Final Say: David Pogue


David Pogue, 49, writes about technology for the New York Times and Scientific American, is the host of "NOVA ScienceNow" on PBS, and has written numerous best-selling books, including for the "For Dummies" series as well as his own "Missing Manual" guides. He resides in Westport.

You turn 50 this month, which means you born in the same year as touch-tone phones and the Easy-Bake Oven—what amazes you most about how far technology has advanced in a half century?
[laughs] Oh wow. I think it's no surprise—it’s the development of pocket Internet devices, our cell phones, which everybody knows are used almost more often for non phone-related tasks: Internet, emails, text messages, photography, videos. It changes a million aspects of life socially, business-related and educationally. Nobody needs to memorize anything anymore. You don’t need to memorize the presidents or the periodic table because you have the world of Google at your fingertips at any time.

What troubles you most?  
The most alarming development is a tie between driving distracted, which is as scary as anything I can think of, and the development of a less social world where kids do plenty of socializing, but it’s never face-to-face, it’s all online. There are pros and cons to this development, but it’s true that the days where kids would “go out and play” and make up their own inventions and improvise things to do are completely over now.

Is media, TV, Movies, video games, etc., diluting our curiosity? Or feeding it?
I don’t know about video games, but I would say that the instant access to the Internet is fulfilling curiosity. Now that you know you can find out the answer to any question instantly, you’re more free to wonder about things because you know you won’t be frustrated and left wondering.

You have three children of your own—what do you see in terms of how intuitively they interact with technology versus how you did?
Well, science has shown that learning any new skill comes easier to younger people, so there’s no surprise that kids adapt more easily to technology than their parents, just as there’s no surprise that kids learn a new language more easily than older people do. All I have to say, though, is that their time will come, too. [laughs] When they’re middle-aged, the next wave of something will come along and they will find themselves struggling and behind the curve just as their parents and grandparents are today.

Are we making any in-roads in terms of STEM [Science, technology, engineering and math] education with our children?
It’s a huge problem in this country. The number of science majors is declining, our scores on STEM subjects relative to other countries is dismal . . . I don’t think we’re making in-roads on the problem with one exception, and that is that we’ve recognized the problem. So, it may take a few years, but there are programs and studies and spotlights being shined on this problem right now. So, I’m hoping that we can turn things around. I have to say that’s one of the most thrilling parts of my job as the host of the “NOVA” science show—I get emails from parents and their children all the time talking about an interest in science that has been unleashed by some of these programs. I’ve even had emails from college kids who have said that they’ve changed their majors because of a “NOVA” broadcast. That makes me feel pretty good.

What is the key in communicating complex tech concepts to those who are not tech savvy?
In technology, I feel very strongly—and this comes from years of writing “For Dummies” books and other beginners materials—that you should cherry pick what you learn. So Microsoft Word is a word-processor and a web-design program and a floor wax, but you shouldn’t feel hopeless and intimidated. No one in the world uses all of it! You should feel content using those pieces of technology that serve you right now, and there’s no shame in knowing nothing more about it.

The key to teaching the STEM subjects, I feel, is that entertainment value makes every other kind of medicine go down, why can’t presentations in science, technology and math, have an entertainment value to them themselves. That’s our goal on the “NOVA” shows, to illustrate scientific principles as dramatically and entertainingly as possible. We blow stuff up or have me land on aircraft carrier or have me swim with sharks, and I can guarantee you that nobody who watches those segments will ever forget the scientific principles that we were trying to show.

What’s the coolest gizmo you’ve seen this year?  
I would say the most interesting thing I saw [at the international Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this past January] is Microsoft’s new Surface Pro Tablet. This is a tablet that’s the size of an iPad, but it’s also a full-blown PC—it runs actual Windows software. So, for the first time, in a two-pound touch-screen tablet whose screen cover is also a keyboard, you can have a full-blown fast PC instantly anywhere you want one and a touch-screen tablet anywhere else. I think that’s a very interesting development.

