Tag Archives: GeekWire

What I’ve learned from writing tech columns for 25 years

In 1994, I got a call from an editor I knew at a Seattle-area newsweekly. Computers for personal use—and the companies that made them possible—were getting a lot of attention due to this newly accessible Internet. I’d been a full-time journalist and now worked in tech. Would I be interested in writing a snappy regular column explaining computer industry developments to mere mortals?

Sure, I said. It needs a name, he said. I first suggested “Dispatches from the Digital Frontier.” And then I offhandedly added, “Or you could just call it ‘Byte Me.'”

He eventually stopped laughing. That set the tone for more than 200 weekly “Byte Me” columns that ran in Eastsideweek and later Seattle Weekly through 1998, starting with one titled, “The Internet as Goat Trail.” It bemoaned the difficulties of using this largely free and open so-called “information superhighway” while still noting it “sparks the imagination of what could be.”

After the Seattle Weekly column ended came a several-times-per-week on-camera tech analyst slot at KCPQ-TV Seattle with a column on its website, then columns or regular contributions for Puget Sound Business Journal, TechFlash, NPR/KQED’s MindShift and finally almost eight-year-long stints with both GeekWire and EdSurge.

My current work with GeekWire and EdSurge wrapped up earlier this year. That’s led me to reflect on two-and-a-half decades of a side career analyzing and writing about technology developments and the industry for a general audience (after reporting on the original personal computer boom when I was a full-time broadcast news reporter).

Yes, a lot has changed from a technology standpoint. What was nerdy fringe is now geeky mainstream. What was desk-bound and disconnected is now portable and persistently linked. What was an annoying buzzword…is still that.

Yet as the major technology hype has shifted from personal computing and the internet to mobile devices, I’ve discovered that three universal truths endure when it comes to explaining tech to a general audience.

Under-the-hood interest is limited—but it is there. People do want to understand why a new technology, product or service is useful. But they do not want to be buried in technical detail.

Sometimes stories about what’s new go so deep in the weeds of the tech underpinnings (I’m looking at you, blockchain) there is no clear tie back to the practical benefits.

That doesn’t mean a writer should stick to describing what’s cool on the surface. Cool doesn’t always mean useful. There are many examples of “cool” products and services that required such contortions in customer behavior that much of the benefit was lost. This goes way back, and includes everything from early Timex Datalink smart watches to the Radio Shack precursor of today’s laptop computers. I owned both.

So surface or weeds alone don’t serve the non-expert, tech-interested audience. There needs to be enough factual foundation for understanding and a clear connection as to how that tech makes it possible for the useful stuff to be delivered.

It’s easiest to focus on the giddy change-the-world surface. It is oddly also easy (for the nerdy) to give an expert tutorial on the tech. What is hard is figuring just how much of the latter is required to help people understand the former without going too far in either direction. For the good explainer/educator, it’s a constant challenge.

The lure of the bright-shiny is eternal. Similarly, people want to hear about what’s new and exciting in tech. But they don’t want to be served a diet of empty-calorie hype.

This is when context and comparison helps. Sure that foldable smartphone or virtual currency is really neat. But what will it replace, or will it simply be another service or gadget that requires care and feeding? What else is needed to make it work well? What behaviors (see above) will have to change for it to succeed?

Often, unfortunately, the cool overwhelms the useful in gushing coverage of new digital developments. Sometimes, the stories are only about the wonderful assumed benefits of new tech with zero explanation as to the how. While the companies may like that, it’s a disservice to anyone truly curious about what new tech may mean.

Writing forces understanding. Good tech writing helps two audiences: the reader and the writer. I’ve found this to be the personally most valuable part of what I’ve done as a columnist and contributor over the past two-and-a-half decades.

It’s very hard to accurately explain a development in part of the tech industry without understanding it first yourself. Of course I can write a concise tweet based on something I’ve quickly read, or pen a brief story on specific spot news. But to fully explain a development to others in a column or other analysis requires digging in, excavating the most important parts and then building a coherent narrative upon that foundation.

This kind of writing is a wonderful discipline. It also gives me permission to dive into topics that seem interesting but I’d also likely never explore unless I had to write about them.

