Category Archives: technology

“It’s A Wonderful Life” Indeed!

Take out your earbuds. Move over, Spotify. You’re so old school, iTunes.

Staples students are embracing a cutting-edge new technology: radio.

But not just any radio: a 1940s-style radio drama.

WWPT_logoTomorrow (Friday, December 19, 11 a.m.), Jim Honeycutt’s Audio Production class and David Roth’s Theater 3 Acting class collaborate on a radio broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

They’ll use the original 1947 script — including advertisements from that long-ago time.

Two years ago, a similar WWPT-FM production won 1st and 2nd place awards in the John Drury national high school radio competition. Check it out:

It’s a phenomenal event — and a great undertaking. High school students incorporate live drama skills, sound effects and radio production into an entertaining, uplifting performance.

You can hear it locally on 90.3 FM. Or — in a modern twist unavailable during the Truman administration — you can listen to the livestream anywhere in the world. Just click on, then go to “Listen Live” and “Click here to access the district stream.”

It is indeed a wonderful life!

Westport Library Serves All Types

Westporters take pride in our cutting-edge library. The Maker Space, 3-D printer — if it’s creative and new, Maxine Bleiweis and her staff are all over it.

But sometimes you just need a typewriter.

Again, the library rides to the rescue.

An old IBM Selectric sits all alone in a cubicle overlooking Jesup Green, just waiting for someone to peck away.

Kids: Do you know what this is?

Kids: Do you know what this is?

Still, the library draws the line somewhere. Long ago, the wooden card catalog went to that great reading room in the sky.

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor)


David Pogue’s “Duh!”

Imagine if you drove a car for years, but never knew that by lifting the little thing on the side of the steering wheel, you could let other drivers know that you planned to turn left or right.

Or if you thought that you had to use the up and down arrows on your TV remote to change channels, rather than simply clicking on the numbers.

Yeah, laugh now. When it comes to computers, laptops, smartphones, e-readers, printers, browsers, email and social networks, we all don’t know certain basics.

For instance:

  • Hitting the space bar is the same as clicking on the scroll bar — and a lot easier.
  • You can silence your cellphone immediately by clicking any button — volume, the on/off switch, whatever.
  • Google can act as a currency translator, flight tracker and Roman numeral converter.

You probably knew some of that. You probably did not know all.

And — until now — no has one collected all that “basic-except-no-one-ever-told-me” information in one place.

Pogues Basics - book coverThe job fell to David Pogue. The Westport resident — who has spent his career explaining technology to the masses, via books, videos, the New York Times and now Yahoo — has just written “Pogue’s Basics: Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You) For Simplifying the Technology in Your Life.”

It will be published tomorrow (Tuesday, December 9). The tips are a lot shorter than the title.

Pogue first realized the need for a manual — a “driver’s ed course” for tech — a decade ago. He watched in horror as a receptionist agonizingly tried to highlight one word in a Word document. Her cursor kept missing it.

Finally, Pogue asked, “Why don’t you just double-click on the word?”

“Oh my God!” she screamed. She had no idea.

In 2008, Pogue wrote a Times piece on his 25 favorite tips. The comments section exploded, as readers shared their own I-thought-everyone-knew ideas.

Two years ago, Pogue gave a TED talk. In 6 minutes, he raced through 10 tips. It was clear that very few folks in the highly educated, high-functioning audience knew that during a PowerPoint presentation, hitting “B” on a keyboard blacks out the screen, allowing everyone to focus on you and not your slide. (Bonus tip: Hitting “W” whites out the screen.)

David Pogue, hard at work. Did you know that if you open a laptop, you can access all of its features?

David Pogue, hard at work. Did you know that if you open a laptop, you can access all of its features?

The book followed. Now everyone — well, everyone who buys it — will know that hitting the space bar twice on a smartphone automatically inserts a period and space, then capitalizes the next letter you type. (You knew that, right?)

I told Pogue that I don’t know 95% of what Microsoft Word does. I can create columns, insert tildes and Greek letters, and get word counts, all of which I’ve been asked to share by clueless others. But they know other Word tricks I don’t even know I don’t know.

“That’s fine,” Pogue says. “No one uses more than 5% of Microsoft Word. It’s not your fault. My job is to make sure you know which 5% to use.”

