Category Archives: technology

Jack And Neal: They Got (Every) Game

It’s not easy being a high school athlete. Or fan.

You’ve got the ups and downs of wins and losses (and injuries). There’s the pressure of school, extracurriculars, family and social life.

And — thanks to weather, facilities and a thousand other factors — the game schedule constantly changes.

Jack Sharkey and Neal Soni can’t do anything about Xs, Os, concussions, sprains, rain or snow.

They can, however, make following your favorite team a snap.

And they have. With an app.

Jack Sharkey (left) and Neal Soni show off their CT Sports app.

The Staples High School seniors spent 2 months creating CT Sports. An outgrowth of their Building Web Applications class with teacher Dave Scrofani, it’s simple, clear, and tremendously useful.

Users select any of Connecticut’s 183 high schools, and any of the 27 sports administered by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

Fan of Staples sports? Here’s when and where all the spring teams play!

Instantly, you see the schedule, opponent, location, bus time and level (varsity, JV, freshman). The information is up-to-date: As soon as a change is made to the CIAC website, it appears on CT Sports.

You can add events to your personal calendar — along with reminders.

All information is pulled directly from the CIAC site. So why use this one?

“Our interface is much cleaner,” says Neal. “For theirs, you have to choose each parameter separately, each time. On ours you can save features. And it’s much easier to switch schools.”

Visually, it’s appealing too. Neal and Jack added each school’s colors to the site — tedious, but a welcome feature. (They considered using logos. But if they sell ads later, there may be copyright issues. These guys think ahead.)

The potential user base is enormous. But Jack and Neal had no sure way to reach them.

The CIAC helped. They emailed every athletic director in the state, encouraging them to send information about CT Sports to all students, parents, teachers and coaches.

Feedback was immediate — and very positive — Jack says.

A small Google ad at the bottom brings in a few dollars. But the app was not designed as a moneymaker. Neal and Jack hope to use it to build name recognition, for future endeavors.

They’ll create more apps, juggling all their other activities. Jack is president of both the Unified Sports Club and Kool To Be Kind, and is a Top Hat Tutor. Neal is president of Top Hat, and a national taekwando competitor.

Unfortunately, martial arts is not a CIAC sport. But if it becomes one, Neal and Jack will make sure you never miss a meet.

(To download the app, search for “CT Sports: HS Sports Schedules.” Right now, it is available only for iOS devices.)

Two more app functions: Choose one specific sport, or select from every high school in Connecticut.

Unsung Hero #44

When the 7th annual Maker Faire takes over Westport this Saturday (April 21), there will be something for everyone.

A record 12,000+ attendees — tech lovers, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science geeks, artists, authors, students and exhibitors — will share what they’ve made, see what others have created, teach, learn, be inspired, and inspire others.

And have tons of fun.

It’s a massive undertaking. Planning began the moment last year’s Maker Faire — which drew “only” 10,500 people — ended.

Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. But none of it would be possible without Mark Mathias.

Mark Mathias

Westport’s event– part of a worldwide movement (and of all 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, among the top 5% in attendance) — was his brainchild.

In September 2011, his kids were fascinated by the New York Maker Faire.

Seven months later — thanks to Mathias’ work with the Westport Library, Sunrise Rotary and Downtown Merchants Association — we had our own “Mini Maker Faire.”

The “mini” is long gone. Now — with activities spread across the Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green — it’s as maxi as it gets.

But the Maker Faire is not Mathias’ only local contribution. He’s in his 15th year on the Board of Education; is an active member of Saugatuck Congregational Church (with a particular interest in their mission trips), and when his daughter Nicole was at Staples High School, he was an avid supporter of the music department.

Mathias — whose professional background is in IT — is president of Remarkable Steam. The non-profit promotes innovation and creativity in the areas of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

This is Mark Mathias’ busiest time of year. Hopefully, he’ll take a few moments out of his hectic day to accept our thanks, as this week’s Unsung Hero.

Robots galore at last year’s Maker Faire.

(For more information on Westport’s Maker Faire, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Maker Faire: Facts And Figures

This Saturday’s Maker Faire promises to be the biggest yet.

It’s also one of the biggest in the world. Last year, Westport drew 10,500 attendees. That made the top 5% of all 772 Maker Faires on the planet.