Twenty-five years ago, people needed to be educated about digital technology before they were even interested in using it. Today, the interest is already there, but the need for education and explanation remain. And it may be that tech has so overtaken our lives that—from personal data collection to remote social interaction—it’s the tech itself that now has the explaining to do.

Observations of a gentleman journalist

Many people don’t have a clue how journalism works. Journalists may have less access to events and their newsmakers than the general public. All this for a career choice that has limited job options.

Those are the headlines from my recent temporary return to full-time journalism after a several-decade hiatus. The full story I lived through as a fact-chasing Rip Van Winkle is more nuanced. Yet dramatic cuts in journalists’ ranks and an apparent increase in attempts to control what’s produced not only makes doing the work more challenging, it may combine to undermine what the public gets in good journalism, especially at the local level.

In 2018, I decided to step up my journalism game. After leaving an executive position in education technology at the end of 2017 following a corporate ownership change, I took the next year to rediscover my reporting chops. I shifted from long-time contributor to the tech news site GeekWire to the role of regular columnist and then, for an intense four-month period at the end of the year, filling in as GeekWire’s interim deputy editor. All on a freelance basis.

It was eye opening.

It wasn’t that I was taking a financial risk. Much like “gentlemen farmers” of an earlier era who made their living elsewhere, I was a “gentleman journalist.” I expected to be paid — this was a profession, after all — but I didn’t expect to have to live only off of that income.

I discovered much has changed since I left full-time journalism 30 years ago, back then as part of a good-sized, all-news radio station newsroom in Seattle. The rise of digital was the least of it. It was the apparently changed public understanding, even appreciation, of journalism, coupled with a precipitous decline in the number of professionals in the craft since the turn of the century.

As earlier in my career, I thought I could do some good. At the very least, I knew I could explain the inside workings of tech to those outside, or give those in the industry a different perspective.

But I wound up getting that revised perspective, too. My top three takeaways:

Credentials limit access as much as they grant it.

Generally, an event issues credentials to members of the press to spur coverage. The implicit bargain is that the event will waive admittance fees or criteria in exchange for exposure — good, bad, or neutral — as long as those being credentialed really do represent the news media.

Yes, there’s an element of control here: the event gets to decide who to credential. But reporters get access usually at least on par with regular attendees.

That was my experience for many years as a freelance columnist. But I witnessed a shift more to control than access when I dove in deeply in 2018.

There was the Amazon Web Services booth at a major education technology conference where staff were freely talking with anyone who walked up, including me, until one marketing employee glanced at my badge and immediately clammed up.

When I asked why, she said, “I don’t know if I should be talking to you.” I mentioned I was just looking for information she’d share with any attendee (and which she had just shared with the person who had been in the booth before me). She inverted the Amazon smile into a frown, and walked away.

International Society for Technology in Education 2018 exhibit hall. (Frank Catalano Photo)

At other technology trade shows, where a few years ago exhibitors would have pulled someone wearing a media badge into their booth to pitch their product, company representatives shied away. At one, I finally flipped my badge over so the “media” wasn’t visible; at another, I replaced my press badge with a regular attendee badge. Both approaches worked better to get, again, public information.

Then there was that instance at an otherwise-excellent and well-run major edtech conference where I was barred from a keynote simply for wearing the press badge it had issued.

Control has always been part of credentialing press. But the negative aspects seem more pronounced now. News media badges prevent conversations and observations that normally would occur with no problem — even when anyone with any attendee badge could quickly “cover” an event on social media or a blog.

My takeaway: If you want the real experience and full access, register as an attendee, unless it’s truly a limited-access event that you can only get into with press credentials.

Journalism as a career is in trouble.

Briefly in 2018, I considered returning permanently to writing and journalism. Sure, I’d heard that pursuing a “traditional” news or writing career was hard now, but I wasn’t aware of how bad the situation was.

It’s really, really bad.

First, there’s the number of jobs. While specialty digital news organizations like GeekWire are growing, overall, reporting positions are in decline. In mid-2018, Pew Research Center released its analysis of federal job stats.

(Pew Research Center Image)

The analysis finds that from 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped from 114,000 to 88,000, for a loss of 27,000 jobs. Newspapers were hit the hardest. The only significant increase in employment was seen in “digital-native” news organizations, nowhere near enough in number to make up for the decline.