What’s the next big tech item that everyone will want by this Christmas?
If I knew, I’d be a billionaire! [laughs] Nobody really knows. I think this is going to be a breather year. It looks like everyone is going to catch up to Apple, and come out with better tablets, better phones, better cameras. It doesn’t look like there’s any big new thing on the horizon. I sometimes worry about Apple now that Steve Jobs is gone—he was the guy who kept coming up with these major new product categories. The new CEO of Apple is certainly not a man of that kind of history.

Is is true that once you go Mac, you never go back?
[laughs] I think that’s a safe bet. I rarely hear about people who move in the other direction. That’s the advantage of a company that makes both the hardware and the software. Apple designs it to all work together, where as with Windows, you’re buying the software from one company and the hardware from another, and they don’t always mesh so well. That’s one advantage of Microsoft’s Surface tablet—it’s “pulling an Apple,” and doing both the software and hardware together.

How far are we behind technology in terms of finding out what’s really being developed?  
I think there are layers of it. This Christmas’ new gadgets are being polished up right now in the labs, but these companies also have two-year plans and five-year plans. So Canon, for example, has in its labs, radical new camera technology that will be for sale in 2018 but will take some time to perfect and de-bug and manufacture on that.

What isn’t technology addressing yet?
Well, the big one is overload. So we have Google, which has the world’s information at our fingertips, but there are very few tools for processing all that, for helping us sift it and sort it and deliver to us that which is important. I think that’s an over-arching problem with the tech industry. It’s very design, where everything becomes obsolete every year, fosters not only incredible waste but incredible confusion. I mean, it’s my job to keep on top of this stuff and even for me, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I find it very difficult to find what’s coming down, what’s going to be big. A digital curation system will be the next billion-dollar industry.

There’s certainly a lot of info coming at us at any given moment.
I think a great example of a step in the right direction is Siri voice command. So the iPhone presents us with page after page of tiny app icons, and if we want to open a certain app icon, we have to find it, and we either have to scroll through all those pages or we can use a search mechanism, which is clumsy and slow. But with Siri, you know say, “Open calendar,” and wherever it is on the phone, you don’t know or care, all you know is that your calendar is now on the screen. That’s the sort of clutter-cutting feature I’m talking about.

What is the biggest myth about science and technology?
The biggest myth is not with science and technology, the biggest challenge is that 50 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution, that 40 percent don’t believe that there’s climate change caused by man—it’s frightening how afraid people are of the unknown, and the steps that they take to bury their heads in the sand. And it’s holding us back. It’s holding us back in terms of America’s competitiveness in science and tech, and it’s holding us back in understanding the world around us. There’s a great suspicion that boggles me. On the coasts—California and the East Coast—you can bet that most people are believers in science and scientific method, but there are vast parts of the country where that’s not the case. Remember in the past election, presidential candidate Rick Santorum mocked those who went to college as “elitists.” I mean that’s a really frightening development, that intellect is considered a bad thing. I really hope we get over that.

If you were tasked with composing a tech-inspired musical for Broadway [where you worked for a decade], what would it be like?
You know, I’ve actually thought about that! [laughs] I’ve made some notes for a technology review, with some funny songs. Oh, there’s plenty to make fun of, both in the technology business and with those of us who use it. I can imagine the themes and songs that would mock the pace of this industry, the cluelessness of those who try to use the technology, the inadequacy of the user manuals, the failures of design . . . there’s no end of material.

Do you ever entertain dreams of returning to Broadway or a career in musical theater?
I do still entertain dreams. I still write song parodies all the time, I perform them in my talks, and I still have some shows that I wrote in my younger days that were never produced. I still think that one day . . . perhaps Broadway is not the right target, but maybe a local theater might like an original, funny show that would cost nothing to put on and maybe my tunes will see the light of day that way.