This year’s attendance could break 12,000.

A few other facts:

  • The physical footprint has tripled. Events and attractions are scheduled for the Westport Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green.
  • There are nearly 200 “makers” — double the previous number.
  • 6 stages — up from only 1 in the past — will showcase talented people and organizations in the arts, sciences, music and politics.

Large attractions include:

  • Truckers Alley: a collection of large vehicles with large ideas
  • Tiny Homes Hamlet: a collection of tiny homes
  • Tiny Farmers’ Market: a taste of upcoming farmers’ markets
  • Medieval Village and Tavern: entertainment and local brews
  • PlasmaBot: the world’s largest glass and plasma marionette
  • Aviation: a half-sized model of Gustave Whitehead’s plane, plus drones and a panel
  • Air Rocket Challenge: build cardboard rockets — and launch them
  • CTNext Entrepreneurial Innovation Awards: for emerging businesses
  • Game of Drones: an exhibition of drone skills in tight spaces
  • Nerdy Derby: build, decorate and race cars
  • Musicians: an orchestra, steel band, and Israeli music
  • Artists: working in textiles, paint, recycled materials, even bones.

There’s much, much, much more, too. For details, click here.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Egg-citing News For Hard-Boiled Cooks

It’s almost Easter. Time to buy the chocolate, bake the ham, boil the eggs.

Bonnie Tyler and Sheila Torgan can’t help with the first 2 tasks. But if making easy-to-peel eggs makes your blood boil, they hop to your rescue.

The women are the brains behind the Negg. It’s “the world’s greatest egg peeler.”

That’s not me or an infomercial talking. The Negg has been praised by the New York Times and the “Today Show” — along with egg-makers everywhere.

And it was hatched right here in Westport.

Sheila Torgan and Bonnie Tyler.

Bonnie and Sheila are longtime business partners. Past projects include web design.

That’s cool. But solving one of life’s most difficult puzzles — how to make an easy-to-peel egg — can be life-changing.

The women had a great idea: Put an egg in a peeler with water, then shake it so the peel comes off. Easy as pie.

But they had to create a model. Peeling an egg is hardly high-tech. Still, Bonnie and Sheila needed a technological tool.

They found it at the Westport Library.

The Maker Space — with its computers and 3D printer — is the perfect place to turn concepts into reality.

The Negg!

Library manager of experiential learning Alex Giannini guided the women through many prototypes. Finally, they found one that worked.

From there they produced a patent-pending mold.

Since then, they’ve sold over a quarter of a million Neggs. They’re available through Amazon, HSN, Wayfair, other outlets — and of course on their website.

Sheila and Bonnie may be the hard-boiled egg queens of the world. But they haven’t forgotten their roots.

They’ve given back to the Westport Library by speaking on a crowd-sourcing panel. They hoped to inspire other entrepreneurs to fulfill their dream.

All you need is an idea.

Though a Westport Library 3D printer certainly helps.

(For more information on the Negg, click here. Hat tips: Betsy Pollak and Deirdre Foote.)

[OPINION] Optimum: Not Optimal

Alert — and frustrated — “06880” reader Luisa Francoeur writes:

In the continuing storm saga, I wonder how many people have experienced problems with Optimum/Cablevision.

Over the years I have been quite pleased with their customer service. The online, chat and even telephone assistance  has been prompt, friendly and successful.

However, now that we have cable lines down on our street, it is another story.

If you call, the online menu is designed to funnel you into a robotic answer. Unless you know to stonewall and continue saying “representative,” there is no option to speak with a person. And the system they have does not acknowledge that any problems can occur outside with their lines.

Once I got into the queue, it was so long that they offered a callback. But when I called back, they asked me again to indicate by the keypad whether I was on the line, whether I needed to actually speak to a person, or if I wanted to cancel the call.

I pressed the number request — but it didn’t work. So I waited until the end of all those options — and it still did not work.

Finally they told me I had used up all the time they allow for an answer. Just like that, they ended the call.

Net result: no customer service at all.

“06880” has heard from other Optimum customers that when their cable went out, they could not contact any actual human being (though their call was “very important” to the company). Some customers may still not have service. If you’ve had a recent experience with Cablevision — positive or negative — click “Comments” below.

