Category Archives: technology

High-Tech Toy Needs Beta Testers

At first glance, FlairFriends looks low-tech: a keychain, like the kind every kid has on her backpack.

But this is 2018. Your refrigerator knows you’re running low on milk. Your doorbell can talk to an intruder.

So when you hear that FlairFriends is the brainchild of Westporter designer Alli DiVincenzo and her tech partner Geoff Meek — developer of the original Guitar Hero — you’ll realize that it’s not just a decorative fashion trend.

Every FlairFriend comes with a unique code. Typed into the FlairWorld app, it unlocks 3 things:

  • That particular character’s animation, voice and story
  • An education adventure around Flair World, and
  • A social connector.

That last part is particularly cool. When a child shares the code, and someone else scans it into his or her account, they’re connected.

Friends who are connected in the app can compare collections, and show where they’ve traveled around FlairWorld and how they like to decorate their online “rooms.”

It’s a safe, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act-compliant online connection. These real-world friendships and interactions teach younger children positive digital behavior — before they’re exposed to the social networks designed for older youngsters.

Kids like to play — with high- and low-tech toys. Check out those FlairFriends! (Photo/Irene Penny)

Sound complicated? “Kids these days get it,” Alli says. “They were born with devices in their hands.”

By age 4, there is “almost universal” exposure to screens and apps. But, Alli says, very few toys bridge “the gap between real-world playing and wholesome online gaming.”

She, Geoff and Staples High School interns spent several years developing FlairFriends. It was released late last month for iPads.

Now that the beta testing phase is underway, Alli needs “play testers” (ages 4 “to 104”), to try it for free and provide feedback. Click here for details.

Meanwhile, Alli and  Geoff headed to the Dallas Toy Preview. That’s an important part of FlairWorld — and the real tech/toy one too.

Now Hear This!

Alert “06880” reader Dick Lowenstein writes:

I did not know I was hard of hearing until my uncle asked me to face away from him at the end of the hall in my grandmother’s apartment. He asked me questions to which I did not respond. I was 6 years old.

Doctor visits and hearing tests, followed by experimental radium and X-ray treatments, until finally what made a difference: lip reading and speech lessons.

Not until I was a 16-year-old high school senior did I get a hearing aid. That helped me comprehend college lectures. I wore that pendant receiver around my neck, with an earpiece to transmit amplified sounds, reluctantly.

As time progressed my hearing worsened. But technology progressed, and the aids became smaller. I went to binaural (both ears) aids built into my eyeglass template pieces, and finally to behind-the-ear models that I wear today. I function pretty well with them, but not in wartime or water!

New technology — better than what I currently use — is now here. Bluetooth and cell phone captioning are 2 examples. This Tuesday (October 2, 11 a.m., Westport Senior Center) the local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America sponsors a presentation on these new technologies.

The event is free, open to the public — and captioned.

(For more information, email mczola@optonline.net)

A Bluetooth hearing aid is indistinguishable from other Bluetooth devices.

Listen Up!

In May, “06880” highlighted the life of Mike Joseph.

After a long career as a  recording engineer, record producer and club designer — he collaborated in Nat King Cole’s Hollywood studio with Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Blue Cheer and others — the 1971 Staples High School graduate built a production studio in his Kansas City home. He digitizes vintage analog tapes: concerts, weddings, lectures. And — of course — old music recordings.

Most readers thought “that’s interesting” (or “who cares?”).

Jane Nordli Jessep said, “Wow! I wonder what he can do with my tapes?”

Jane Nordli, back in the day.

For decades, a dozen old reel-to-reel tapes had sat in the 1965 Staples grad’s cabinet.

Years ago, she tried to turn them into CDs. She was told they were all gummed up, unplayable — forget it.

One of the tapes was from her days as a Manhattan School of Music student. “My singing career was very spotty,” she says. “So this meant a lot to me. And it was really a fantastic performance by the entire cast.”

Wondering if she really could revisit the past, she emailed Joseph. He said he might be able to help. He told her how to pack up the tapes, and where to send them.

Mike listened to everything. Some had old family moments, from Jane’s childhood. Another came from her senior year at Staples High School, singing folk songs with then-boyfriend Steve Emmett. (“And generally being silly, young and foolish!” she adds.)

Joseph worked his magic on those tapes — including the conservatory one. He converted them all into great CDs.

Listening to the “new” recording of her 1976 Manhattan School of Music performance of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” Jane says, “I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, vocally and dramatically.” Several cast members, she notes, went on to important performing careers.