A separate Pew analysis found about a third of large U.S. newspapers and digital-native news outlets have seen layoffs between 2017 and 2018.

(Pew Research Center Image)

These cuts and outright news organization failures have led some observers to fear a growing number of “local news deserts,” where there are no daily local news outlets at all.

Then there’s pay. Despite some politicians’ claims, no one gets rich in journalism unless you’re one of those rarified celebrity news figures. That was true in the 1980s, and seems more true today.

And freelance? Never mind. A recent Authors Guild survey, the largest U.S. survey of published authors ever, found the median income of published writers in 2018 was $6,080, down from $10,500 in 2009. This includes book authors.

Part of the blame lies in how digital platforms like Google and Facebook have upended advertising that news organizations used to rely on to pay staff and other bills. Another lies in the lure of “free” news pulled together from various sources by aggregators, giving those who don’t want to pay for a subscription a no-cost alternative.

Together, the takeaway is that it’s harder than the last time I worked in a newsroom to make a living as a full-time journalist or writer — if you can find a job.

People don’t understand how journalists work.

Perhaps the most troubling of the three takeaways is that much of the general public doesn’t seem to understand what journalists do and how they do it. That’s anathema to the role of independent journalism in a democracy to provide good information and check accountability.

I’m not the only one to observe this recently. But now I’ve directly experienced it:

  • I was asked for a list of my specific questions before interviews, as though it were a rehearsed corporate event. (I declined.)
  • I was repeatedly sent material “on embargo” without having agreed in advance to hold the news until a later date. (I lectured.)
  • I was offered free product if I mentioned companies in stories, as though columns were another advertising medium. (I recoiled.)
  • I received politely haranguing calls from public relations people asking me to “re-frame” an already published story — not because any facts were wrong, but because it didn’t match the company’s preferred slant. (I smiled.)

Yes, there are still many good public relations practitioners who realize where their jobs end and the journalists’ begin. Still, even wearing a marketer’s hat, I was surprised by the barrage. It must work with some writers, because it happened frequently. (To be clear: It didn’t work at GeekWire.)

All of this appears far more blatant and — dare I say it — clueless than it was three decades ago.

Plus, there’s the issue of trust in the news media by the general public, which Gallup shows is lower than it was 30 years ago.

Maybe it’s because three decades ago, memories of Watergate and journalists’ key role in exposing a presidential coverup were still fresh. Reporters were celebrated in popular culture in films like Broadcast News, All the President’s Men, and The Killing Fields. When we had more local journalists, we more likely knew someone who was a reporter and better understood what they did.

Or, perhaps, maybe today some journalists are so overworked, underpaid, and fearful for their jobs it’s considered easier to push them and see what happens.

Whatever the reason, the lack of public understanding is a bad thing. Directly being on the receiving end of it didn’t make it better. Even if I’m just a sample of one.

The upshot?

After a year of increased intensity, I have a better appreciation for those who choose to be journalists in the current news environment. It’s more of a gutsy choice than when I practiced journalism full-time until the late 1980s, and very different than what I’ve experienced as an external columnist and contributor to various news outlets over the past 25 years.

Sometimes, you have to be inside to realize how much the view from outside diverges from reality.

I’ll keep writing — I can’t not write — and submit that writing to GeekWire and other outlets as I do other work. I’ll continue to support credible for-profit and nonprofit news organizations with my subscription and donation dollars. I’ll proudly stay a supporting member of the Society of Professional Journalists (anyone can join).

At the same time, I’m more aware that getting the occasional benefits from a farm are far different than planting and working the fields every day. To be more than a gentleman farmer, you have to be willing to regularly rake the muck. The same is true of being a real journalist.

(My personal thanks to the professional team at GeekWire, which has allowed me to work with them and contribute since the site’s 2011 start.)

Popcast recap: From 2001 to yodeling pickles

MoPOP Marvel curator Ben Saunders and Frank Catalano. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

It informally began with the Seattle Public Library and ended with the New York Public Library. In between, there were official moments with Marvel superheroes, a tree octopus, moldy mainframes and a yodeling pickle.

That was the 14-episode run of the GeekWire pop culture, science fiction and arts podcast that I hosted from August 2017 to November 2018, with the outlier library pieces before and after acting as, well, bookends. Dubbed for shorthand as the “popcast,” it was a mix of in-studio interviews with field trips for on-site audio walkthroughs, also spawning a dozen-and-a-half stories.

