Category Archives: technology

Library’s Latest Shout-Out: Forbes.com

Forbes may be “the capitalist tool.” But it’s got a soft spot for a certain everyone’s-equal space: the Westport Library.

Forbes-logoForbes.com carries a story — “Remarkable Lessons in Innovation From a Public Library” — by Westporter Bruce Kasanoff.

He begins: “There are two ways to run a public library in a small town: the traditional way, or the Maxine Bleiweis way.”

After praising the director for being “a vibrant tool for bringing out the best in others,” he cites her for not knowing the definition of “can’t.” Her library, he says, can be “noisy, boisterous, provocative, outrageous (and) entertaining.”

Kasanoff adds that Bleiweis’ best talent may be bringing out talents in other people. He cites these traits that we all should emulate:

Boldness: If it will benefit the library, Maxine will ask anyone to do anything. She enlists CTOs of Fortune 50 companies, top journalists, famous authors, and a huge corps of enthusiastic volunteers. Just as importantly, she always has a bold idea and a few “asks” ready; if she spots you in the library, the odds are 100 to 1 that she’ll tell you about her latest projects and how you can help.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech writer-video star-guru happily obliges.

Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis has often enlisted the help of David Pogue. The Westport-based tech guru-writer-video star happily obliges.

Warmth: The Westport Library is partially funded by the town, and also depends on donations from its supporters. There’s never enough money, especially now that the library is embarking on a capital campaign to reshape the building to be much more of a gathering, social and performance space. Leaders in such an environment don’t get to bark orders. Maxine leads with warmth, charm and enthusiasm. She understands that her role is to be uplifting and aspirational.

Imagination: What if we turned the middle of the library into a Makerspace? Could we teach kids to program computers by buying two Aldebaran robots for them to program? Maxine discovered the answers to both these questions was “yes.”

The Westport Library's Makerspace has a prominent position in the midst of the Great Hall.

The Westport Library’s Makerspace has a prominent position in the Great Hall.

Kasanoff concludes:

Maxine taught an entire town not to be limited by outdated conceptions of what you or your organization is supposed to be doing. She showed an entire generation that you are limited only by your own imagination, creativity and willingness to whatever it takes to bring your dream to life.

Most importantly, she showed us what happens when people with diverse talents, abilities and interests work together to uplift a community. The answer, of course, is that magic happens.

Maxine Bleiweis: A Library Winner, In Every Way

When Maxine Bleiweis was young, she says, “I was not a very successful library user.” She learned through hands-on experiences, not books. And she liked to talk.

If she were a kid today, she’d thrive at the Westport Library — an institution run by the now-grown Maxine Bleiweis. It’s a place filled with noise — of chatter, programs, and the hands-on learning, exploration and invention being done in the innovative MakerSpace, smack dab in the center of the place.

When Maxine was younger too — just starting out as a library director — she was influenced by Charlie Robinson. As head of the Baltimore County system, he believed that libraries did not have to follow a “business as usual” model. Rather than assuming libraries were arbiters of community taste — deciding unilaterally which books to purchase; decreeing that users must be silent everywhere — he said, essentially, “give ‘em what they want.” Even if “they” had no idea what it was.

PLAIn June, Bleiweis receives the Charlie Robinson Award. The Public Library Association honor goes to one innovative leader, risk taker or change agent each year.

“Having my name under his on that award is pretty amazing,” Bleiweis says.

It’s also fitting. For the past 17 years, she’s been a pretty amazing director of the Westport Library.

As she prepares to leave her post — she’s “retooling” (not “retiring”) as of July 1 — she spent time recently looking back on a career she’s embraced with a gusto that may once have seen out of place, back when librarians’ main job was to tell patrons “ssshhh…”

Her innovations — the basis of that Charlie Robinson Award — stem from her philosophy that a library should know what people need from it, even before those people know it themselves.

Everyone, she says, “has a need and a right to succeed at, and be validated by, this miraculous institution: the public library.”

Maxine Bleiweis

Maxine Bleiweis

To do that, she’s “taken herself out of” the building. That’s allowed her to reimagine what it could look like, unencumbered by preconceptions and conventions. It’s enabled her to advocate for, and introduce, not only the MakerSpace but advanced technology, TED Talks, wide-ranging programs and events that draw the community together. A true joy, she says, is “watching 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds exchange ideas and information.”