“Thank you for sharing Mike’s story,” Jane says. “Your post ended up generating a wonderful, unexpected delight in one of your reader’s lives.”

“06880”‘s tagline is “where Westport meets the world.” Maybe it should be “the soundtrack of Westport’s life.”

Jane Nordli in “Street Scene,” one of the recordings Mike Joseph resurrected for her.

Rising Talent Records At Studio 8

You won’t find Brody Braunstein in Westport this week. He’s in Australia, singing and touring with Staples High School’s elite Orphenians.

Music is the rising junior’s passion. He is also a member of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir, has sung at Carnegie Hall, and is lead singer for the popular band Kill the Chill.

In addition to singing, Brody plays piano, keyboard and guitar. He’s taken college classes in music production software. He’s a published songwriter. And he built a sound studio in his house.

Yet Brody understands that he can’t work creatively alone.

“Technology is great. It’s pretty much given everyone access to the tools they need to make music,” he says.

Brody Braunstein

“But just like in real life, technology in music can be isolating. You’ve got all these amazingly talented aspiring artists sitting in their bedrooms creating music on Garage Band. There’s access, but no connection to other people. No give and take.”

A few months ago, Brody heard Edge say that much of U2’s early creative process took place in the recording studio. The band went in with a vague idea and rudimentary tracks — and emerged with something they loved.

Unfortunately, Edge noted, that does not happen much today. Studio time is too expensive.

Brody — who realizes how lucky he is to have so many resources — had a flash of inspiration.

The result: Studio 8.

It’s a not-for-profit collaborative recording studio for teens. And run by teens.

No, it’s not a full, professionally equipped studio. But it has everything a young artist needs to record, mix and master their music.

It also has Brody to help.

And it’s free.

Brody Braunstein, at work in his home studio.

It’s also just one part of what Brody does. This fall, he’ll begin working with youngsters at KEYS. The Bridgeport organization provides music education to underserved communities.

It’s an amazing group, as Brody knows from previous experience. He’ll work with the choir this year — and hopes he can get them to record in Studio 8.

Meanwhile, Brody invites young people in the area to lay down tracks, test out a new piece, flesh out a cover or record something for a college portfolio.

He’s also looking for videographers, social media experts and sound editors (especially those into rap or EDM) to join Studio 8.

Brody is Down Under until July 21. Once he’s back, you can reach him by email: Studio8Collaborative@gmail.com.

(Studio 8 is free — but donations to the KEYS program are gratefully accepted. Use Brody’s email above for more information.)

Charles Adler Gets His Degree

The last time “06880” checked in with Charles Adler, the 1992 Staples High School grad was a co-founder of Kickstarter.

Since 2009, 6.4 million users have used the online platform to pledge over $2 billion, funding more than 75,000 creative projects in areas ranging from film, music and stage to comics, journalism, video games, technology and food.

Adler left Kickstarter in 2013. Five years later — still in his early 40s — he’s the recipient of an honorary degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

That’s impressive.

Even more impressive is that this is his only college degree.

That’s right: Adler is a college dropout.

He left Purdue University — where he was studying mechanical engineering — to co-found Subsystence (an online music, photography, art, poetry and fiction site), and the design and technology studio Source ID.

Then came Kickstarter — and Forbes’ designation of Adler as one of the 12 Most Disruptive Figures in Business.

Since 2013, Adler created and developed Lost Arts, an interdisciplinary laboratory, workshop, atelier, incubator, school and playground occupying 25,000 square feet on Chicago’s Goose Island.

Now comes the honorary degree from IIT — a doctorate, no less — in recognition of Adler’s “outstanding contributions to the field of design.”

Charles Adler, with his honorary degree.

Growing up in Westport more than 25 years ago, Adler recalls, he was interested in architecture — and passionate about electronic music, punk rock, skateboarding and cycling.

College was not right for him. He tried a second time — because he needed an undergrad degree before entering a graduate design program that interested him — but again he dropped out.

So, parents of Westport students who may not be taking a traditional path during or after Staples: Don’t worry.

Your kid too might one day earn an honorary degree, even if he or she lacks a college diploma.

They just might need a kick start.

[OPINION] Ugly Cables Mar Westport

Marliese Aguele — a Westporter since 1980 — writes:

How many more cables must we accept? On one post alone, I counted 16.

Major communication companies have installed heavy cables. Wrapped around them are additional rolled-up cables, adding more weight with metal tanks and other contraptions.

