Category Archives: technology

Frederic Chiu Does Debussy

Frederic Chiu is a pianist who has pushed boundaries in the world of classical music — from performance protocols and recording, to teaching and technology.

He’s also — with his wife Jeanine Esposito — host of the wonderfully eclectic Beechwood Arts salon series, in their warm, welcoming home. Check it out!

Chiu is in the spotlight once again. His latest recording combines state-of-the-art audio and video technology, masterpieces of the Western classical music canon, and contemporary works rooted in the East.

Frederic ChiuTitled “Distant Voices,” it’s the inaugural classical music release from Yamaha Entertainment Group of America.

The recording includes iconic Debussy, and music of the Szechuan-born, French- and Russian-influenced  Gao Ping. There’s both an audio CD and video DVD of Chiu performing a unique combination of favorites, and groundbreaking newer music from the piano repertoire, plus commentary from him about his background and music-making.

Chiu calls Debussy’s music “a test for the artist and instrument both.” The recording artist’s performance was captured on the Yamaha Disklavier, a true acoustic piano that incorporates fiber-optic sensing systems and the most modern technology to record and and reproduce every note with unpralleled precision.

Listeners with a Disklavier piano can replicate the performance on their own instruments.

Which is almost as good as hearing Chiu perform live, in his own Westport living room.

 

Virtually Oculus

Two months ago, the Westport Library bought an Oculus Rift. They lacked a computer with a graphics card big enough for the virtual reality headset that generates a crazy, immersive virtual world — but that’s the way the library rolls.

The Rift was about to hit the general consumer market. Library staffers knew it would be big. They snagged one of the last 2nd-generation developers’ kits. Then they went to work, figuring out what to do with it.

Nate Allen — a Maker Space volunteer who’s home-schooled in Fairfield — put the appropriate computer pieces together. (I asked him if it took all summer. Nope: 2 hours.)

Alex Giannini (left), Nate Allen, the Oculus Rift headset and computer.

Alex Giannini (left), Nate Allen, the Oculus Rift headset and computer.

The other day, I took it for a test drive. I’d never donned a virtual reality headset before — I’m not exactly a hardcore gamer — but despite a warning from Alex Giannini, the library’s manager of digital experience, that I might get nauseous, I opted for the Rift’s rollercoaster ride.

I have to say: It’s pretty freakin’ cool. I zoomed up, down and through some crazy Alice in Wonderland-type scenes. But with the Rift, I also looked all around — even over my shoulder — and became immersed in some great virtual reality scenes.

The Rift will be available for everyone 13 and up. But, Alex knows, the core demographic is teenagers.

“That’s great,” he says. “This will get them to the library. They’ll play video games, but they’ll stay to help out. Maybe it will inspire some of them to get into developing games too.”

The Oculus Rift headset.

The Oculus Rift headset.

The Rift will be unveiled Labor Day weekend, at the library’s Blues, Views & BBQ booth. Later this fall it will be used as part of the library’s Teen Gaming Night.

Alex loves the Rift. “It’s so far beyond previous generations of virtual reality, I can’t even describe it,” he says. “We’re on the verge of something huge.”

As usual, the Westport Library leads the way.

“1-Room Schoolhouse” In A Westport Driveway

It’s an incongruous sight: Sitting in the driveway of a wooden, wizened 1720s house is a multi-colored, futuristic-looking structure. A sign calls it “The Think 3-D Lab.”

Folks passing 178 Cross Highway, near the Fairfield line, have wondered what’s up. The answer is: something very, very cool.

The “lab” — actually a 100-square-foot, easily disassembled building — is the brainchild of Mark Yurkiw. It’s in front of the saltbox home (which still bears a musket ball hole in the front door, thanks to Redcoats who marauded past on their way to Danbury in 1777).

The

The “Think 3-D Lab” sits in front of Mark Yurkiw’s 1720s-era house. (Photo/copyright Amy Dolego/ Winton Studios)

Mark spent an intriguing career in New York. A physicist by training and artist by avocation, he’s designed magazine covers and TV commercials; worked on films and special effects, and created “storytelling sculptures” for Fortune 500 companies and non-profits. (His “Homeless Statue of Liberty” for New York Cares helped bring in a million used coats.)

Mark’s son met James Potter, an architecture student at Norwalk Community College. When James heard that Mark was working on a project for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he said he wanted to be involved.

The project was for a 10-year-old boy in upstate Connecticut. He wanted a place to play Legos and Minecraft games.

Mark’s mission was to “meld the physical and digital worlds. I wanted to educate this boy about his future.”

So Mark, James and NCC engineering student Andrew Myers spent the past 2 months designing and building “the 1-room schoolhouse of the 21st century.”