The series got its start with a 2017 interview that GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop had scheduled with Marcellus Turner, Seattle’s city librarian. I sat in, and it went well enough that later the same year I began hosting a “special interview series” focused on top names in science fiction, pop culture and the arts.

Grouped by subject, here are highlights of the 16-month, 14-episode, 18-story run of the GeekWire popcast. Audio links are inside each story.

Science fiction

If there was a single through line for the popcast, it was science fiction. Admittedly, there was a reason for it, beyond the natural affinity many in the GeekWire audience had for the genre: I was a one-time writer of short fiction and had served as an officer of what is now called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America when I was young, new pro.

Greg Bear was the first popcast guest. The multiple-award-winning author — and former SFWA president — was marking 50 years as a science-fiction writer.  “I don’t think any writer is ever happy with the attention we get, but I have very few complaints.” he said. “My books have been read by the people I read when I was a teenager, and that just knocked my socks off when I found that out.”  (“Science fiction has won the war: Best-selling author Greg Bear on the genre’s new ‘golden age’”)

Author Greg Bear. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Cat Rambo, the current SFWA president, was a subsequent guest. She proffered advice for those who want to write science fiction or fantasy. “I would suggest that they put their butt in their chair and start writing,” Rambo said. “That they read the magazines that they want to send stuff to in order to see what kind of stories are being published there. And that when they sit down to write, that they write the sort of story they want to read.” (“So you want to write sci-fi? Tips from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,” “Game writers to be honored with Nebula Award in first for professional science fiction and fantasy org“)

More advice for would-be writers came during an interview with director Neile Graham and graduate Rachel Simmons of Seattle writers workshop Clarion West.  “Do it for yourself and don’t do it for other people,” Simmons said. “Write what you want to write because that is what pleases you, and that’s what makes you happy and that’s what resonates with you. Don’t do it to be commercially successful or because you want to impress other people.” (“How this workshop creates some of the world’s top sci-fi and fantasy writers, inside a Seattle house“)

Others interviewed included science-fiction writer and futurist Ramez Naam (“Scaling to optimism: Futurist, author and computer scientist Ramez Naam on the power of cheap tech,” “Dystopia or utopia? Author and futurist Ramez Naam revisits his 2015 predictions for the world“), and Berit Anderson, co-founder of the science-fiction and analysis online publication Scout (“How science fiction can predict the future and help tech innovators make better decisions“).

Performing and fine arts

Technology is no stranger to art institutions, and the popcast had a goal of highlighting where interesting tech may enhance what some call “fine art,” whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the guest.

Seattle Symphony imbues its performances with tech in a number of ways, and it was one of the first orchestras to incorporate movies into “multi-sensory” programs.  “Seattle audiences are so sophisticated and adventurous that it’s allowed us to do things and take risks that other orchestras might not have been able to do,” said Kelly Woodhouse Boston, director of operations, as she and Joseph Kaufman, assistant principal bass, discussed appealing to new audiences. (“From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech“)

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

Seattle Art Museum, too, is working with tech. Manish Engineer, its incoming chief technology officer, implied it could be tricky to find the proper balance of analog and digital. “I’ve been in some museums where people are holding up an iPad, they’re walking around, and all they’re doing is looking at the art on their iPad, and they’re not even looking at the painting itself,” said Engineer. “They’re talking about this retina display on their iPad, but I’m like, ‘Use your retinas!’” (“Seattle Art Museum’s first-ever CTO sculpts SAM’s technology future on a non-profit budget“)

Nerdy museums

Speciality museums — those focused on techy or geeky topics — were fun, especially for real-time interview field trips as we walked through exhibits.

Like the time we visited Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) for the debut of its “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit. “No major institution for many years, for most of the 20th century, invested in comic book art particularly,” said Ben Saunders, the exhibit’s chief curator. “So that means that nobody collected it, except for private collectors. You’re entirely dependent on the generosity of private individuals who own these objects, many of whom have never been asked to participate in an exhibition before.” (“Inside MoPOP’s world-premiere Marvel exhibit: The human sides of heroes and their creators“)

Black Panther in MoPOP’s Marvel exhibit. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Back in the studio, MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms shared some insights about both finding and preserving pop culture items. Many things made with plastic, for example, are a challenge. “The compounds and the chemical compositions of plastic have changed dramatically over the years and there just hasn’t been a significant amount of research that keeps up with the plastic degradation,” Simms said.