Microsoft Word

Click on Pogue’s Basics to order this immensely helpful guide. It’s available in print or as an e-book. And if you don’t know all the ways to get the most out of your e-reader — well, what are you waiting for?

PS: I’m sure you know this, but on the very off chance you don’t:

  • “Airplane mode” charges your phone twice as quickly.
  • Both iPads and Androids have ways to keep your tablet screen from rotating.
  • On YouTube, hitting “J” on your keyboard jumps the video back 10 seconds; “L” moves it ahead 10 seconds.

(Click on this TED video to see the talk that started it all.)

Westport Robotics Team Helps Solve World Problems

The Coleytown/Bedford Middle School robotics team has once again advanced to the state final.

Ho hum. The “Mechanical Masterminds” do that about as regularly as you or I breathe.

It definitely is a big deal. This year’s FLL World Class Competition challenged more than 265,000 children from 80 countries. Teams must solve a problem that requires research, creative thinking and robot programming skills.

Each team designs, builds and programs a robot; poses a question that addresses the annual challenge; researches the topic, and develops a solution.

The Mechanical Masterminds, with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (left).

The Mechanical Masterminds, with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (left).

The Mechanical Masterminds chose to research the question: How can we help young people and their families in developing nations learn basic solutions to life challenges, in a way that hasn’t been done before?

The team developed a unique teaching app. It can be used on a solar-powered Samsung tablet, and distributed through existing networks to some of the poorest countries in Africa.

The app — which can run without Wi-Fi access — can teach someone without basic literacy skills how to build and deploy simple solutions to complex challenges like a lack of clean drinking water; food insecurity, and communication and public health issues.

For example, app users can build a mini-wind turbine out of simple PVC piping and wire to create enough energy to power a light bulb, cell phone or other small electrical device. They can also learn how to desalinate water.

The group met with Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles, and were in touch with executives at Google, Samsung, the World Bank and Coca-Cola as they prepared their project.

Presenting the app to Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (right).

Presenting the app to Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles (right).

The state final is this Sunday (December 7) in Shelton. Good luck to team members Nick Ambrose, Rob Diorio, Ben Jia, Daniel Kornbluth, Justin Schmidt, Joe Xiang, Josh Zhang and Andy Zheng, head coach Steve Diorio and assistant coach Mark Kornbluth.

Remembering Chou Chou Merrill

Chou Chou Merrill hadn’t lived in Westport for decades. But today, countless Westporters mourn her death.

The Staples Class of 1970 grad died suddenly in her sleep Saturday night. She was 62 years old.

Thanks to Facebook, thousands of people knew and loved Chou Chou. She created, administered or was an avid contributor to a variety of online communities: “You Know You’re from Westport, CT If …” “Exit 18 – Westport CT Residents and Ex-Residents.” “Save Westport CT From Itself!”

The indomitable Chou Chou Merrill.

The indomitable Chou Chou Merrill.

Not long ago, she founded another group: “Westport CT Artists and Craftsmen.” It was a site for local creative folks to display their works.

That was no casual interest. Her father, Jason Raum, owned an operated “Jewels by Jason” on Main Street for many years. It was upstairs in the handsome stone building next to what is now Tavern on Main, across from Oscar’s.

That Westport connection meant a lot to Chou Chou. So did many other connections. She reveled in her childhood and youth here — the memories she shared, the friendships she nurtured, the opportunities she was given.

Her mother-in-law was Bette Davis. She seldom mentioned it. But not long ago, without saying whose it was, she posted a photo of the actress’ home on Crooked Mile Road. Chou Chou admired it not because of who owned it, but because of how lovely it looked.

As a board member of the Bette Davis Foundation, Chou Chou awarded scholarships to aspiring actors, and other talented students in the entertainment industry.

A couple of days before she died, Chou Chou Merrill (4th from left, black outfit) joined classmates and other longtime Westport friends at Mario's. It was the perfect spot to celebrate "old" Westport, and she highlighted the event on Facebook.

A couple of days before she died, Chou Chou Merrill (4th from left, black outfit) joined classmates and other longtime friends at Mario’s. It was the perfect spot to celebrate “old” Westport, and she highlighted the event on Facebook.

