Category Archives: Technology

What I did on my summer vacation I didn’t take

It’s been a busy summer full of science fiction, digital media, and edtech trends. So busy, that I didn’t take a vacation. But I did manage a quick weekend trip to Disneyland for some tech ‘research.’ Really.

What did I learn over the last three months, and was fascinated enough to write about?

Seattle remains a quiet hotbed of science-fiction activity.

From the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which has graduated some of the best-known speculative fiction talents over more than three decades, to the new science-fiction and predictive analysis membership website Scout, Seattle remains at the top of its science-fiction game.

Seattle also mourns. Harlan Ellison, one great of the field who never lived here, but was inducted in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at MoPOP, died over the summer.

Cultural institutions are broadly trying tech that highlights the arts.

It’s tricky to apply digital technologies in a way that doesn’t mask or minimize underlying fine art. But museums from Seattle to Chicago are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality in their galleries. The Seattle Symphony is creating a new permanent performance space that supports shared virtual experiences centered on music.

And Paul Allen’s Seattle Art Fair had Rockwell and Hassam, but also fighting robots and animated neurons.

Our consumption of media keeps changing as more of it goes digital.

The fastest growing publishing format? It’s now digital audiobooks. The biggest uses of smart speakers? As they go mainstream, it’s clustering around music, news, traffic, and reminders.

But there’s a dark side, too. Ebook ‘book stuffing.’ And really stupid self-inflicted wounds that can give a stranger control of your social media account.

Tech giants are coming for education technology.

Yes, there have been companies that have specialized in edtech for decades, and many startups and their investors discovered the market this decade. But Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are now battling, with varying amounts of success, for the hearts and minds of classroom teachers. Microsoft, for example, is taking Minecraft: Education Edition to the iPad, and purchased the startup Flipgrid to give away its classroom video discussion product for free.

The discussion continues, though, on tech’s place in schools. Elementary students literally debated ‘tablets vs. textbooks’ in Seattle. Whatever digital media wins in classrooms remains a toss-up, due to obstacles to implementation.

You can ride 17 attractions at Disneyland in one day with time to spare.

Perhaps the happiest discovery of the summer came at the Happiest Place on Earth, where I found apps made it possible to fully experience Disneyland and Disney California Adventure with minimal lines and stress for maximum rides and fun. Plus, have time to spare to ponder how the parks have quietly updated classic attractions with digital ‘new magic’ over the years.

That’s a summer experience I may have to repeat.

On the road, on deadline, without a space bar

The Lenovo Flex 4 laptop and its ill-fated keyboard.

You never realize how much you depend on the smallest thing until it fails. Like a key on your laptop.

Last month, I traveled to San Diego to attend the ASU+GSV Summit, an investor- and company exec-focused education technology conference. I’d committed to writing about it for GeekWire. That meant lots of note taking during sessions, nighttime drafting of stories, and the usual stuff that goes with the practice of “writing.”

My laptop of choice was a Lenovo Flex 4, which had been primarily a personal laptop (purchased when I had a corporate exec position, so I had a job-issued Dell ultralight as my main machine). The 14″ Lenovo, with its lightweight keyboard and touch screen, wasn’t a standalone workhorse. I used it almost exclusively with a docking station in my home office. But it seemed to also suffice as a road companion on my infrequent trips.

I’ve always been a fast typist and probably a bit more of a keyboard-pounder than most (I’m told I’m noisy by others on conference calls). That’s what happens when you learned “keyboarding” on an old-school manual typewriter that required great force for the metal type lever to make an impression on the paper through the cloth inked ribbon.

Not the actual typewriter on which I learned, but you get the idea.

Still, the Flex worked fine through the first day of conference note-taking, and an evening of responding to email. The next morning, as I began to draft stories, I noticed spaces frequently weren’t appearing between my words.

Odd, I thought. I kept trying, and then found periods (so to speak) of no spaces were punctuated by occasional unending strings of repeating spaces.

Glancing down at the keyboard, I saw the space bar had gone flush with the laptop base.

Uh oh.

I turned the laptop over and tapped on the base. Yes, that popped the space bar up. For about ten words of typing. Stuck flush anew.