James Potter and Mark Yurkiw inside the

James Potter and Mark Yurkiw inside the “1-room schoolhouse.”

That “1-room schoolhouse” includes LED lighting; a bed for “dreaming” about creativity; a solar-powered fan; a 3Doodler pen for writing in space; a wireless “Internet of Things” kit; magnetic walls; movable tables — and, of course, plenty of space to experiment with Legos. Most of the materials were donated.

What Mark calls “the world’s first off-the-grid 3-D printer” — it runs on solar panels — is being manufactured now. It will be installed soon, donated by Tiko 3D.

Mark’s idea, meanwhile, has morphed from educating one boy about his future, to inspiring an entire generation of children.

He hopes that community college students will build dozens — hundreds! — of these “3-D labs.” They can design their own, or buy them pre-built and set them up, in libraries, schools, pediatric hospitals and backyards.

The money the students earn can help fund their 4-year college degrees. At the same time, they’ll reach and teach even younger kids.

“I’m inspired by 20-year-olds who inspire 10-year-olds,” Mark says.

Another view of the interior. Check out all the Lego materials under the desk -- and the bunk bed for

Another view of the interior. Check out the Lego materials under the desk — and the bunk bed for “creative dreaming.” (Photo/copyright Amy Dolego Winton)

And that “3D Lab” sitting in his Cross Highway driveway? Mark says it will be disassembled next Thursday, then trucked upstate as a surprise gift for the 10-year-old Make-a-Wish boy.

“His jaw will drop,” Mark says.

Then he turns back to work. A creative tinkerer’s work is never done.

(Mark is looking for sponsors to get his idea — as part of a non-profit foundation — off the ground. To help — or for more information — email mark.think3D@gmail.com.)

Billy Shot Me — And Your Business?

There it is. After googling a business, you find — along with links and directions — a tab inviting you to “See Inside.” One click brings up handsome, wide-angle exterior and interior views of the store or office that you can pan, rotate and zoom in on — just like Google Earth.

You might think — if you think about it at all — that the owner did a nice job hiring a good photographer who can stitch photos into 360-degree views, then had his webmaster post them nicely.

You’d be wrong. As with all things Google, a very regimented, standardized tool runs the program they very boringly call “Google Business Photos.”

A screenshot of part of The Spotted Horse's virtual tour. Clicking on one of the circular arrows on the bottom images brings up the panoramic view.

A screenshot of part of The Spotted Horse’s virtual tour. Clicking a circular arrow on the bottom images brings up the panoramic view. (Click or hover over to enlarge.)

To get those images posted with a “See Inside” link — available through generic search, Business Pages and clicking on a Google Maps icon — a business owner must use a Google photographer.

The photographer’s training process takes 6 months. The certification process is very rigorous. Mistakes made at the pixel level must be fixed.

Just half a dozen Connecticut photographers have gone through the long process. Westport’s Billy Scalzi is one of them.

A 40-year area resident, he was an institutional bond broker who owned 2 companies. He left Wall Street in 1996, to become a real estate speculator. Photography is Scalzi’s 3rd career.

Billy Shot MeHis company is called Billy Shot Me. Using a DSLR camera — and the same technology as Google Street View — he takes Google Business Photos all over the state. Locally, he’s shot The Spotted Horse, Mumbai Times, Picture This and Volvo of Westport. (He’s also done all the rest stops on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. The owner is very proud that they’ve all been renovated.)

Outside of Westport, Scalzi has shot doctors’ and dentists’ offices — even a psychiatrist’s. (“He wanted that little balloon man in Google Maps,” Scalzi says.)

Scalzi’s fee begins at $350. But that’s the only charge. Google offers its service for free. And because business owners can embed the photos on their own website and in social media, they’re available to users who find them even through search engines like Bing or Yahoo.

On his own — and gratis — Scalzi is shooting and creating virtual tours of Compo Beach, Longshore and Grace Salmon Park. He wants those to be available to anyone who clicks their links on Google Maps.

Taking a virtual tour before you go — to a restaurant, car dealer or psychiatrist’s office — appeals to some people.

To some business owners too — though not all. “It’s simple marketing,” Scalzi says. “I’m amazed that half of all businesses in the U.S. don’t even have websites.”

Billy Scalzi's 360-degree view of Picture This gives potential customers a great idea of what they'll find.

Billy Scalzi’s 360-degree view of Picture This gives potential customers a great idea of what they’ll find.

 

Cathy Beaudoin’s Amazonian Fashion Adventure

Cathy Beaudoin’s first job out of college was at Macy’s.

She hated it. The recent Trinity College (history major) grad would cry in the stock room. “My feet hurt, and I didn’t like my job,” she recalls.