Chou Chou made her mark on her adopted hometown — Brookline, Massachusetts — too. She was a successful real estate broker there, and served on the Town Meeting (the equivalent of our RTM) for over 25 years. She was past co-president of the League of Women Voters Brookline, a member of the Flag Day Parade committee, and a contributor to Little League, the Senior Center, Library and Brookline Community Fund.

Today, many Facebook pages are filled with tributes to Chou Chou. Geoffrey Glaser wrote: “She inspired so much thought with her postings…. She was the glue that held Old Westport together…. She created conversation that introduced us to new friends and reintroduced us to old friends.”

Thanks to Chou Chou Merrill, Westport lives on in words and pictures. Thanks to Facebook — and her thousands of friends and admirers —  she will continue to live too.

Scott Pecoriello: You Do Need This Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows

In kindergarten, Scott Pecoriello was curious about rain. His parents showed him a radar map. Hooked, he checked it every day.

The next year he drew a map of the Northeast, and colored in storms. Soon, he was trying to figure out how tornadoes form. (He was completely wrong.)

Scott Pecioriello drew this map -- freehand -- when he was 10 years old.

Scott Pecioriello drew this weather map when he was 10 years old.

From there Scott advanced to the Weather Channel. Then came online forums like AWE (the Association of Weather Enthusiasts), filled with people who share his passion. He taught himself all about meteorology.

Three years ago — as a Staples High School freshman — Scott got tired of sharing his maps and forecasts with a few family members. He started a blog called Wild About Weather. It drew about 12 followers (mostly family members).

When he started a Facebook page, his audience exploded. With each storm he forecasted correctly, his followers grew. With Hurricane Irene, the numbers snowballed (so to speak). During one blizzard last winter, he had a web reach of 2.3 million people.

Sure, you can get your weather forecast anywhere. Folks flock to Scott because he makes it interesting. He breaks down every element, so people can learn. He’s enthusiastic, and his blog and Facebook page are personal.

Scott proves himself during big weather events. You or I might fear a hurricane or snowstorm. Scott revels in them. He’s gone 2 days without sleep. He studies every element, explains each one, then forecasts what’s next.

Scott Pecioriello in his element: measuring snow last year.

Scott Pecioriello in his element: measuring snow last year.

Scott’s biggest success was Hurricane Sandy. But, he notes, “everyone got that right.” He’s prouder of a storm last winter, when he predicted conditions in every Northeastern city with 94% accuracy.

His biggest failure? Also last winter: a dud snowstorm. On his “Know Snow” app, he apologized. And — as he does whenever he gets something wrong — he explained why.

On the app, Scott predicts school closings for each area town. Last year, he was 91% accurate. It would have been higher, he says, but Westport and Fairfield closings are extraordinarily difficult to figure.

Far more often than not though, Scott gets the closings — and his entire forecast — right. That’s why professional meteorologists follow him on Twitter. They respect him, and he in turn learns from them.

Media star Scott Pecoriello, being interviewed on CNBC.

Media star Scott Pecoriello, being interviewed on CNBC.

Another fan is Staples principal John Dodig. Teachers follow him too. But Scott — who in his spare time mentors an autistic boy through the Circle of Friends, and counsels elementary school students about food allergies through a group he helped start — downplays his passion with his friends. “I don’t want to be known as the ‘school weatherman,'” he says.

Okay. But how about a sneak preview of winter for “06880”?

“It will be similar to last year,” Scott says. “A lot of snow in Siberia early correlates to the polar vortex we saw before. If the southern jet stream is active, we could get some big snowstorms.”

Speaking of active, Scott is very. He’s just hired a few assistants, to help launch his new premium service on Wild About Weather.

Here’s my forecast: Scott Pecoriello’s future is very hot.

(Scott is not the only young Westport weather whiz. Jacob Meisel — a 2012 Staples graduate, now at Harvard — has just expanded his own website. He’s branched out to New York and other places from southwestern Connecticut, and is offering subscription services. Click SWCT/NY Weather to learn more.)


Slow Slog With Sprint

Frontier is not the only phone company Westporters have issues with.

I should have known things would not go well when I called Sprint this morning to cancel my mother’s service. (She got an easier-to-use phone, not that it matters.)

I punched in her number. A voice chirped, “Sorry! I did not get that!” Which did not instill a lot of confidence in this particular telecommunications company.