I realized I had a problem. Solutions considered, tried, and discarded:

  1. Type a hyphen (-) between each word instead of a space, then later do a global search-and-replace. That quickly got tedious as I had to consciously stop after-each-word-to-reach-up-to-press-the-hyphen-key.
  2. Race like a stereotypical ink-stained wretch on deadline and ignore the malfunctioning space bar, inserting spaces later. Thatquicklymadereviewingandeditingtextawful. And I felt like a bizarre hybrid of James Joyce and e.e. cummings.
  3. Use the on-screen touch keyboard to insert spaces, since I recalled the Flex was also a touch screen-enabled laptop. Same mental speed bump problem as the hyphen solution, not to mention rapid smearing of the screen I was trying to read.
  4. Find an existing space, copy it, and then just paste it between words. God. No.

After trying workarounds and failing, a quick phone call to Lenovo technical support from the hotel made it clear that this was not something I could repair myself.

So for the remainder of the conference, I took my notes on paper (also leading to the realization that if one doesn’t do handwritten note-taking often, the printing becomes indecipherable and one’s hand cramps quickly), as well as in Evernote on my smartphone (hoping that auto-correct would fix any thumb-inspired typographical mess).

A manual, portable, typewriter that I still own, in perfect shape.

Once home I filed several stories for GeekWire, including a general wrap-up of ASU+GSV Summit (“For investors, the future of education technology is now the workplace“), the launch of a new interoperability effort (“Project Unicorn signs first companies to help schools handle the hairball of edtech data“), and a forthcoming Media/Tech column, all with an external docking station and keyboard plugged into the Flex.

Then the Flex 4 went back to Lenovo for replacement of the keyboard under its one-year warranty . Which was good timing, as I discovered while on the phone in the hotel room to Lenovo tech support that I was calling on exactly the one-year anniversary of my purchase. (Whew.)

I’ll be finding a new home for the now-fully refurbished Flex with its virgin keyboard. I’ve purchased a more industrial-strength primary work laptop, a Lenovo X1 Carbon on which I’m writing this.

And I hope never again will space threaten to be my final frontier.

Tips for traveling well, with or without paper

I love to travel. (Yes, even business travel.)

I hit the Million Mile Flyer level on Alaska Airlines five years ago, and am well on my way to my second million butt-in-seat miles. I used to commute regularly and routinely from Seattle to each of New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and more for various projects and positions. I’ve given keynotes in locations ranging from Arizona to New Zealand.

Every couple of years, I redeem flight and hotel loyalty program points and take trips to Europe, making all of my own arrangements.

So I’ve learned stuff.

A different kind of air experience after a New Zealand keynote.

After my recent ten days of vacation in Germany and Spain (thanks to redeeming Alaska Airlines and Starwood Preferred Guest miles and points), I wrote up the latest in series of “guides” to mostly paperless travel, “Can you go paperless on an overseas trip? The Geek’s Guide to International Travel, 2018 Edition,” for GeekWire. (One hint: Evernote and/or Dropbox are great for storing digital copies of critical documents, like passports, and usable copies of any barcoded rail or admission tickets.)

But for my friends and followers on Facebook, I shared ten more general tips on how to make overseas vacation travel better:

  1. The highest and best use of frequent flier miles and hotel loyalty program points is international travel. Not only does it remove a lot of costs from the vacation equation, it provides the best value per point.
  2. Conversely, the highest and best use of vacation time is walking the city streets and visiting the local haunts wherever you are. You meet real people and see real places, not just those that hawk “We speak English!” or want to offer you a “free” walking tour.
  3. Prepare for language frustration, no matter how well you think you’ve prepared. You’re not going to understand the rapid-fire real-world linguistic shorthand outside of a language-learning app (though I did love prepping with Duolingo). Just smile and point and lot, and you’ll be fine.
  4. Wear a money belt. (Yeah, it’s a pain, but so is replacing all of your credit cards and cash on the go.) And, if you carry a day pack, consider the really safe and well-designed PacSafe brand with interlocking zipper pulls and RFID shields. We loved ours.

