TMO Background Mode Interview with Science Writer & Skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer on Background Mode

Michael is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, a former monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101.

He is also a noted science writer and the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, and The Science of Good and Evil. His newest book is: Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

We chatted about Michael’s early religious views, interest in psychology, his doctoral work, and his path to becoming a professional skeptic. He explained the logical traps people fall into (motivated reasoning) as we turned to climate change, human fantasies about ghosts and psychics, the founding of Skeptic Magazine and the influence of Dr. Carl Sagan. Really good stuff here.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Veteran Technology Reporter John Markoff

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John Markoff on Background Mode.

John is a former New York Times reporter reporting nationally on science and computing. He’s been an adjunct faculty member of the Stanford Graduate Program on Journalism. In 2013 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

John has published several books on the computer industry. Currently he’s a Research Affiliate at the Stanford University Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences researching a biography of Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog.

We talked about his early days of computing at InfoWorld and Byte, as well as the Kevin Mitnick affair. We also talked about the current breed of young journalists and the importance of community newspapers. We delved into a mutually favorite topic: the problem with personal robots: cost vs. capability vs. expectations.

Don’t miss this wide-ranging discussion with John.

TMO Background Mode Interview with the CIO of CoSN Susan Bearden

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Susan Bearden on Background Mode.

Susan is the Chief Innovation Officer for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) in Washington D.C. From 2016 to 2017 she was a Senior Education Pioneers Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. She also participates in the EdTechChat Radio podcast for the BAM Radio Network.

After a discussion about Susan’s fascinating career progression from musician to IT specialist to Education Technology specialist, we launched into a discussion of “digital citizenship,” also the title of her book. It basically encompasses how to be a smart, informed, ethical user of the internet. The book is aimed a both teachers and parents. Things like cyberbullying and internet safety are covered. Later we got into a discussion of tools for education, including AI. We finish with Susan’s amazing perspective on whether robots will ever replace teachers in the classroom.

TMO Background Mode Interview with TMO Contributor Andrew Orr

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Andrew Orr on Background Mode

Andrew is a Contributing Editor at The Mac Observer assigned to the morning news desk. He is also a science and nature lover, with a special interest in botany, as well as an amateur nature photographer.

I asked Andrew about growing up in Michigan and his early interest in writing. He also started using computers when he was young and recalled how had to eradicate a virus from an Windows XP PC at age 13. Later he studied computer security at Bay de Noc Community College, and he attributes his technical writing success to the combination of his writing skill, interest in science, and experience with computers. Andrew told me how he was discovered by The Mac Observer and the tools he uses to collect and report the news each morning.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Journalist & TMO Contributor Charlotte Henry

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Charlotte Henry on Background Mode

Charlotte is a London-based technical journalist. She writes about Apple — and is now The Mac Observer’s newest regular contributor. She has also written for City A.M. (London’s daily business tabloid,) Computer Business Review, The Independent on Sunday and CapX. Her first book, Not Buying It, will be published in June.

I asked Charlotte how she got started in technical journalism. The first factor derived from the fact, that, as a youth, there were always new technical gadgets showing up in her home. The second was via her early interest in music creation on a Mac during her college years. We chatted about her first news blog and then meeting Jeff Gamet on the British Tech Network. Finally Charlotte shared some of her personal interests when she’s not writing: music, soccer and mystery novels.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Astrophysicist Dr. Jill Tarter

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Dr. Jill Tarter on Background Mode

Jill is a Ph.D. astrophysicist known for her work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She’s the former director of the Center for SETI Research (2000-2012) and Adjunct Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy at USC until 2014. Currently, she’s Chair Emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute.

I asked Jill about how she got started with computers as well as astrophysics, her Ph.D. work and how she became involved with SETI. Then we delved into some of the broader issues of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Drake equation, searching for ET technosignatures, searching with the right technologies, and what the social perspectives might be of an advanced, spacefaring civilization that survived its aggressive phase. Jill is an expert on SETI, and you’ll enjoy her awesome insights.


TMO Background Mode Interview with CNET Journalist Shara Tibken

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Shara Tibken on Background Mode

Shara Tibken is a senior reporter/journalist for CNET News, focused on Samsung and Apple. She previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

She grew up on a farm in Iowa, where her mother was a teacher, and Shara became an avid book reader. That led to a desire to be a writer, meet people and learn new things. We chatted about her progression from Simpson College to interning for a small newspaper in North Dakota to landing a job with Dow Jones Newswires/WSJ and finally CNET in 2012. We talked about her recent investigation of rural broadband issues in Iowa, which is terrific, as well as future 5G smartphones, Samsung’s development of foldable smartphones, Samsung mimicking Apple and more. Shara gets into interesting technical detail on all these topics.