Moments after sending me the story above, an Optimum repair truck appeared on Luisa Francoeur’s road. That’s the good news. The bad news is, they were there to fix her neighbor’s cable problem — not her own.

Maker Faire Makes Top 5%

There are Maker Faires all over the world.

New York has one. Rome, Paris, Beijing. Hong Kong too.

Westport’s got a Maker Faire — and a damn good one.

But what we also share with those much bigger cities is that all of them are in the top 5 percent of attendance globally.

That’s right. Of the 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, only 37 had more than 10,000 attendees.

Our “little” event on Jesup Green drew 10,500.

In addition to 10,500 attendees, last year’s Maker Faire drew plenty of robots.

That should give organizers a smile. And it may push you to apply to be part of this year’s Maker Faire. It’s Saturday, April 21.

The deadline is this Thursday (March 15). They’re looking for the usual: “artists, musicians, engineers, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, students, teachers, businesspeople, comedians, and creative people of all ages and backgrounds to inspire attendees with what we as humans can do.” Click here for more information.

And if you’re not creative, but have a company that wants to sponsor this very popular (top 5%!) event, contact Mark Mathias (mark@remarkablesteam.org, 203-226-1791).

Zenabi’s Brains & Bands

Zenabi is a Westport company. Their headquarters are in the old Town Hall — the stone building next to Restoration Hardware that’s also home to Jesup Hall and Rothbard + Larder restaurants.

I’m not quite sure what Zenabi does. A spokesperson says it’s a “new pioneering tech and artificial intelligence company that helps Fortune 500 companies find signals in their data that drive growth and value.”

Their website says that Fortune 500 companies trust them to “help understand and grow individual relationships.” They also “enable companies to scale their ability to personalize interactions and offers.”

A screenshot from the Zenabi website.

But wait! There’s more!

“Built on cutting edge technology,” Zenabi can “harness powerful science to extract signals and deploy real-time solutions.”

And on and on.

I am sure Zenabi — which is a modern-day company name meaning “????” — is very good at whatever it does. Whatever that is.

But while they’re finding signals, personalizing interactions and deploying real-time solutions, they also want to connect with the local community.

So mark your calendars for Thursday, March 8 (7 p.m., Christ & Holy Trinity Church).

Zenabi will host “Brains & Bands,” which a press release helpfully subtitles “A night to remember in Westport … an event unlike any other.” The release describes this as “some of the most brilliant minds in technology, business and music come together for an epic evening of inspiration and innovation…this self-proclaimed team of ‘Pirates’ and ‘Black Ops’ of the artificial intelligence world” — I guess that’s something else Zenabi is or does — “have the set the stage for titans of industry to share their paths to success with the local community.”

(“Black Ops” might be the right term. A web search for principals brings up a page with names like Michael Flynn and John Doe — and Latin “lorem ipsum dolor” filler in place of bios for all of them.)

The website goes on to describe the event as “documenting an autobiography of what makes an impact.” That sounds — um, something.

Brains & Bands’ “righteous speakers” — the press release’s words, not mine — include:

  • WSJ best-selling author James Altucher,
  • Emmy Award-winning Chris Fischer,
  • G2 investment group founder J. Todd Morley
  • Lead singer of the band Sponge Vin Dombroski

Well!

The press release says “these speakers will get candid about building a billion-dollar business, running the world’s largest Shark-Tagging research operation, and performing next to legendary bands like Kiss, Alice in Chains and Iggy Pop.”

One of these guys is apparently Vin Dombroski.

The CEO and founder of Zenabi — who, for some reason, is not named — says in the press release, “We’re merging the left and right brain at this event. I want people to know the most important thing you can do is take action in life. All you need is an idea and to carve your own path. We promise you’ll walk away with inspiration, ideas and having a good time.”

The event is free, and open to the public. Zenabi will collect donations there for Phoebe’s Phriends, which raises money for pediatric cancer research.

(There are 2 tiers beyond free — with all proceeds donated to charity. A $500 VIP pass offers “hours of influencer sessions, access to investors and mentors, access to B&B networking, join after parties + SWAG, access to future brains and bands media content movies and more.” A $1,500 Founders pass provides more than that, including “on-stage access.”)