But it really helps that there are obsessed fans. “Part of what’s nice about all the collecting that happens in fandom is I can feel fairly confident that anything important will be saved by someone, even if it’s not us,” said Peck, “With luck we can track it down. Because people really do see the value of saving these things.” (“Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture,” “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want“)

Living Computers’ Lath Carlson, a mainframe, and GeekWire podcast producer Clare McGrane. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Another type of collecting takes place at Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle. It both collects and then actually operates historic computers. “Something that’s becoming a frequent request for us is that somebody that has software on a format that’s no longer readable by machines that they have, including people like NASA, coming to us going, ‘Hey, we have these things on IBM tape. We have no way to read it. Can you read it?’” said Lath Carlson, its executive director. “Because in a lot of cases we’re the only people in the entire world that has the operating hardware to read those old media formats.” (“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“)

Pop culture icons

Then there are locations that don’t just display popular culture, but are pop culture icons in and of themselves.

I went behind the scenes at Cinerama, restored to its mid-century glory and sporting one of the two largest screens in Seattle. “My top five movie-going experiences of all time,” said Ethan Caldwell, Cinerama manager, “have been watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in here on 70 millimeter.” (“Behind the scenes at Cinerama: Landmark movie house becomes an international pop culture draw“)

Archie McPhee’s rubber chicken museum. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Another pop culture icon lives in the land of retail, Archie McPhee. Yes, there are indeed yodeling pickles, and a rubber chicken museum. “We make the stuff that people don’t know that they want, but once they see it, they have to have it,” said David Wahl, Archie McPhee’s director of awesome. “None of it’s necessary, but it’s intrinsic to the life experience. It’s art.” (“3 weird things about Seattle’s Archie McPhee: It’s original, national, and some of its products flop“)

Libraries and media

There are also a few outliers that perhaps would have been better suited for my Media/Tech columns, but made great popcasts, too.

Take the Library of Congress and its Web Cultures Web Archive, which preserves everything from the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site to Equestria Daily. (“Library of Congress saves the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other online ‘web cultures’“)

Or the transition of public radio from broadcast to digital media, from NPR to local stations KNKX-FM and KING-FM. (“Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening“)

And while neither of these are technically part of the popcast series, they bookended its run and approach neatly: the future of libraries with Marcellus Turner, Seattle Public Library and Seattle’s city librarian (“The future of libraries: Talking tech with Seattle City Librarian Marcellus Turner“), and the role of digital in libraries with Tony Ageh, chief digital officer of New York Public Library (“Interview: NYPL’s chief digital officer says public is better off when libraries are ‘risk averse’ about tech,” “Privacy and the public library: NYPL’s chief digital officer looks to raise awareness in Seattle visit“)

As podcast hosts everywhere say: Listen up.

Media/Tech in review: All media are digital, now

Disneyland’s Star Tours, kept current thanks to digital “new magic.” (Frank Catalano Photo)

Media are plural. That may seem like an obvious grammatical observation. But when people talk about “the media,” odds are they are combining many applications and formats in their minds: news, entertainment, fine art, informational, video, audio, text, and other criss-crossing slices of the “media” pie.

Each individual medium format and application is increasingly digital. And that was a transition I explored throughout 2018 in the limited-run GeekWire column, Media/Tech.

As the summary on each installment put it, “This series … examines the evolution of digital content, from creation to consumption, and the technology transforming it.” Or as I liked to think of it in my author’s bio, the column covered, “the convergence of media & technology (as delivered by smart speaker, VR goggle, social media, AI algorithm or quaint airwaves).”

In 18 columns, I dug into everything from technologies to practice. It started in February with the founding of a lab to invent the future of media, and ended in September with election survival advice for online news consumers.

Five of my favorite topics, and highlights from each?

Original Amazon Echo, Amazon Tap, and Echo Dot. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Smart speaker sales soar, yet what people do clusters to the familiar in, “Smart speaker sales take off globally, but consumer appetite for novel uses is fickle.”