    Extra subway rides remain on this Barcelona transit pass.
  5. Take local mass transit. You’ll see more of the city on a tram, bus, or subway than you’ll ever see on a scripted tour bus. (And get a souvenir that may prompt you go to back, such as our Barcelona T-10 pass with four rides left.)
  6. Give yourself down days to reflect, relax, and re-visit. We decided to to forego another day trip from Madrid to either Toledo or El Escorial after a previous day trip to Cordoba so we could explore Madrid more deeply. We don’t regret it.
  7. Don’t over-plan. Pick one must-see sight per day. Then fill in around the edges as your time and energy level allow. That way, you’ll know you’ve seen the highlights and won’t be more concerned with a checklist than what’s around you.
  8. Eat local. Yes, we’re pescetarians (fish and veggie). But we tried local sausage and currywurst and Riesling and Apfelwein in Frankfurt, and jamon and paella and manchengo cheese and olives and red wines and churros with hot dark chocolate in Barcelona and Madrid. Food is a critical aspect of culture, not just nourishment. Can’t indulge? Sample. (That’s what tapas are for.)

    Spain’s high-speed train fleet reaches 300 km/hour. We relied on them.
  9. Study in advance, and keep humble keepsakes along the way. Diving deeply into an experience and making it memorable isn’t just having the experience. It’s anticipation, built by catching videos and reading guidebooks about your destination in advance. It’s reinforcement, which means keeping those museum tickets with images and place maps. Don’t underestimate the value of either.
  10. Pack a sense of humor. Things will go wrong. But making others (and yourself) relax through humor at the absurd will make the journey less stressful. (And yes, I’m looking at you, Frankfurt Airport.)

And, if it’s not clear: You can use many of these on any vacation trip to get the most real life and enjoyment out of your travel.

Five years ago, being stalked by dinosaurs near Paris on a similar ten-day vacation trip.

Library of Congress saves Tree Octopus (& podcast)

The Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website, archived by the Library of Congress.

That clever meme. Cute cat pictures. Terrifying urban legends. All shared, and spread, on social media and sites. And all worth preserving as “web culture?”

That’s how I introduced what is one of my favorite interviews in my GeekWire podcast series on pop culture and the arts: an interview with Library of Congress officials about their new Web Cultures Web Archive.

But it was not a smooth road to recording. It took three attempts on three dates over six months to get to the finished podcast and feature article.

First, some backstory. The podcast episode had its genesis when I was having dinner in Washington D.C. with Trevor Owens, inaugural head of digital content management for library services at the Library of Congress. He mentioned some incredibly interesting work he’d been doing at the world’s largest library, taking “born-digital” content (materials that have never existed in any other form other than digitally) and archiving it for everyone to see online.

That was in September 2017. I was on vacation. I’d just started my podcast series for GeekWire a month earlier. I thought, “Wow, this could be a cool topic.” I asked if he’d be interested in coming on the show, and he agreed.

We exchanged several emails over the next month, reviewing background on the various projects in various parts of the sprawling LoC. I finally decided to focus on the American Folklife Center and its online collection of archived sites that document what the LoC calls “emergent cultural traditions on the web,” from emojis and GIFs to Creepypasta and Slashdot.

Both Trevor and Nicki Saylor, head of the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress, agreed to record the podcast remotely from D.C. Clare McGrane, my ace producer, worked out a seamless way to use Skype to record two different guests at two different locations in addition to recording me asking my questions from the GeekWire studio in real-time.

So far, so good.

One of the primarily text web sites in the Web Cultures Web Archive, from 2002.

The first recording date approached, in November. A few days beforehand, Clare and I realized while we had all the technical pieces set, we hadn’t actually tested them working together. There was a small glitch. To play it safe, we apologetically postponed. The holidays were ahead, so the next date that worked was in January.

Specifically January 22. The one and only weekday of the federal government shutdown of early 2018. The Library of Congress was shuttered. No interview.

We rescheduled a second time for early March. The Friday before our Monday recording date, a huge storm slammed D.C. and also shut the Library of Congress. We crossed our fingers. We bit our fingernails. By Monday, everything had melted and re-opened.

The third time was the charm. The result you hear sounds relaxed and spur of the moment, as though we’d just decided to have a chat.

That, more than anything else, is the magic of audio. And a really good producer.

There’s a lot of information and geeky fun in this podcast and story for library and web history buffs. Do enjoy reading, “Library of Congress saves the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other online ‘web cultures’” and the related GeekWire “popcast.” It was a half-year in gestation.

And let me again thank Trevor and Nicki for their patience and good humor, and Clare for pulling it all together.

 

Why I’m flipping my work model to writing more, consulting less

Three decades ago, I began my career in the tech industry. But what some don’t know is that working as a tech (or edtech) exec, whether on staff or as a consultant, has been my second career.