After navigating the complex (and repetitive) phone tree, I reached an actual — though heavily accented — human being. When I said I wanted to cancel the service, I was disconnected. Instantly.

downloadI called again. Again, the voice “did not get” the number I punched in. Once again, I eventually was answered by an actual person. Once again, when I said I wanted to cancel, the line mysteriously went dead.

I called a 3rd time. This time, I started by saying I’d been cut off twice by a phone company. The representative apologized, and took my number to call back “in case it happens again.”

I asked how that could possibly happen. She agreed it shouldn’t, but said by way of explanation that all cancellations must be handled by a supervisor. Of course!

I listened to gruesome music for 6 minutes. Then — silence.

Luckily, she had my callback number. Two minutes later, my phone rang.

My mother has a Toyota. Perhaps you've heard of it?

My mother has a Toyota. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

To make sure I was legitimately calling to cancel an account — perhaps this is a wide-ranging scam — she asked for the make of my mother’s car. “Toyota,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” she asked.

NO, I COULD NOT, I replied (yes, using capital letters.) I told her it was like the best-selling car in the world. She let it go.

She assured me I would not be disconnected again. When I asked how long it would take for the supervisor to pick up, she said, “One to 3 minutes.” No problem! That’s a sprint!

Eight minutes later, the music stopped. I was — yet again — disconnected by a telecommunications company.

This time, there was no callback.

Angry businessman killing the phone

I went online. I did not have an account, so I filled out a form. The password I chose was “SprintSucks1.”

The next part of the form was “Set access level.” I was happy to, except:

  1. there was no way to do that, plus
  2. I had no idea what that meant.

I clicked “Help.” A popup message said, “Questions? Check out our support site with answers to your questions 24/7, or chat with us.”

Which I was happy to do. Except, there was no way to access the support site from the page I was on.

Once more — a mere 50 minutes after starting — I called again. I explained everything I had been through since I started calling THIS TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMPANY. 

The representative pretended to be sympathetic. Miraculously, he did not need to contact a supervisor. He could handle this exceptionally difficult request — cancel the service — all by himself.

Which he did, after taking down my callback number just in case we were disconnected.

sprint-tether-hotspot-300x274It was a simple process, with only 8 or 52 repetitive questions.

At last, it was done.

He had just one last question. Would I like an upgrade?

Why not? Yes! Of course!

I want Sprint to upgrade their !@#$%^&* customer service. Just kick it up a notch — from, say, “atrocious” to “abysmal” — and I’ll be ecstatic.

But I sure won’t call back to tell them that.

Westport Students: BYOD

New York City is finally ending its long ban on cellphones in schools.

At Brien McMahon High School, a student said recently, anyone who brings a laptop to class is considered weird.

Westport, meanwhile, plows ahead with its “Bring Your Own Device” initiative. Beginning next year, students will be required to provide their own technology during the school day.

Technology 1 - NBC News

Students use their own devices — which tie in to classroom technology like Smart Boards. (Photo/NBC News)

According to Inklings, the Staples newspaper — accessible online, of course — the Board of Education heard a BYOD progress report last month.

A PowerPoint presentation (natch) noted that this month, parents will be advised of specifications for “devices that may be purchased.” The months ahead brings parent information sessions, student input and “boot camps” for students and teachers.

Inklings reported that the Westport School District will provide “refurbished devices” for elementary and middle schoolers who are financially unable to purchase their own; Staples students will get new Chromebooks. Funding comes from a $30,000 line item for new technology purchases this year.

Electronic devices don't necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration.

Electronic devices don’t necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration. (Photo/HerffJones)

According to Inklings, townwide director of technology Natalie Carrignan said that 60% of students already bring their own devices to school.

At Staples, that percentage seems low. Laptops, tablets and cellphones are everywhere. They’re used constantly — often for schoolwork, occasionally not.

Each month, it seems, fewer and fewer students sit at the desktop computers that fill the library and learning centers. And the laptops that teachers can sign out for class use are often slow, unreliable and out of date.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling. (Photo/

If you think there should still be a debate about using technological devices in school, you might have argued a century ago that cars may not be the best replacement for horses.

Westport students live their lives online. So do most teachers.