Beaudoin had grown up in Westport. At Staples High School (Class of 1981) Cathy Lewis was a cheerleader, gymnast, volleyball player, and Inklings photographer.

Fortunately, the Macy’s gig did not last long. She spent the next 10 years at Ogilvy & Mather, in direct response marketing.

She laughs at her next career move: Banana Republic, in California.

Beaudoin was back in retail — but with a marketing lens. She developed a customer database, from scratch.

“I had no fashion background,” she recalls. “I was the unsexy, quantitative one” in the company.

Cathy Beaudoin

Cathy Beaudoin

Five years later, Beaudoin moved on to a much bigger job at the Gap. She was given an idea — build a shoe brand — and the result was Piperlime. It was a rare opportunity, she says, “to start something from the ground up, but within the safe confines of an established company.”

Six years ago, Amazon came calling. They wanted Beaudoin to once again create something entirely new. But Amazon is not an apparel company. They’re only the largest internet-based retailer in the nation.

Beaudoin loved living in San Francisco. She and her husband Sean, a novelist, had a new baby. But the challenge — build “Amazon Fashion,” again from scratch.

“I’ve had a blast,” she says. “I’ve never worked with people so intelligent. Every time I walk in a room, I feel like I’m surrounded by the smartest people I ever went to school with.”

Her work, the pace, the “staggering way we give our lives to it — weirdly, I enjoy it all,” Beaudoin says.

Adding fashion to Amazon was not like adding another product line — books, say, or appliances. Clothes and shoes are completely season-dependent — with a crazy timeline.

“None of the algorithms Amazon built are applicable to fashion,” Beaudoin notes. “For a company like this, which believes so strongly in its formula and playbook, this was counter-cultural.”

It was also necessary, she says.

“That’s the work I’m most proud of: being a voice in the wilderness, and making this thrive.”

Amazon Fashion logo

Beaudoin is also proud of growing her team, from 200 people to well over 1000 “amazing” people; carrying almost 3,000 different brands of shoes, clothing, watches, luggage and handbags, and achieving “astronomical” growth rates in both the men’s and women’s business.

Amazon is divided into Kindle, cloud computing and retail. Retail has 4 divisions; Beaudoin leads the Fashion portfolio from Seattle, and 2 sub-divisions based in New York: Shopbop.com and MyHabit.com.

Of course, not every idea works out. Many, in fact, flop.

“Amazon genuinely encourages you to fail,” Beaudoin explains. “If you achieve all your goals, the premise is that your goals are not tough enough. You’re not taking enough risks. That’s this culture.

“I’ve done tons of things that didn’t work. Customers didn’t care, or we didn’t execute well. There’s no shame in it.”

Clearly though, plenty of ideas work out — very, very well.

Cathy Beaudoin, in action.

Cathy Beaudoin, in action.

Yet for all she’s achieved — and her many years based on the West Coast — Beaudoin still considers Westport “home.”

Her parents are still here. But this is also the place, she says, where “I became me. I have memories of my friends, the Minnybus, pizza, the beach. It was an idyllic, wonderful place to grow up. It’s still home base.”

Many friends from Staples — Coleytown Junior High and Burr Farms Elementary School, even — have not left, or left and returned. She sees them everywhere, every time she is back. Her next visit is a few days away.

So what was Amazon Fashion’s president’s own fashion style, back in the day?

“No one in high school would have thought I had any style,” she says. “I was a fan of high-heel clogs.”

And now?

“Classic business lady-like. And spare.”

Ezra’s Video Game Went Viral. You’re Not Going To Believe What He Did Next.

When Ezra — whose parents asked that his last name not be used — was 7 years old, he attended a tech camp.

Inspired, he started developing his own game. He called it “One Line.”

Ezra worked steadily on it. Finally, when it was finished, he posted it on Scratch — an online community developed at MIT to help young kids learn the basics of coding.

It went unnoticed for 10 days. Then, Ezra’s mom says, it was highlighted in a section called “Featured Projects.”

Overnight, Ezra’s game got over 16,000 views — and more than 1000 comments. Nearly all were very positive.

A screen shot of

A screen shot of “One Line.”

Within 2 days Ezra was asked to remake Pacman for Scratch, sell the rights for an app, make a sequel, and help design other games. He’s also been warned to copyright his project, which his mother says is a good idea.

“I don’t think any of the gamers know he’s 8 years old,” she adds. “It’s all a bit overwhelming for him.”

So Ezra did what any normal, viral-game-sensation game creator would do: He turned off the comments.

And went outside to play.

(Click here for Ezra’s game. Enjoy the comments that were posted before he turned them off!)