Futuresource, in addition to tracking smart speaker shipments, also tracks consumer behavior. As smart speaker purchasers move from experimental early adopters to mass everyday consumers, what we’re using the Talky Tinas for is shifting more to the tried-and-true from the new-and-novel…

“I think it’s fair to assume a high proportion of smart speaker demand is fueled by intrigue, novelty and certain gimmicky features which consumers tire of over time.”

Selection of audiobooks on the Seattle Public Library site. (SPL Image)

Digital audiobooks are increasing in volume as a success story in, “Listen up: Digital audiobooks now the ‘fastest growing format’ as tech and titles improve.

The e-audiobook category is so popular that the Association of American Publishers (AAP) cited it as “the fastest growing format” in its 2018 StatShot Annual Report….

Overall, digital audiobook use, whether that audio is bought or borrowed, appears to be hitting new heights. Pew Research Center earlier this year seemed to offer confirmation when it reported “a modest but statistically significant increase” in audiobook listening, rising from 14 percent of U.S. adults in 2016 to 18 percent in 2018. At the same time, Pew noted ebook reading was slightly down over the same time period.

Chicago MCA VR art installation. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Museums try AR/VR to enhance art, or as art, in, “More than paint on a wall: Hands-on with VR and AR in art museums from Chicago to Seattle.

All told, all three approaches to extending reality demonstrate there is no one right, or even accepted, way to apply AR and VR inside art museums…

There’s the matter of not messing with the artist’s vision. “We made sure to modify or abstract those paintings we were inspired by, so that we weren’t creating a collage of a painting or series of paintings … That would have been disrespectful of the artist and the curator’s intent.

“In many ways, AR/VR can make fine art more participatory, and museum collections more available to a larger audience,”

Anaheim’s Mr. Lincoln in 2018. (Frank Catalano Photo)

How physical attractions use digital to upgrade the experience in, “‘New magic’ at Disneyland: How the iconic theme park is enhancing its content with digital touches.

Perhaps the poster child for continuous improvement at Disneyland is Abraham Lincoln ….

Human audio-animatronics were considered so impressive that in 1987 an Imagineer told me Disney had a technology transfer agreement with the University of Utah. The university knew how to make prosthetics that moved like real human limbs, but Disney knew how to make realistic-looking skin and hair. It was a useful exchange, in service of both medicine and story.

The latest Lincoln, updated since my last visit, is based on electronics instead of hydraulics. It’s said to represent the first of a new generation of audio-animatronic figure, autonomatronics, which can incorporate sensors and cameras. This Mr. Lincoln showed more emotion and simply more fluid motion than its predecessors.

An Echo Dot and Sonos Play: 5 streaming music. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Streaming music’s boom leaves one early entrant trailing in, “From Rhapsody to Napster: How this pioneering music service coulda been Spotify — and why it isn’t.”

Yet the music service originally known as Rhapsody was the streaming pioneer. It had the early technology lead. It even has the name “Napster,” after acquiring and adopting one of the best-known brands in digital music. Under the corporate umbrella of Rhapsody International, the Seattle-based company seemed perfectly positioned to be where Spotify is today….

“This is really a brutal business, if you even want to assume it’s a business in the end … I think Napster/Rhapsody took a far more conservative approach, but there isn’t much room for that, I’m afraid.”

There’s plenty more worth reading, of course. That’s the problem with authors trying to choose favorites among their own works; it’s like parents being asked to choose a favorite child. (Hint: Good parents don’t choose just one, unless they have just one.)

So , for your browsing and reading pleasure, here are the rest of the Media/Tech columns not highlighted above. They’re roughly grouped by topic. You, of course, are allowed — even encouraged — to pick your favorite.

Extended reality

Digital audio

Ebooks

Digital journalism

Social media

Three annoying things I’ve learned about work, writing, and myself

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 updated my LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook profiles to match the shifted emphasis. I accepted a relatively limited amount of consulting and advisory work. I stepped up my GeekWire journalism.

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.

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 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.

Seattle: A hub for both tech & science fiction

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.

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.

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.

Finally, it doesn’t all have to be pure science fiction and fantasy. It can be related nerd culture, such as the long-running television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. And Bill Gates is on it. Really.

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.

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.)