So after 30 years I’m returning to my first career: journalism and other writing, with consulting now as the side project.

In late 1987, I left a career in journalism (primarily in radio news, but also some TV and print) and as a budding writer of science fiction to become an early marketing manager for the Apple Programmer’s and Developer’s Association. That was when you still had to educate people about what a “personal computer” was before enticing them to buy one. For a journalist who had won Computer Press Association awards for a radio talk show (yes) about computing, working for APDA and its parent A.P.P.L.E. Co-op was a natural fit.

I went on to marketing management at Egghead Discount Software and became a marketing exec at a number of tech companies. My shift to edtech began with a consulting role as interim vice president of marketing for McGraw-Hill Home Interactive. That led to explaining tech’s potential (and limitations) in the education market. I’ve since held marketing executive staff roles at Pearson Education, Professional Examination Service, and SchoolMessenger (West Corporation), plus consulting senior roles with several more firms.

Always, it’s been with the tenets that tech marketing and branding must focus on what’s unique, believable, and true. It ties back to providing information from which a buyer can make a confident decision. If you’re missing any of these three elements, you may not be marketing in the best interests of the company or the customer. You could just be shilling for that fast buck.

Not coincidentally, those three tenets also are related to good journalism, even if the desired outcomes are very different.

Throughout my career as a tech exec and consultant, I’ve kept my hands — at careful arm’s length — in some form of journalism, usually as an analyst or commentator. I wrote the “Byte Me” column for a Seattle-area alternative news weekly for four years. For another four, I did television commentary about tech.

And for the past lucky seven years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a founding writer for the tech news site GeekWire, contributing columns, podcasts, and news stories as often as my day job would allow. In between all of this, I co-authored a couple of Dummies books, wrote some long essays, and did a lot of public speaking.

However, there were always things I would not write about because of my concerns about perceived or real conflicts of interest. That hampered topics I was willing to take on.

So now it’s time to flip the model.

Starting, well, already earlier this year, I’m returning to journalism, analysis and commentary as my main job. That work encompasses both tech and — more so than I was able to do in the past — edtech.

GeekWire will remain my home base, allowing me to expand the writing I’ve done about edtech, continue my special monthly podcast interview/story series about pop culture, science fiction, and the arts, and begin a new weekly column about the intersection of media and technology when it comes to creating and consuming “content.” I realize this experimental swap of emphasis won’t be all wonderfulness. It’s risky. And I’ll be trading one set of career annoyances for another. Don’t let anyone tell you journalism and fiction writing aren’t businesses, especially if you expect to get paid.

Will I write for others, beyond GeekWire? Yes. There may again be long essays, short fiction, and books.

Will I still consult? As time, interest and ethical considerations allow. But I doubt much consulting will be on standard marketing. That intellectual challenge, for me, is incremental after three decades.

Besides, unlike when I began, no one today has to explain digital technology to consumers or educators to get them interested in using it. More important, and part of my role now, is helping all of us better understand how to intelligently manage tech’s effects on our everyday lives.

What’s happened to edtech industry news?

http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/sturgeon-campbell-awards.htm#images
Theodore Sturgeon Award trophy “asks the next question.” (Gunn Center Photo)

I don’t do tweet storms much. But recently, I got riled up about the state of K-12 edtech industry news coverage. Ten tweets resulted.

I don’t regret any of what I wrote rapidly that morning. Except maybe misspelling “motivators” in the very first tweet, a typo I introduced as I tried to make “motivations” fit into Twitter’s 280-character limit and had to come up with another word.

I’ll also point out that EdSurge is doing some good reporting in the K-12 edtech area. What EdSurge writes can be selective and uneven as the edtech news and resource site has expanded its coverage  into higher education and adjacent markets.  Yet some of EdSurge’s best work has come from Managing Editor Tony Wan, who provides context and background, and not just the latest press release.

I also didn’t mention Education Week’s EdWeek Market Brief, which arose as the funding boom did (and seems to be tinged with the patina of a subscription market research service, but isn’t quite that). Still, it’s not edtech-specific, and appears to be a bit of a side project to Education Week’s mainstay good work in covering education as a whole.

That leads to one final postscript observation: Perhaps there just isn’t enough, in these days of click-bait and cut-back journalism, of what science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once simply called, “Ask the next question.” He was describing it in terms of good speculation and debate. It’s also a hallmark of good journalism.

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.