Tough Times In A Town Of Plenty

There are nightmare scenarios no one wants to think about.

One struck a Westport man named Gary.

His wife died 7 years ago, of stomach cancer. Their 3rd child had just been born.

Gary

Gary

Gary raised them on his own, helping them move beyond their devastating loss. Proudly, he says, they are “growing as well-rounded, loving and respectful kids.”

A sales trader who deals in equities, he works on a commission-only basis. Over the past few months, business dried up.

The family lived in a very modest 2-bedroom apartment. He fell behind on his rent. Last Friday, his landlord evicted him.

Gary is 3 months behind on payments for his 2007 Jeep too. Repossession is imminent.

Two of his 3 children are living with relatives this summer. He’s spoken to Homes With Hope, but they have no housing for a single father and his family.

“I’ve done everything possible to stay positive, and provide for my children these last few years,” he says. “But I find my back up against a wall, and don’t see any other avenues to pursue.

“My credit rating suffered terribly after my wife passed, so a bank loan is not an option at present. I hope business will pick up shortly, and we will be okay.

“I am also a realist. I’m looking for new employment, but that is not an easy task these days.”

He posted those words on GoFundMe.com. It could not have been easy to ask for help like that. But he can’t think of what else to do.

GoFundMe logo

A friend asked me to tell Gary’s story on “06880.” I called Gary, to get his permission.

I warned him that cyberspace can be cruel. Some readers might make snarky remarks about a Westporter — even one who has been evicted from his home — asking for help.

He’s willing to take that chance.

And I’m betting that “06880” readers will understand that Gary’s story could be any of ours.

(To make a contribution to Gary’s GoFundMe page, click here.)

 

 

Some Of You Will Love This Video. Others Will Splutter With Rage.

A video — with the innocuous title “Welcome to Westport” — has been rocketing around the interwebs. At least, that portion of cyberspace that is interested in all things our town-related.

It certainly does not make our town look like Our Town.

Created by Nick Ribolla — a very smart, multi-talented (Players, choir) and energetic Staples High School junior — it offers a teenager’s cynical eye on his hometown. As of last night, it had been viewed nearly 10,000 times.

With jangly music, clever cinematography and near-professional editing, Nick takes on (and down) much of Westport life: our values, our diversity, our drivers, our downtown.

Nick Ribolla, introducing his video.

Nick Ribolla, introducing his video.

More than a dozen “06880” readers have emailed me the link. Some think it’s hilarious. Others have called it “offensive,” “childish” and “anti-Semitic.”

I think Nick has treated everyone equally cynically. (For the record: He’s Brazilian, and a good friend in the video is Indian.)

There are hits and misses. (Though everyone will agree the scene outside Toquet Hall is spot on.)

Driving laws, Nick notes, are

Westport driving laws, Nick notes, are “completely unnecessary.”

It’s something I probably would have made when I was at Staples if I were as talented as Nick, and had all kinds of modern technology at my disposal.

And if I had made it then, I’d probably look back on it now and say, “Wow — that was pretty good. But I can’t believe I actually said…”

Judge for yourself. Here’s the video. Then click “Comments,” to let everyone know how much you do or don’t welcome “Welcome to Westport.” (If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)

Towering Over Greens Farms Road

Remember that 120-foot cell tower proposed for a private residence on Greens Farms Road?

It’s on hold — but drivers in the area have recently noticed a smaller tower, near — but not on — the property in question.

Emergency response tower - Greens Farms Road

Hold your texts and emails (if you can get a signal). This is not that cell tower.

It’s Westport’s Emergency Response System — and it’s been there since the mid-1980s. It was installed to warn residents of impending disasters (I’m just guessing, but say, a truck accident involving toxic chemicals on nearby I-95).

The proposed cell tower will be 75 to 100 feet taller than this structure.

So why are people just now noticing it?

A widening project on Greens Farms Road (including a new turning lane onto Hillspoint, visible in the photo above), and resulting deforestation of the area, has made the Emergency Response System more prominent.

As for the cell tower: neighbors, local officials and state legislators are still working to prevent its construction on private property, in a residential zone. The town continues to seek an alternative site on state DOT property.

 

The Entire Memorial Day Parade — In Less Than A Minute

Maybe you watched the entire Memorial Day parade this year. Or you marched in it, so you saw only the Y’s Men or Suzuki violinists in front of you.

Perhaps you slept in. Or you’re 3,000 miles from Westport.

Whatever happened this morning, here’s a chance to relive the entire parade — in 59 seconds.

Nick Pisarro — a Westport resident (off and on) since 1951 — created this fantastic time-lapse video.

It’s got everyone, and everything. You just have to look close — and keep your finger on the pause button.