To reserve tickets — free or paid — click here, or contact ellen@zenabidata.com. For more information, click here.

And if you’ve got a story on how Zenabi helped your company scale your ability to personalize interactions and offers, click “Comments” below.

Jimmy Izzo: Customers Are At A Crossroads

In 27 years at Crossroads Ace Hardware, Jimmy Izzo has seen a lot.

New homeowners move in. Jimmy and his staff help with everything they need: paint, mailboxes, garden supplies. He watches their kids grow up. When they get ready to downsize, Crossroads is there too.

It’s got a Main Street address. But — next to Coffee An’ — it’s not exactly downtown. It is, however, the perfect place to observe local retail trends.

Some of what’s happened to Crossroads Hardware is unique to Westport. Much of it is part of a national movement.

No one knows how it all will play out. Not even Jimmy Izzo. And it’s hard to find a more astute observer of everything Westport than the 1983 Staples High School graduate. (Though his father AJ — himself a Staples grad — might give Jimmy a run for his money.)

Jimmy Izzo prepares for the next snowstorm.

“Today we’re an information society,” Jimmy says. “You can pull out your phone, order anything online, and have it delivered to your home within 24 hours.”

That’s true of nearly everything Crossroads sells. Whether it’s a mop — which you can also buy at Stop & Shop or CVS — or a gas grill, customers have exponentially more options than before.

They often buy the most convenient way. Many times, that’s online.

Then they’ll give Crossroads a call. They need help assembling that grill, or they’ve got questions about how to use it.

Jimmy answers them all. He’ll even tell customers to order online, and ship to Crossroads; he’ll put it together, then deliver it (for a price). Customer service is something a local store does far better than the web.

“If you come in for a can of paint, you leave with a bucket, brush and knowledge,” Jimmy adds. “We make sure you have everything you need, even if you haven’t thought of it.”

Crossroads Hardware is the closest thing Westport has to an old-fashioned general store — a place where folks not only shop, but sit around a pot-bellied stove, tell stories, argue, complain, and solve all the problems of the world.

(There’s no stove, but you get the idea.)

Crossroads Ace Hardware, where customer service is king.

Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of place customers look for today.

“Younger people are searching for ‘experiences,'” Jimmy says. “They want to live where the action is. Look at the Avalon in Norwalk.”

Modern families with kids, meanwhile, run everywhere on weekends. Time once allotted to household chores and maintenance is often filled with travel sports.

“Parents are taking their kids everywhere, every weekend,” Jimmy explains. “We used to see them in here on Saturdays. Now they don’t even have time for that.”

Getting the word out about Crossroads — everything from services like tool sharpening, to products like shovels and ice melt before a snowstorm — has changed too.

The local papers are virtually non-existent. Jimmy relies much more on Facebook advertising and posts, and other social media.

A wintertime Facebook post by Jimmy Izzo reminds customers of what to do when bad weather strikes.

The future — for stores like his, and all of downtown — is “unknown,” Jimmy says. He sees empty stores downtown, and less foot traffic. Part of the reason is that old-time relationships — between landlord, tenant and community — have frayed. Many Main Street properties are owned by out-of-town conglomerates.

“Downtown is looking for ‘wow!'” Jimmy says. “The Gap is not ‘wow!'”

He gives Bedford Square — David Waldman’s new retail/residential complex that replaced the former YMCA — an “11 out of 10.” But the rest of downtown needs a spark, Jimmy says.

“Main Street isn’t dead. It’s just trying to figure out what it is.”

One answer may lie in business-to-business networking — stores handing out coupons or flyers for other stores, say, or Crossroads combining with a lamp shop for an event that teaches how to wire a lamp.

“You have to give the customer a reason to make your place a destination,”  he insists. “Customer loyalty changes instantly these days.”

The retail sweet spot, Jimmy says, is the customer between 30 and 55 years old, with kids in schools.

But they’re not wedded to Main Street — or even a once-essential destination like Crossroads Ace Hardware.

“With technology today, their options are limitless. No one has to shop in a store.”

But if you do buy that gas grill online, be sure to call Jimmy Izzo.

He’ll assemble it for you.

And then make sure you don’t light your entire yard on fire.

Rare Tesla 3 Purrs Into Town

Word on the street is that Westport has more Teslas than any other town in the state.