A library, according to Bleiweis, is no longer just a place to get reading material. Anyone can do that anywhere. It’s a place to “debate, discuss, discover.”

Among those most memorable debates: the night Westporter Phil Donahue showed a documentary he produced on the Iraq war. A fight nearly erupted, in the SRO crowd. Bleiweis — wedged against a wall — grew worried. Finally — “in his best talk show host voice” — Donahue defused tensions by saying, “I think this is the part of the program where we all hold songs and sing ‘Kumbaya.'”

An important discussion came soon after a disastrous, alcohol-fueled Staples Homecoming. The library provided a place — “outside of school,” Bleiweis notes — to share community concerns.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Public Library.

Teenagers feel welcome at the Westport Library.

As for discovery, Bleiweis recalls a panel of pioneering feminists. “They were wonderful, but at the end they looked at the audience and said, ‘We’ve done our job. What about you?'”

On the spot, a group formed. Out of that meeting came a grant proposal for a program in which college women would mentor high school girls. In turn, they would mentor middle school girls.

What ideas did not work? Bleiweis can’t think of any — because that’s not the way she measures success.

“We’re always in beta test mode, always in tryouts,” she explains. “The library doesn’t really lead. It just provides fertile ground for people to grow things. Inviting in people is more important than making sure all our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.”

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)

But, the director notes, “the more this community realizes what a library can be, the more we’re struggling with a building that was not built to facilitate that.” She is proud of the innovative role the Westport Library has played, but knows it will be increasingly difficult to continue, given the constraints of the present building.

In every institution’s life, Bleiweis says, there are junctures where decisions will be made by the person who will be there to see them through. The Westport Library, she believes, is at one of those points.

She’s put forth her vision of what the facility should look like, and how it should function. But many more decisions must be made. And — based on the demographics of her staff — many hiring decisions lie ahead.

Those are part of the reasons behind her decision to step down now. Her personal life plays a role too. Bleiweis’ mother is 98; at the same time, Bleiweis is a new grandmother. “I need a bit of flexibility in my life,” she says.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology -- or the needs of 21st-century users.

As handsome as the Westport Library is, it was not built for 21st-century technology — or the needs of 21st-century users.

Asked what she would say to her successor, Bleiweis offers: “You’re absolutely blessed with the most vibrant, thinking community anywhere. Listen hard; the answers are within the conversations you’ll hear.”

In the 4 months before she leaves, there is still plenty of work to do — and energy to harness.

Plus, of course, there’s that Charlie Robinson Award to pick up. It’s presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference, in San Francisco. That’s the last week in June — which happens to be Maxine Bleiweis’ final week as director of the Westport Library.

Talk about a storybook ending!

Customer Service (Blizzard Edition)

Someone must have told companies that — before a major weather-related calamity — they should email their customers: “We might not be here for you. But we’ll try.”

CL&POur inboxes were stuffed yesterday. CL&P told us they were already bringing in extra line crews. My condo’s management firm said they expected lots of calls, so be patient (and watch out for snow and ice).

Cablevision offered this stop-the-presses piece of advice: “If you lose electrical power to your home, your Optimum services will not work.”

Meanwhile, Frontier — which in just a few short months has accomplished the nearly impossible task of making customers wish they had AT&T back — advised, “Make sure you have food supplies, water, flashlights and a battery powered radio in case you are unable to leave your home.”

Sage advice. Except the email arrived at 9:08 p.m. — long after the snow started, and 8 minutes after Governor Malloy’s travel ban went into effect.

This works in a power outage -- though you'd have to teach your kids how to use it.

This works in a power outage — though you’d have to teach your kids how to use it.

To give Frontier credit, they did offer information that many folks (including non-Frontier customers) might not know: Customers with cordless phones who still have a traditional cordless phone can plug it directly into a wall jack.

Corded phones do not require electricity. They’ll still operate during a power outage.

Of course, by 9:08 p.m. it was too late to buy a corded phone if you didn’t already own one.