Cables are attached to leaning poles that threaten to collapse. Other cables droop dangerously low.  Who gives them the right to hang those cables so low?

Last month, these cables hung low on South Compo Road. (Photo/Morgan Mermagen)

Why does the town accept sloppy workmanship? Doesn’t anyone take responsibility for what happens here?

We can no longer enjoy an unobstructed view of the sky. Cables crisscross from street to street, and house to house.

When I asked about this, I was told they’re mandated by the state. I doubt it. Greenwich does not allow cables.

I’ve also learned that the town receives sizable revenue from these companies.

We’ve been sold out by our elected leaders, to technology and greed. Our trust in our representatives to be good stewards for town residents has been betrayed. The charm of Westport is destroyed.

Anyone with a sense of aesthetics must agree. Visitors to Westport must be astounded.

Cables crisscross the crowded Post Road/Roseville/Hillspoint intersection.

Westport citizens must demand that unacceptable cables be removed. We also must demand an ordinance to ensure responsibility and accountability of our elected representatives. Stop this now!

Is Marliese alone in her concern? Do the benefits of cables outweigh how they look? Click “Comments” below.

Scammed! (Part 3)

In 2012, “06880” profiled Larry Perlstein. The longtime Westporter wanted to make a difference, in an uncertain economy.

The next year, with continued difficulty finding a job, he formed a consulting practice. In 2014 he added teaching duties at Pace University.

Life stabilized. But in February 2017 his wife Jacquie Marumoto — just 49 — suffered a stroke. When she returned home after 6 months in the hospital, Larry became her full-time caregiver, and parent to their 10-year-old daughter. He took on small paid and pro bono projects.

Larry Perlstein and his wife Jacquie Marumoto.

Last August, he received an email from a firm like those with whom he’d done focus groups and market research. The offer was simple: Help Western Union evaluate their operations at 2 nearby locations.

Perlstein would receive instructions and a check by mail. He’d take out his fee, send a Moneygram to 2 people, then complete a survey on his experience.

Perlstein is well educated, and tech savvy. He knows about financial scams and cybercrime.

But this request was well executed. The instructions were professional. He texted with the contacts offering the work.

Still, he was uneasy when he got the first package, with a $2700 check. He told a Citibank teller the check might bounce. She suggested calling customer service.

A representative told him the deposit had cleared. Perlstein completed the tasks. He was pleased: He figured he made $300, for an hour’s work.

Four days later, he got a letter from Citibank. The check had been returned as “Fictitious.” He was out $2,700.

The Post Road West branch manager told him that endorsing a check releases the bank from any liability.

Perlstein reported the scam to the FTC, FBI and state government. An attorney said that recovering the funds from the bank would be futile.

Undeterred, he sued Citibank in small claims court. The case is scheduled for June 29. Perlstein will argue that the bank had a responsibility — if not a legal liability — to protect its customer’s interests. They betrayed that trust by not advising him of the vagaries of check deposits — even when told twice of concerns about the check’s validity.

He hopes that telling this story will raise awareness of the scam. After writing about it on Facebook, he heard several similar tales. All but one person had been too embarrassed to tell anyone of their loss.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is,” Perlstein notes.

“Don’t rely on any institution to protect your interests. Educate yourself. And if you fall prey, don’t beat yourself up. Scammers are sophisticated. They take advantage of any vulnerability.” You can visit the FTC website for more scam information.

Perlstein suffered another blow earlier this month: His 87-year-old father died suddenly.

These days, Perlstein is focusing on his family. And — at a time when he needs it — he thanks everyone who supported a GoFundMe campaign covering his wife’s medical and rehabilitation costs.

Schools’ Innovation Fund Completes Successful 1st Year

Within days of announcing a new Innovation Fund last year, applications poured in to the Westport School District.

Students, staff, even community members were encouraged to submit ideas that foster new ways of thinking, and nurture creativity. The $50,000 fund covered equipment, time and resources that fell outside the normal education budget.

The school year is now over. The totals are in: More than 600 students and 2 dozen teachers, in every Westport school, have been impacted by the Innovation Fund.

Partnerships were established with the Westport Library, Westport Historical Society, world renowned artists and experts, and 2 Bridgeport high schools.

Students worked as scientists, anthropologists, historians, programmers, event planners, marketers, bloggers and live remote broadcasters. Teachers participated as researchers, data collectors and analysts.

Projects included:

Digital Portfolios. 2nd graders at Saugatuck Elementary School shared writing, art, music and more with each other using an app called Seesaw.