But only one is a Tesla 3.

That’s the new affordable electric sports sedan. After state and federal incentives, the Model 3 starts at $25,000, according to a press release from the Westport Green Task Force. (A Westporter who works for Tesla says the cost is actually $35,000 to $40,000.)

Over 180,000 people pre-ordered the car within 24 hours of its announcement last July.

Production is sluggish though. So far, only 2,500 have come off the line.

But Westporter Bruce Becker — an architect and member of the Westport Electric Car Club — took delivery of his on Monday. He says it’s one of only 3 Tesla 3s in Connecticut.

Becker brought his vehicle to Staples High School this afternoon. It was part of a “high tech show-and-tell” for interested students.

First Selectman Jim Marpe checks out Bruce Becker’s Tesla 3.

The event took place at Staples’ charging stations, outside the fieldhouse.

Becker calls Westport “a leader in the transition to electric vehicles — an important driver for environmental, public health and economic reasons.” He says that besides the highest per capita number of Teslas, our town also leads in per capita registration of all kinds of electric vehicles.

First Selectman Jim Marpe lent his support. Noting Westporters’ long support of sustainable solutions, he said, “The town is proud to support EV ownership through its network of public EV charging stations.”

Besides Staples, there are chargers at the library, Town Hall, train stations, and in a few commercial and private residential areas.

Electric vehicles lined up near Staples’ charging stations today (from left): Chevy Bolt, Tesla S, Volkswagen, Tesla X, Nissan Leaf,

Phil Levieff Is In The TecKnow

Phil Levieff takes his hands off his Tesla’s steering wheel. The self-driving car zooms up Sturges Highway. It avoids an oncoming vehicle. It does not crash into a mailbox on my (passenger) side.

We arrive safely at Levieff’s house. We get out in the driveway. The garage door opens. The car drives itself inside, and parks.

Phil Levieff

We walk around the back. Levieff talks into the air. The back door unlocks. We stroll inside. He commands the lights to go on. Instantly, they do.

Of course, there’s only so much that technology can do. Levieff has to light the logs in his fireplace himself.

But that’s about it. Levieff is an early adopter. His car and home are as cutting-edge as 2018 gets.

The house includes 177 connected devices, operating in 24 zones. His voice controls lights, locks, thermostats, TVs, music, security cameras, alarms, blinds, fans, garage doors, solar storage and irrigation.

But Levieff’s home is not just a one-off. His business —  TecKnow — works with leading tech companies to “build the home infrastructure of the future.” It’s an attic-to-basement, indoor-and-out service that customizes and integrates the best home automation technology for individual homeowners.

They design, install and program your “smart home ecosystem.”

And — this is key — they teach you how to use it.

Nearly everything in Phil Levieff’s living room — in fact, the entire house, inside and out — is interconnected, and voice-activated.

Think about how many features of your smartphone you don’t use — either because you have no idea they exist, or you can’t figure them out.

Now multiply that by an entire house: TVs, music, kitchen, HVAC. You may not understand it all.

But Levieff does.

A Tesla battery in the basement runs Phil Levieff’s entire house.

The 1988 Staples High School graduate has been a tech geek since his days  building the first networked gaming PCs. He spent 23 years working for Automatic Data Processing (ADP), leading sales, marketing and strategy teams.

Now he’s struck out on his own. All he has is an Apple Watch, Apple TV remote, iPhone, iPad, Mac, and a Dick Tracy-like, intriguingly technologically advanced home on the Westport-Fairfield border, where he lives and utters voice commands with his wife and 2 kids.

Well, okay. He’s also got a great logo. It suggests the power of a voice, a Wifi geofence and the sun to efficiently run a home.

And Levieff has clients, both for new construction and retrofits. He’s turned Robin Tauck’s new Old Mill home into a smart marvel. He’s working with other homeowners in the area, and Massachusetts. Oh, yeah: Ralph Lauren too.

Levieff has spent the past few months offering demos to builders, architects, brokers, developers and skilled workers.

“A lot of people have tried and failed in smart home technology,” he says.

He is adamant he won’t be one of those.

After all, when it comes to home ecosystems, Phil Levieff has the “tech know.”

TecKnow ties together every element of a smart house.