But Frontier is Usain Bolt compared to CVS. At 10:03 p.m. last night, they breathlessly emailed me: “Dan, Snow is On The Way! Don’t wait! Get storm essentials & an emergency checklist.”

It was a little late for that. But in a pinch, I could call them on my corded phone.

 

 

Supervising Kids’ Cyber Lives: What Can Parents Do?

Like whack-a-moles, social media concerns pop up all over the school landscape. Middle school teachers and administrators often deal with cyber-bullying. Last spring, the anonymous app Yik Yak caused an uproar at Staples.

Recently, after a cyber-bullying incident via Instagram, an elementary school principal sent a letter to parents, then followed up with visits to each classroom. A parent at the school then sent this letter to “06880,” hoping to share it with a wide audience. Here it is:

Though Instagram requires children to be at least 13 years old, our children sign up, posting pictures and remarks which could lead to permanent consequences. A 10-year-old most likely does not understand the importance of reputation management. One inappropriate post can cause them a lifetime of unfortunate consequences, not to mention hurting other innocent people.

Instagram is not the only concern. Other social media vehicles (Facebook, Yik Yak, Twitter, Vine, to name a few) pose the same threat when misused.

Instagram is a popular social media platform for teenagers -- and younger children.

Instagram is a popular social media platform for teenagers — and younger children.

As parents we are in a tough spot, balancing granting our children the internet access their peers seem to have through mobile devices and computers with keeping them safe (not only from online predators but tarnishing their own reputations for unthoughtful behavior). Now the schools are asking our help in keeping our children’s cyber-activity responsible.

We can put on parental controls, talk to them about internet safety practices, even have them sign contracts. However, I think we need to take more responsibility to closely monitor their activity and be in the know of where our children really are online.

Giving our kids devices with internet access without supervising is no different than allowing them to throw a party, advising them not to drink and then voluntarily leaving the house. We need to choose to either prevent their access to devices that access the Internet (highly unlikely — most kids in our community have handheld devices by 11 or 12 years old, and at the very least a computer at home), or take responsibility to monitor their online activity across all devices.

cyber controls

Many friends ask me if I feel guilty looking at what my kids are doing online. My response? With the alarming increase in children’s cyber-crimes, I have a responsibility to be a parent and be in the know. While I don’t micromanage every last online action they take, I have the ability to  perform regular spot checks or at least check it any time I feel concerned.

We can’t afford not to monitor our children online as they access the internet, and especially as the internet accesses them. Too many cyber-crime stories involving children and unaware parents have been reported after it’s too late.  The risks are way too big.

What do you think? How do you monitor your children’s online activities? What’s appropriate for what ages? Click “Comments” below to contribute to this important conversation.

If “Jingle Bell Rock” Makes You Want To Set Your Hair On Fire…

… and you seriously think about moving to North Korea every time you hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”: Help is at hand.

From now through Christmas, WWPT-FM is broadcasting 20 hours of Candlelight concerts. The newest is last week’s. The oldest stretches back 50 years.

To avoid “Hallelujah Chorus” overload, after every 3 Candlelights ‘PT runs this year’s Players/audio production broadcast of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

A collage of Candlelight Concert album and CD covers. The 1964 and '66 concerts are in the top row, starting at left.

A collage of Candlelight Concert album and CD covers. The 1964 and ’66 concerts are in the top row, starting at left.

This is not the 1st time the Staples radio station has provided a holiday listening treasure. But new this year are the old 1964, ’65 and ’66 Candlelight Concerts.

Media production instructor Jim Honeycutt digitized, edited and exported Barbara Sherburne’s vinyl records of those 3 performances. There are 17 Candlelights in the rotation: The 3 from the ’60s, then 2001 through 2014.

WWPT-FM can be heard locally at 90.3 FM. But the livestream is available everywhere. Just click on www.wwptfm.com, then go to “Listen Live” and “Click here to access the district stream.”

If you want to actually see the 2014 Candlelight concert — and you’re a Cablevision customer in Westport — it’s on Channel 78 nightly at 7:30.

And here’s a gift for out-of-towners: “It’s A Wonderful Life” is now on YouTube, too. Just click below.

Happy holidays — from George Bailey, Jim Honeycutt, WWPT and Staples to you!

 

“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 www.wwptfm.com, 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.