TMO Background Mode Special Edition #5 With Former Apple Executive Michael Gartenberg

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Michael Gartenberg

Michael Gartenberg spent three years as Apple’s Senior Director of Product Marketing, reporting directly to Senior VP Phil Schiller. In his fifth encore appearance on Background Mode, Michael and I chat about Apple’s 2018 fall lineup of products. We talked about the Apple AirPower, still MIA. We examined the new 2018 MacBook Air and how the 2015 McBook was supposed to be the MBA successor—and failed. We looked at the new iPad Pros and how they may have broken through a computational barrier that will allow new capabilities. Finally, we looked at Apple’s 2018 iPhone product strategy as well as the corporate decision to suppress unit sales numbers. Michael is well versed in Apple marketing strategies and is always a delight to have on the show.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Smile Software Evangelist Jeff Gamet

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Jeff Gamet on Background Mode

Jeff Gamet is the former Managing Editor of The Mac Observer (TMO), a position he held for 13 years. He’s also a book author and noted podcaster. Recently, he left TMO to become the Smile Software TextExpander Evangelist.

I asked Jeff to tell the TextExpander story, what it does, why it’s essential, and how to get it. Then we chatted at length about his job transition process. That meant new tools, new logins, a new daily routine, a new team and new boss. I asked Jeff about the biggest challenge he faced as well as how what he learned at TMO carried over to his new job. I also asked Jeff how he felt about the change in his “voice” and change in public profile. We closed with some things Jeff will be doing in his new position at Smile.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Science Fiction Author Darren Beyer

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Darren Beyer on Background Mode

Darren Beyer is a former NASA Space Shuttle engineer at Kennedy Space Center who worked on launching and recovering more than a dozen missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope. He also conducted astronaut training and had the honor of working onboard every Space Shuttle orbiter except Challenger. In late 1998, he left NASA to become an entrepreneur, and, lately, an author.

The first result was the Anghazi series of novels, Casimir Bridge, released in 2016 to rave reviews thanks largely to his commitment to putting the science back in science fiction. The second installment, Pathogen Protocol was released in October, 2018. We chatted about Darren’s early life inspirations, his NASA career, an interesting experience with an astronaut, his scientific approach to SciFi writing, and how private industry may well send manned missions to Mars before NASA.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Climate Scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

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Dr. Katharine Hayhoe on Background Mode

Dr. Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is the director of the Climate Science Center. She is also the CEO of the consulting firm ATMOS Research and Consulting. She received her undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto and a masters and Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We started from basics in this chat and defined how science works via observation. Then we delved into the process of climate change research, successful computer models, the significant findings of climate science and whether some changes are exponential rather than linear. Finally, Dr. Hayhoe filled us in on some great resources for further reading.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Planetary Scientist Dr. Pascal Lee, Part II

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Dr. Pascal Lee on Background Mode

This is Part II. Dr. Pascal Lee is a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute. He’s also Chairman of the Mars Institute, and Director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center. His research includes the history of water on Mars and planning future human exploration of Mars. Pascal has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University.

In Part I, we chatted about his background and how he became a planetary scientist. We had just started discussing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), when an internet outage stopped us cold. So I invited Pascal to return for Part II and discuss his analysis of the Drake Equation and its implications for the existence of other advanced, intelligent life in our galaxy.

TMO Background Mode Encore #2 Interview with Tidbits Managing Editor Josh Centers

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Josh Centers on Background Mode.