Composers Workshop. Sean O’Loughlin worked with middle school orchestra students to compose 3 pieces of music. They Skyped and met in person, then performed together in May. Students wrote about the process, and its impact on them.

Michele Anderson rehearses her Bedford students. Composer Sean O’Loughlin watches in the background, via Skype.

Google Expeditions. Students in various schools explored international museums, undersea caves and outer space using the fully outfitted Google Expedition Kit.

Hollywood Movie Music Production. Local recording artist/musician Andrew Smith worked with Kings Highway Elementary, Bedford Middle and Staples High Schools in movie music production, recording and editing. The final project is a queue written at a professional studio, performed, recorded and edited by students.

Saugatuck Story Festival. Coming this fall: 2 Staples teachers are working with the Westport Library on a 3-day literary festival and writing conference. It will show real-world applications of reading and writing, and involve well-known authors.

Think, Make, Innovate With Drones. Middle school students work after school and in summer programs, using coding software and drones to solve real-world challenges, and explore future uses of technology.

Grant applications are now open for the 2018-19 school year. Any Westport student, staff member or resident is eligible. The deadline is August 4. For more information and the application form, click here.

Penelope And Olivia: 4th Grade National Inventors

Alert “06880” reader Nico Eisenberger hesitated to write. 

“There are plenty of kids’ achievements to celebrate here in Westport in our highly competitive, educated, and uber-connected town (many of them much, much more noteworthy, some of them maybe a bit too competitive at times),” he said. 

Yet, he added:

I’ve just returned from the National Invention Convention & Entrepreneurs’ Exposition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan with my daughter Penelope. She is 10, and attends Greens Farms Elementary School.

She and Olivia Cohn were selected as national finalists in this international competition for inventors.

They both walked away with medals. Olivia took first for all 4th graders, and also received the “I See Her Invent” award from CA Technologies for her “Happy Ride” solution for rear seat car sickness.

Penelope took first in the “Invent Her Future Award” from the Society of Women Engineers for her “Retainer Container,” a tabletop retainer case disguised as an ordinary drinking glass coaster.

That means our Westport 4th graders were 2 of only 50 kids to receive national awards out of 108,000 inventor participants, representing 7 countries.

Penelope Eisenberger and Olivia Cohn, proudly wear their medals.

But that’s not what I am writing about.

Of the many wonderful things that came out of this experience, what stands out the most is the amount of support we all experienced from folks in Westport and neighboring towns.

Penelope’s retainer container, 3D-printed by Ethan Klein.

Beyond the countless teachers, fellow students, family members, local crafts people, shopkeepers and neighbors who helped both Olivia and Penelope develop and refine their invention (for no money in almost every instance), we also had some heartwarming competitor-to-competitor collaboration as well.

Penelope’s invention was significantly impacted by meeting Fairfield 9th grader, 3D printing expert and budding entrepreneur Ethan Klein at Westport’s Maker’s Fair this spring.

He showed her how to print her Retainer Container. Together they refined its shape and design.

He was so infected by her excitement about the invention process that he decided to compete in the contest himself. He too was selected as a national finalist, and won 2 prestigious awards.

Ethan Klein and Penelope Eisenberger

We also met a mother and daughter (Olivia Taylor) from Easton, who presented in the booth next to us. When we discovered 5 minutes before judging began that her presentation materials were missing key required information, they pulled out glue, cardboard and paper, and fixed her up a solution right there.

In addition, Neil Cohn and his family helped show us the way to secure a patent for Penelope’s invention.  We helped each other get to the national convention. There the girls were inseparable companions, as they navigated their way with 450 other smart and creative finalists of all shapes, sizes and ages.

This is all little stuff — one might even say stuff that should be ordinary human, neighborly decency. And it should.

But it stood out, at least for me, in our time of increasing atomization of communities, addiction to devices, political division, and get-ahead-at-all-cost-ism, that it was folks from Westport and neighboring towns who stood up when the need arose, and made this experience so special.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

With all the scams around — I posted a story yesterday about one Westporter’s experience, and another a few weeks ago — it would be great if someone could write a guide to the most common ones.

Wait! Someone already did!

And not just “someone” — but Westport’s own David Pogue.

His piece was published by Yahoo in 2015. Sadly, many of the scams are still around — and still working.

Click here for the full story.

PS: Despite a few heated comments yesterday — by people who resented being asked to give $1 to help the victim of an email hacking scan — “06880” readers responded generously.

As of 9 this morning, they’d donated over $3,000 toward the $6,200 goal.