Category Archives: Technology

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 manchego 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.

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?

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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.

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.

Awards don’t matter, until you get one

SJPAwardsI will openly admit that yes, I’ve won two awards for my recent writing in GeekWire from the Society of Professional Journalists. And I’m delighted to have done so.

This weekend, at the SPJ Gala held in Seattle for the Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest, I was honored with second place in Editorial & Commentary for a selection of three GeekWire contributions, and third place in Critique & Review for my piece, “As science fiction ascends, its popular award – the Hugo – threatens to nosedive.” (Both were in the Small Daily Print and Online division for work appearing in 2015. Size does matter in award competitions.)80100_spjlogo-for-header.png.300x300_q85_autocrop

There is a type of bashful condescension about awards in the creative arts. “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m not competing with others.” “Money will get you though times of no Hugos.” (Anyone with a long memory of awards in science fiction will be able to attribute that last reference.)

But the reality is awards can serve useful purposes: to draw audience attention to good work that isn’t wildly popular, or to give artists (including writers) a rough benchmark of whether their peers think they’re hitting the mark.

Flanked at the reception by KPLU's Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano.
Flanked at the reception by KPLU’s Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano. (Photo: Sara Lerner)

I’m pleased to note that two great online-only news outlets, Crosscut and Seattle Globalist, took the first place awards in the two categories in which I placed. But coming in right after them makes me happy, since they do such good and broad-based work.

The last time I placed in an SPJ competition was in 2013 for columns I wrote in 2012, a third place in Commentary when there was a different Online-only category. This year is better. (I don’t enter every year, though I’ve been writing for GeekWire since 2011.)

If you’d like to see the three pieces that added up to this year’s Editorial & Commentary honor, they are:

And yes, for those counting — the last one actually won twice. Writing about Hugos apparently will get you other awards, if not a Hugo itself.

Science fiction and the future

What’s the future going to look like? That simple question has fueled the work of philosophers, theologians, scientists, stock pickers, and, of course, science-fiction writers. So naturally it was the focus of my session at the 2015 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Joining me for the lively, 40-minute, and mercifully PowerPoint-free discussion were Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress, futurist and writer Ramez Naam, and former astronaut Ed Lu.

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One of my favorite parts of the session was a utopia/dystopia lightning round, in which I asked for quick assessments of which direction seven developments might take us, including:

  • Uber
  • Self-driving cars
  • Internet of Things
  • Robots overcoming the “uncanny valley”
  • iPhone 17S
  • All knowledge only digital in form
  • President Donald Trump

You can read a partial transcript (including the lightning round) on GeekWire. And, there’s a full video of the session on YouTube.

 

Lu also had some choice words on the current state of NASA. And the three all expressed both concern and delight when asked what keeps them up at night. I was simultaneously entertained and learned a lot from my guests. I trust you will be, too.