Josh Centers is the Managing Editor of and has published several Take Control (TC) books. He’s the author of Take Control of Apple TV and Take Control of Home Automation. He’s been writing the Take Control books for iOS since version 8, and his latest book is Take Control of iOS 12. I invited Josh to return to Background Mode to chat about this latest iOS version that has many new features. After a brief story about how Josh got started in his tech writing career, we had a very interesting chat about the creation and editing process of the TC books. We moved on to a discussion of the new 2018 iPhones. After the break, we dug into the details iOS 12. Finally, we finished with a cool story about his latest 4K TV adventure.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Indiana University Astronomer Dr. Catherine Pilachowski

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Dr. Caty Pilachowski on Background Mode

Dr. Catherine Pilachowski is a professor of astronomy at Indiana University in Bloomington. She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Hawaii. Her principal research interests include the evolution of stars and the chemical history of the Milky Way Galaxy from studies of chemical composition of star clusters. “Caty” got excited about astronomy as a youth reading the books of Asimov, Hoyle and Gamow. She told me about her serendipitous decision to attend graduate school in Hawaii where some very large telescopes were being built on Mauna Kea and how that ultimately led her to her current faculty position. We then chatted about her star cluster research and ended with some great tips for students who want to pursue a career in astronomy.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Science Fiction Writer & Biographer Alec Nevala-Lee

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Alex Nevala-Lee on Background Mode

Alec Nevala-Lee is a science fiction novelist, essayist and biographer. He’s known for the scifi novels: The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire. He’s written for Analog Science Fiction, and he’s had essays and non-fiction published in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Daily Beast and more. We chatted about growing up in California, the influential book that inspired him to become a writer, his early career, life at Harvard, and quitting his job to become a struggling – then successful novelist. Alec also shared a bit about his writing tools and techniques. Finally, we explored his new biography entitled: ASTOUNDING, a critical look at the life, writing and mutual influences of four famous scifi authors: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard during the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 50s.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Planetary Scientist Dr. Pascal Lee

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Dr. Pascal Lee on Background Mode

Dr. Pascal Lee is a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute. He’s also Chairman of the Mars Institute, and Director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center. His research includes the history of water on Mars and planning future human exploration of Mars. Pascal has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University. We chatted about how he spent his very early years in Hong Kong, inspired by American and British SciFi TV shows. Later, he migrated to Paris where he continued his education and, inspired by Dr. Carl Sagan, made his way to Cornell in the 1990s. He was Dr. Sagan’s last teaching assistant. Next, we talked about his trips to the remote Canadian island, Devon, to study Mars-like conditions. We wrapped up with an introduction to his thoughts on SETI.

TMO Background Mode Encore #5 Interview with Science Communicator Dr. Kiki Sanford

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Dr. Kiki Sanford on Background Mode

Dr. Kiki Sanford makes her fifth appearance on Background Mode. Kiki is a neurophysiologist with a Ph.D. from the University of California. She’s a popular science communicator and creator of This Week in Science (TWIS) podcast and radio show. In this episode, we chat about some some recent topics discussed on TWIS that fascinated me. 1) Yale roboticists have developed skins with embedded actuators that can turn just about anything into robots. 2) A 127 million year old fossil was discovered in China that fills in another gap in the story of how dinosaurs became birds. 3) The new NASA exoplanet search mission, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is operational. We talk about its mission and how it compares to the Kepler spacecraft. This is just a sample; we covered much more cool science stuff.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Former Apple Software Engineer James Dempsey

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James Dempsey on Background Mode

James Dempsey worked at Apple for fifteen years before setting out on his own in August 2011. As a software engineer at Apple, he worked on iOS, Aperture, and macOS releases Leopard through Lion, including half a decade on the Cocoa frameworks team. He’s the founder of Tapas Software, developer of iOS and Mac software. We talked abut his “aha” moments in life starting with his college roommate’s Mac Plus in 1986. His dream to work for Apple was eventually fulfilled in 1996, and James described what it was like to be an Apple evangelist in those days. But James is also an accomplished comedian, vocalist, ukulele player and has a published album. He’s also routinely written special songs for WWDC each year. If you ever wanted to work for Apple, this show is must listening.

TMO Background Mode Interview with Technology Journalist Ryan Faas

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Ryan Faas on Background Mode

Ryan Faas is a technology journalist and author who has been writing about Apple, business, enterprise IT topics, and the mobile industry for over a decade. He also spent a large portion of the past 15 years in the systems/network engineering and IT management fields as an IT director and systems administrator. He’s worked for MTV Networks as well as being a former Apple Genius. Today, he is also a Contributing Writer for Computerworld. We chatted about how he became such an expert in enterprise matters as well as knowledgeable in multiple OSes. He told me why the wireless carriers decline to push Android updates as often as Apple, and he filled me in on what really going on with macOS Server. Finally, Ryan also predicted when Apple will go to ARM processors in the Mac.