Our school district’s job is to prepare young people for life through the end of this century. Administrators and the Board of Ed are figuring out how to harness technology, to best serve education in the sciences, humanities and arts. They recognize reality in many forms (including financial).

But if you’d like to offer your own insights, click “Comments.” On whatever electronic device you’re using right now.

Check Out These Robots!

The Westport Library long ago branched out from books, newspapers and magazines.

From a fantastic art collection to DVDs, CDs and Blu-rays, to a cutting-edge Maker space and 3D printer, our li’l ol’ library has served a broad range of interests, tastes and technologies.

Get ready now for robots.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that library officials have acquired a pair of humanoid NAO Evolution robots. The main object is to teach “the kind of coding and computer programming skills required to animate such machines.”

One of the Westport library's new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

One of the Westport library’s new robots. (Photo/Danny Ghitis for the Wall Street Journal)

Westport, the WSJ says, is the first public library in the nation to offer instruction using “sophisticated humanoid bots made by the French robotics firm Aldebaran.”

According to library director Maxine Bleiweis, robotics is the next big technology — so it should be made accessible to everyone, to learn about it.

Bleiweis adds that from economic and job development perspectives, this is an important step.

The library will debut the robots October 11, with programs and workshops to follow.

Unless the robots have other ideas.

(Click on the full Wall Street Journal story.)

Rick Eason Flies Under The Radar

Rick Eason graduated from Bedford Middle School in June. But the teenager knows aircraft technology, FAA regulations — and Westport skies — like a pro.

Rick has always been interested in electronics. Not long ago, the rising Staples freshman got a drone. His DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter is amazing. Equipped with a GoPro camera providing very high quality 2.6K resolution still photographs and video at 30 fps, plus 4 rotors, it tilts, spins and zooms its way over beaches, homes and fields.

Rick Eason and his drone.

Rick Eason and his drone.

Thanks to GPS it holds its position in wind, moves around a center point, and can even return to the exact spot it was launched if contact is lost.

“It’s so much fun to fly,” he says. “It’s so easy and intuitive to control.

“You can get views no one has ever seen before,” Rick adds with pride. “This is not like Google Earth. You can see your house from 20 feet above.”

Or the Westport Library. Here’s a view from Rick’s website that I’m pretty sure is the 1st of its kind:

Library - Rick Eason's drone

Rick’s dad, Tony Eason, installs solar panels. Rick’s drone helps him inspect roofs.

Drones are still pretty new. Rick saw another Phantom at Winslow Park. “06880” has posted amazing videos, taken by another owner, of Compo Beach and Sherwood Mill Pond. But right now they’re rare, and Rick gets plenty of admiring stares — and questions — when he launches his.

Drones are so new, in fact, that federal regulations can’t keep up. Though drones can rise 2000 feet high, the FAA classifies them as “remote controlled aircraft,” with a limit of 400 feet.

Technically, they can’t fly beyond the owner’s “line of sight.” But, Rick says, he can watch and control his drone through the GoPro camera, using goggles or a laptop.

Rick Eason's drone hovers over his front lawn.

Rick Eason’s drone hovers over his front lawn.

Owners need a license to make money off drones. So legally, Rick can’t charge for his photographs and videos. (That hasn’t stopped others from doing so.)

Rick has learned about privacy laws too. “When you’re 30 feet up with a fisheye lens, you might catch someone’s private home,” he says. “If they ask me, I’ll delete it.” But, he notes, “it’s really no different from taking a photograph of someone’s house from the beach with an iPhone.”

Drones are here to stay. Just a couple of years ago, they cost thousands of dollars each — and did not fly particularly well. Now, Rick says, “you can buy one for $300 at Barnes & Noble.”

Rick's drone, inspecting a roof.

Rick’s drone, inspecting a roof.

Rick loves his drone — but he’s already looking ahead. He’s saving up for a gyroscopic gimbal, to keep the camera even steadier than it is now.

Meanwhile, he’s thinking up clever new uses for his drone. At Staples, he might contribute aerial photograph to Inklings, the school newspaper.

And last Thursday Rick was at Compo, for the 2nd annual “06880” party. While the rest of us were eating, drinking and chatting, he was hard at work.

So here’s the “06880” community — 2014-style: