my fondest writing work was about the intersection of tech, the arts, and pop culture in 2017. And it was all for GeekWire.

Much of it wasn’t timely “news,” per se, though some of the underlying interviews that I did for a special GeekWire podcast series beginning in August did spawn news stories.  There were some non-“popcast” articles that were also popular, including a re-cap and re-think of education technology funding (and its “edtech” industry label) at year’s end, plus a candid re-assessment of my ability to forecast tech’s future.

Other highlights? I’ll let my threaded Twitter avatar speak for me. (Because 2017.)

Seattle Symphony: Stepping boldly (& carefully) into digital

 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets rehearsal. (Seattle Symphony photo)

How do you bring a venerated arts organization into the digital world? Often in non-public-facing ways. And with the support of audiences and leadership.

The Seattle Symphony is considered one of the top orchestras for doing “multi-sensory” performances — everything from accompanying films live, on-stage, to playing alongside “kinetic instruments” while the conductor uses a Microsoft Kinect.

I take a look behind the scenes at both (including what happened during a rehearsal for a live orchestra-enhanced performance of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) in both my podcast and related article for GeekWire.

But a few details about digital risk-taking didn’t make it into the GeekWire story.

Seattle Symphony’s Joe Kaufman and Kelly Woodhouse Boston. (Frank Catalano photo)

One is the role of leadership. Director of Operations Kelly Woodhouse Boston credits Music Director Ludovic Morlot and President and CEO Simon Woods with being, “key to the experimentation we’ve been able to do in the last five or six years,” she says. “Both Ludovic and Simon are very open to new ideas, experimenting, openness, innovation, and they have really set us up so that when their departure occurs we’re in a really strong position to move forward.”

Departure? Yes. Morlot and Woods, who have both been with the Symphony since 2011, are leaving (for different reasons and opportunities).  That means a transition.

Joseph Kaufman, the Symphony’s assistant principal bass, is also optimistic: “They were such strong leaders (and that) has set the tone for us as we search for a new executive director, to find someone who’s going to fit that mold, who’s going to continue that trend.” Woodhouse Boston also notes that Thomas Dausgaard, the incoming music director, “will be continuing that tradition.”

Seattle Symphony post-concert kinetic instruments installation. (Frank Catalano photo)

The acceptance of digital and multi-sensory experiences also relies largely on the audience. Seattle, Woodhouse Boston notes, has audiences that are “sophisticated and adventurous.” It also doesn’t hurt that the greater Seattle area is a technology hub.

Is there anything new that the Symphony hasn’t done, but would like to try? Kaufman would like to go beyond accompanying well-known films, to doing a live score with the premiere of a brand new movie. “I think it could be something that people would clamor to see especially if it was in partnership with the film festival or some other institution,” he says.

To find out more about how the Seattle Symphony earned its reputation for taking risks with technology, both overtly and subtly, read, “From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech” at GeekWire, or listen to the podcast.

Tales of mold and disintegration: Saving vintage computers

Sitting in a replica of a 1980s rec room at Living Computers. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

It’s always a little surreal, and sobering, when you visit a museum and see things you’ve owned and used.

But that’s exactly the experience I had, and other nerds are likely to have, when visiting Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle. I also learned a lesson about how one’s formal education may not lead in a straight line to a career, yet still be totally applicable.

This two-floor museum tucked next to Starbucks’ headquarters in the SODO neighborhood is said to be the only museum in the world dedicated to collecting and operating historically significant computers. That includes everything from IBM 360 mainframes (which, as a junior high student, I learned to program using punch cards), to “microcomputers” like the Apple II (my first serious writing machine, after a Smith Corona Electra 120 typewriter).

And all of them work.

An original Apple 1, case not included. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

There is also a full level of contemporary-tech displays on the main floor. I toured all of it, microphone in hand, alongside Executive Director Lath Carlson for an episode of my GeekWire podcast on the arts and popular culture. It also led to two articles, one on the back stories of some of the vintage computers, and a second on how Living Computers determines what’s a “trend” for the main floor tech exhibits.

An Apple II disk coaster, still fulfilling its original function, in my home office.

One detail I couldn’t help asking about was Carlson’s degree in cultural anthropology. He said he picked that major after considering mechanical engineering. How does that align with running a computer museum?

“I chose anthropology because really what I realized I was interested in was how people use tools,” Carlson told me. “And computers are the most universal tool that’s ever been created.”

Observing visitors’ reactions is an outcome of that.  “I think what’s so special about this museum is the kind of inter-generational exchanges that happen,” he explained “So we’ll have a grandparent or a parent and their kids come or all three come as a unit to the museum, and get this incredible experience of,  ‘Oh, that’s what my dad did all those years when he went to work,’ or, ‘That’s what my mom did when she went in to work at the data center’… And that happens almost daily and I think it’s fantastic to see that in this environment.”

Read, and hear, more at GeekWire: “How this museum makes moldy machines work again, saving historic computers for the future,” “Tech fad or real trend? Seattle’s Living Computers Museum + Labs places bets in newest exhibits,” or the full half-hour podcast here.

Held accountable… for my tech predictions

When dinosaurs ruled the internet. (Wikimedia Commons image / public domain)

It can very much suck to go out on a limb. Especially if that limb is attached to the fast-growing tree of technology.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay about the future of the news media and technology. The long version appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (for what was Analog‘s regular non-fiction ‘State of the Art’ feature) as “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves.” The short version — punchy with predictions — showed up in the Seattle Times on Wednesday, October 7, 1992.

Turns out a lot can change in 25 years.

A smarter person would have cashed the checks and moved on to the next “here’s what the future will be like” project, never glancing back. A smarter person would have made sure his future self never found the original essay online (there was no “on the web” in 1992, at least not the way we think of it). A smarter person is not me.

So, my 2017 future self has critiqued my 1992 futurist self in an essay for GeekWire. It reprints the substance of the entire original Seattle Times essay (except the opening paragraph) and, more importantly, evaluates how I did.

On balance? Not bad. But there were two major misses, having to do with the internet as we know it, and with rumors as we fear them.

Two of these things are not like the others. (GeekWire image / Todd Bishop)

Keep in mind that, in 1992, I was relatively new to tech (2017 marks my 30th anniversary in the tech industry full-time). That was in the era of “personal computers.” But I also had more than a dozen years experience in broadcasting, including work for KING Seattle and NBC Radio. Plus I was actively writing science fiction.

As a result, I thought I had as good a shot as anyone of getting it right. And, I didn’t. Because the wild card in prediction is always a new development that cross-pollinates with another new development to create something unexpected in combination. Like the internet + smartphones, as one example.

Some things still hold up well, such as my introductory Seattle Times paragraph:

It is the end of the Mediazoic Era. The information-spawned creatures feel it in the air as they lumber across the Electromagnetic Plain, feet leaving newsprint images, bodies trailing audio tape. In large part, the demise of the Networkasaurus is due to the very developments that gave it great strength: satellites, computers, and cable television.

And the closing paragraph of the longer Analog version:

There won’t be a lack of information or tight-fisted high priests who control access to it (as was the case in the Dark Ages). Rather, there will be the ability to choose both sources and “editors” of those sources. But this won’t come until we get through the growing proliferation of news sources and gatherers, the resulting confusion, the end of news network and wire service dominance, the development of smart filters, and the accompanying readjustment of social equilibrium.

I’m still waiting for that “accompanying readjustment.”

Do read, “25 years ago, I predicted the future of media and tech — here’s how I did,” at GeekWire.

Public media’s digital transition & future

I’ve often thought that digital technology is one of the best things that has ever happened to radio … and one of the worst.

NPR’s DC HQ.

It dramatically increases radio’s global reach (in a way mailed cassette tapes of “airchecks” never did) and the ability to consume its audio in bite-size chunks, such as in podcasts. Yet it provides an existential threat to terrestrial broadcasters who assume radio waves, not audio content, is what sets them apart.

Both extremes of thought are well known in public radio. And discussed in the latest interview in my special GeekWire series of podcasts and articles about the arts, popular culture and science fiction. This time, I speak with representatives of two Seattle-area public radio stations, Matt Martinez from jazz/news/blues format KNKX, and Bryan Lowe of classical format KING-FM.

Martinez has an additional perspective, having come to Seattle two years ago after 15 years with NPR. It was while on a vacation visit to NPR studios in DC in September that I got the idea for this podcast, seeing the floors of studios, the two-level newsroom, and even the glassed-in control center for program distribution (with an odd, unexplained egg-shaped chair in the center — sadly, no photos).

Lowe from KING-FM and Martinez of KNKX. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The conversation with Martinez and Lowe was fascinating, and the podcast goes far beyond what’s in the summarized GeekWire story. We also delve into tech fads vs. trends for public radio, how radio content gets from their studios to your (non-radio) devices, and even some backstory about The Bryant Park Project, an NPR morning show initiative that Martinez worked on a decade ago and was, in the telling, a bit ahead of its digital time.

My NPR vacation souvenir.

And for those who don’t know, the “aircheck” I mentioned earlier was a tape that radio personalities used to make either for critique sessions with management or to look for work at other stations. Yeah. I spent a dozen years on the air, for a brief time as a disc jockey and then, for much longer, in news as an anchor/reporter and also a news director.

Never in public radio, though. I was once offered the news director position at public KUOW Seattle after what I thought was a disastrous group interview with news department staff.  (Them: “What makes you think you, as a commercial newscaster, could handle public broadcasting?” Me: “It worked for Daniel Schorr, didn’t it?”) The interview had gone so badly, in my mind, that I’d already taken my first position in tech before the KUOW offer was made. Not only did I wind up leaving radio behind, I discovered I wasn’t always a great judge of how I did in interviews.

Off-air musings aside, check out the GeekWire story, “Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening.” And listen to the 43-minute podcast, too. It’s got some great voices.

A note about GeekWire & work-work balance

Team GeekWire at the GeekWire Summit 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Last week, I attended the GeekWire Summit. One year ago, I was certain I was done with GeekWire.

I’d joined as an outside columnist at its inception in 2011. Four years later, I’d run out of column ideas, and limped along as an occasional contributor. Finally, I decided I was done. I even ended it on my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Because I wasn’t thinking about balance. Not work-life balance. Work-work balance.

Many of us have more than one professional activity that we are good at and love doing. But we can only take one full-time job at a time.

Once we land in one professional field, we may think we have to give up other professional interests. We may bank them for some far-off retirement.

That is a false choice.

If you love doing something, don’t give it up. Better to tuck that professional love in around the edges of your main gig. Both will benefit. When you move between the two, you’ll be mentally refreshed. And you may have fresh ideas from one that cross-pollinate to the other.

Now I devote some weekend time to a new series of GeekWire podcasts and articles on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts. While it’s not a lot of activity, it’s enough.

And I remain proud to be part of Team GeekWire.

Sourcing, conserving, displaying: Behind the scenes at MoPOP

Three years ago, I decided to clean out some of my science-fiction collectibles. Among them, I had dozens of top-condition lobby cards — the small rectangular cardboard cards with large photos and the names of films that movie theaters used to display in their lobbies beneath large movie posters.

One of the many lobby cards donated to MoPOP by this writer.

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture agreed to accept them as a donation, back when MoPOP was known as EMP Museum. And that led me to wonder how museums that focus on music, science fiction, and other aspects of popular culture actually get, conserve, and display these sometimes very ephemeral objects.

My GeekWire pop culture podcast (and two accompanying articles) digs into that with MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. How do they find stuff? How to they keep it from deteriorating (more)? And, ultimately, how do they tell a story with sometimes very different objects?

Museum of Pop Culture Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

The questions — and answers — led to a very lively and anecdote-filled conversation that definitely upends any misperception that museum collecting and curating are dusty and dry occupations. Especially when there’s a pig lizard involved.

Bring me the head of … never mind. I’ve got it.

Read the overview on what the MoPOP collection is like in, “Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture.” Move on to how MoPOP leverages fans for, “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want.”

Or just listen to the entire popcast, “Preserving Pop Culture.” And don’t miss earlier installments in this special series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts.

SFWA’s Cat, internet cats, & the short story category

You don’t have to be a professional writer to learn from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

In my latest GeekWire podcast, I interview SFWA President Cat Rambo. There’s news (SFWA will introduce its first-ever Nebula Award for Best Game Writing next year) and there’s advice (if one wants to become a short fiction writer, “I would suggest that they put their butt in their chair and start writing”).

As a matter of fact, there’s so much of interest, I wrote two separate stories based on the interview. The first, on awards in science fiction and fantasy and their continued relevance, and a second, on advice to wannabe science fiction and fantasy writers, especially those interested in short stories. (A bonus discussion about cats on the internet and in SF is in the first story.)

Twitter appears to have enjoyed the duality of this new episode in my special GeekWire podcast/story series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts, and how they tie back to tech.

And it all led to a very active, popular discussion thread on Reddit with more than 600 comments.

Cat Rambo has fascinating perspectives on what SFWA has meant for writers and readers of fiction since its founding in 1965, and on the current state of the field.

Read, “Game writers to be honored with Nebula Award in first for professional science fiction and fantasy org” and ,”So you want to write sci-fi? Tips from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,” both on GeekWire.

Plus, listen to the full podcast interview for additional thoughts on diversity in science fiction, and more detail on the stories’ topics including a nice shout-out to the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

New GeekWire “popcast” series launched

I’ve always been interested in culture and the arts — pop or fine — and technology, and how the two intersect.

Now, there’s a podcast for that.

I’ve just started hosting and reporting a new podcast and feature article series for GeekWire. While it doesn’t (yet) have a name other than the informal “GeekWire popcast,” the series looks at pop culture, science fiction, and the arts as each ties to tech.

Science fiction as a subject is a bit of a no-brainer, of course.  But there is also a lot happening in the rest of pop culture and the arts, and I’ll expose the fascinating tech underpinnings in these interviews and GeekWire posts based on the interviews. At this writing, the first three podcast topics and interviews are already lined up.

As I mentioned to the science-fiction blog File 770, first up was best-selling author Greg Bear on the state of science fiction (spoiler alert: it’s golden). Upcoming episodes will include interviewing Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) President Cat Rambo about the relevance of awards in science fiction and fantasy and the role of diversity, and curators at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) about the challenges in preserving science fiction and fantasy artifacts from film and TV that were never designed to last.

More episodes to come after that, probably at the rate of one or two a month (as my day job allows). While this is a limited series, I suspect the limit, not to be too trite, will be my imagination. Plus listener/reader suggestions that spur it.

Get started by reading, and listening to, the first installment, “Science fiction has won the war: Best-selling author Greg Bear on the genre’s new ‘golden age’,” at GeekWire.

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