Favorite Broadway musical?
I have a bunch of favorites, but I think Les Miserables is among the top—it gets me every time, and my children and I have chased that show around the country and see every production we can find. We’re just amazed at the brilliance of that score.

Have you seen the movie?
I have . . . it was a little disappointing. I thought it was a little weirdly directed, and I was sorry that they didn’t cast real singers in some of the big roles. But it wasn’t a disaster.

Well, that’s something they’d want to put in the trailer: “David Pogue says, ‘It wasn’t a disaster!’"
[laughs] Right?

It’s been said that math and music are intertwined, and certainly you’ve followed that course—should it be something that’s more deeply stressed?
Yeah. I think that both music and computers are similar in that they are rule-based, yet they are creative. So you have this framework in which you have to work and yet the mind can wander and create something new. I love that about them both. You also find a lot of doctors and scientists who are musicians—I definitely think there are some brain connections there.

Is there a subject out there that doesn’t interest you?
[laughs] That doesn’t interest me? Uhh . . . yeah, I’m not much of a televised sports fan. I’m afraid I just can’t get into it. Otherwise no. I just think there are really interesting stories to be told in just about any field. As soon as you scratch the surface of anything—politics, science, agriculture or entertainment or the science of love or whatever there is, there are fascinating stories to be told.

Have you thought about writing another novel?
I have! I have one in outline form even now. I wrote a book for middle-schoolers last year called Abby Carnelia’s One and Only Magical Power, and it wasn’t a New York Times best seller, but the kids who have read it have been incredibly enthusiastic about it. I’ve had emails from parents saying, “Hey, I’m under pressure here from my kid to the get the next David Pogue book—when is it?!” The publisher has also asked me if I could find time for another one, so I have a pretty good idea for another middle-schoolers’ novel.

With so many projects, how do you schedule your time?
Well, I have to say that if I have a skill, time management is it. Over the years, I’ve really gotten it down to a science. So I’m just incredibly organized, I use every software and hardware tool there is—I time shift constantly, so I’m constantly working on planes or in the car on the way to the airport. There’s just no such thing as dead time. Not to say that there isn’t Me time, but there’s never bored time. I also have to say that I have an incredible personal assistant who does a lot of my administrative work—the travel arrangements, the billing, the finances—so I’m relieved of that burden.

Do we need a missing manual for social media?
Probably. [laughs] Probably we need a Missing Manual for each service—one for Facebook, Twitter . . . . Social media services have some thing in common, but they have more things not in common. Facebook is not Twitter; they serve different purposes and it’s convenient to lump them together, but they’re really different things.  

If you were writing “Connecticut for Dummies,” where would you start?
I’d start by spending a few years doing a better job exploring the state! I lived in Stamford for nine years, and now I’ve lived in Westport for eight years, so I’m pretty good on those. I took my kids last weekend to the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, and we make the occasional pilgrimage to New Haven, but I know we’re just scratching the surface.

What do you think of the CT Science Center?
We liked it! We’re science museum junkies—we’ve recently gone to the ones in Cleveland and Boston. It doesn’t quite touch those museums, I think, but we had a wonderful day there, and are really glad we went.

Do you own a copy of If I Should Fall from Grace with God?
No! I know very little about the band The Pogues except that they’ve made my name easier to spell. Well, “pogue” means “kiss” in Gaelic, so The Pogues, the band was named as shorthand for “Kiss my ass”—“Pogue mahone.” We’re really not coming at it from the same place. [laughs]

In March, what else can we see from you?
In March, my Windows 8 Missing Manual will be published, and we are shooting a new four-part miniseries for “NOVA,” a sequel to “Making Stuff” series that launched me with NOVA in 2010. I will also be preparing for my wedding in May. So 2013 is going to be a big year for me.

Finally, have you ever been blinded by science?
[laughs] I haven’t ever been blinded by science, but I sure have had my mind blown by it. Often!

Final Say: David Pogue

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