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.
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.
Early this year, I decided to invert the amounts of time I spend writing and consulting. Writing, I determined, would now be primary. Consulting, if I had time and a strong interest in the engagement, would be secondary.
I even wrote a heavily viewed blog post after my shift was already well underway. It outlined what I’d been doing and the rationale, but cautioned it was “experimental swap of emphasis,” and I’d likely be “trading one set of career annoyances for another.”
That caution was warranted.
Since the beginning of the year, I have learned three annoying things about my career, my writing, and myself that others may learn from as well.
Too many people read “spending more time (fill in the blank)” as mid-career code for “retiring.”
Let me make this really, really clear: I am not retiring. I do not want to retire. I probably practically cannot retire as it would likely lead to my early demise (either from boredom, or at the hands of my spouse after she hears me whine about boredom one too many times).
Yet there’s still this cultural assumption that “retirement” naturally goes along with writing, and sometimes consulting, mid-career.
Both, if done right, are hard work. Both can be more than full-time jobs. And both are increasingly common professional options as our society shifts from a permanent-employment economy to a freelance-and-gig economy.
My spouse points out that perhaps others mean it kindly. Perhaps they think of “retirement” as not having to go into an office every day to a job I (or more likely, they) hate. Perhaps I look like I need it.
But in today’s economy and job market, don’t assume any individual choice to write more, or even consult more, is a move to retire. Unless, of course, the only receptive audience for that writing or advice is the non-paying household cat.
The mechanics of journalism are widely misunderstood.
My writing emphasis to date has been a return to journalism, contributing a regular Media/Tech column to GeekWire, as well as a monthly arts and pop culture podcast and occasional stories about education technology and other topics.
I was a full-time staff journalist once, but that ended three decades ago. Yet I’ll venture the general public’s understanding then of what journalists do was much better than it is now.
After all, then there were (as I recall) a number of well-known movies, books and television shows about journalists. Citizen memories of reporters’ roles in successfully exposing Watergate were still fresh. There was far more news organization staff working and, importantly, visible at the local level than there is today.
So I’ve found myself educating current-day PR people and tech executives what an “embargo” and “off the record” mean (yes, a journalist has to agree to either in advance, not after being given that unsolicited news release or provocative interview quote). I’ve had to gently advise edtech industry figures on Twitter that just because TV didn’t cover an event doesn’t mean that a media ban was directly responsible — decimated local market reportorial ranks may not have even known about an event, or had staff to cover it.
And I’ve watched as technology giants seem to conflate popularity with quality of news media coverage. (Run that thought experiment on novels and movies, and you’ll quickly see where that correlation falls apart, right Madea?)
I also suspect some of this is on journalists, including their professional organizations, for not doing ongoing proactive outreach, instead apparently assuming people innately know how reporting works. Plus it’s on schools for not teaching media literacy.
Yet this is about more than preventing the spread of fake news. It’s about understanding how news reporting happens and that good reporting is not simply parroting official statements and press releases. In a democracy, that process is critical to appreciate.
It’s a fine line that separates magical thinking from pursuing a dream.
This was the hardest and most personal lesson I had to learn. Deciding you might like to do something is absolutely not the same as doing it.
When I undertook this shift early this year, I figured I’d finally write two novels I’d once outlined, or maybe one or two more non-fiction books I’d considered. Perhaps I’d return to writing long essays and short fiction; I’d had both published before.
But as I maxed out the amount of writing I could do for GeekWire and my non-consulting time freed up, I found other ways to fill it. It slowly, sadly dawned on me that the reason I’d never written those books or more fiction wasn’t because my full-time work prevented it. It was that deep down I didn’t have the fire in my belly to do the writing.
If I’d really wanted to do it, I’d have found the time. Made the time. Years ago.
That’s when it became clear to me that magical thinking had replaced pursing a dream. I wanted the results of the dream without having the underlying, unrelenting passion required to achieve it.
Here you can substitute “become company president” or “have a successful startup” or “be a Hollywood actor” for “write two novels.”
Close friends, long-time colleagues, and your own gut are important touchstones to prevent rationalizing these types of realities. Better I figured it out after only a handful of months rather than spun my wheels endlessly waiting for it to just happen.
Sometimes, I’ve now learned, you have to try something different and see if it works. And if not, be willing to admit it, stay flexible and keep open to newer opportunities that point in the right direction.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seattle gets a lot of credit for being a hub for the technology industry. But what may not be as obvious to the masses — and is being surfaced by some tech leaders themselves — is that Seattle (and the broader Pacific Northwest) is a hub for science fiction and fantasy too.
And they’re increasingly linked.
I’ve delved a bit into those connections this year as I’ve stepped up my writing for the tech news site GeekWire. Not only do we now in the Northwest have Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates, but we will always have Frank Herbert, Greg Bear, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
(Personal disclosure: I was once an active science-fiction writer and one-time officer of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So my perception might be skewed, much like yours would be if someone casually mentioned there are lots of yellow Volkswagen cars on the road, and suddenly that’s all you’re seeing, even though you never noticed them before.)
So far, 2018 has provided several very public examples of the ties between the greater Seattle area, speculative fiction, and sometimes tech titans.
Example one: The late Frank Herbert, best known for the ground-breaking Dune series of novels but also a former Seattle journalist, being honored in his home town of Tacoma with a park.
In 1986, I was asked by Frank Herbert's family to help field media calls about his literary legacy when he died (I was once an officer of @SFWA). Now, his #scifi "Dune" is getting a namesake park in Frank's home town.
Example two: Amazon has done a lot to raise the profile of science fiction and fantasy on video with its original productions. (Just think of how well Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle has been transformed into a series for Amazon Prime.)
One big reason may be that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos himself is a fan of the genre and is willing to propel adaptations. The latest? Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel series.
Amazon Studios to adapt Iain M. Banks’ Culture space-opera novel, a ‘huge personal favorite’ of Jeff Bezos https://t.co/tiKzdJJqBf
Example three: SFWA’s current president, Cat Rambo, lives in Seattle and is a tireless advocate for writers (especially of short fiction and, lately, of games). One of those writers Cat and SFWA have recently highlighted is Peter S. Beagle, who lived in the Seattle area during the 1980s and has a 2016 novel, Summerlong, set here. Beagle will shortly become a SFWA Grand Master.
The guest appearance probably won’t provide any insight into the science fiction Gates prefers. But earlier, he had expressed an appreciation for the work of Neal Stephenson — who happens to live in the Seattle area, too.
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.)
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.)
Reviewing my year at @GeekWire, I have several favorite posts and podcasts that remain evergreen in readability, all tied to #tech, but also to arts & pop culture. I’ll recap a few in this thread; they can all be found here, at this author link https://t.co/HdoPaeClRh 1/10
A long-ish essay early in the year that began as a diary on selling my software-cheating diesel VW Golf back to #Volkswagen, but turned into a meditation on transitioning to a one-car family lifestyle using tech alternatives https://t.co/vkVKKQceyW 2/10
These were a few of my favorite 2017 things. At least, that I did for @GeekWire. I’m hoping to do more on pop culture and the arts, and how they tie back to tech, in 2018, too. I hope you’ll keep reading, listening, and giving me ideas & feedback https://t.co/YDTfGQaFvK 10/10
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.
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.”
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.