David Pogue is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Unlike most chocolate boxes though, with the Westport tech guru/writer/TV star/jack of all trades, there’s never anything you don’t like.
Yesterday, as part of his regular “CBS Sunday Morning” gig, Pogue poked behind the production of the world’s largest virtual choir.
How do 17,000-plus voices come together in perfect harmony? Click below.
Oh, yeah: Pogue himself was one of the performers. Were there any other Westport connections? If so, click “Comments” below.
Yesterday’s New York Times story on the Rio Grande Valley — where poverty and chronic illness compound the coronavirus — was sad and compelling.
It was made more powerful by the images that accompanied it. They were shot by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist (and 1991 Staples High School graduate) Lynsey Addario. As always, her images show far more than what is in the frame. Click here for the full Times story. (Hat tip: Kathie Motes Bennewitz)
Nurses surround a coronavirus patient moments after her death. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for the New York Times)
The Fresh Market ospreys continue to fascinate Westporters. Intrepid raptor-watcher Carolyn Doan reports that the 2 fledglings have fledged. Here’s one:
The Westport Library has reopened, with limited service. There’s an alternative, at 95 Kings Highway South.
Sure, the selection is limited. But you don’t have to worry about masks or crowds.
And finally … on this date in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk walk on the moon. Ten others have followed. The last 2 — Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt — made the journey in 1972.
A big chunk of my story was an introduction to Zoom, the video-chatting program that’s become a hero of the coronavirus crisis. It’s free and easy to use; the video’s very stable; it can accommodate up to 100 people on screen at once —and you can record the video meeting with a single click.
To demonstrate the possibilities, my producer arranged a historic first: All of “CBS Sunday Morning’s” correspondents on the screen simultaneously in a Zoom video. Even Jane Pauley, our host!
There’s David: top row, 2nd from left.
It was supposed to be a 5-minute deal. But it was so much fun, the call went on for over an hour. Even though we’re on the show week after week, most of us rarely meet in person.
(I’ll spare you the story of how the resulting huge video file somehow got corrupted and wasn’t openable … and how, panicking, I hunted down a Zoom PR person at midnight, who wrangled a company engineer into rescuing the file just in time for the broadcast.)
In my script I cited a new rule for the videochat era: Informal is the new normal. You’ll see kids, pets and untidy backgrounds in your video calls — and that’s all allowed now.
Imagine my delight and amusement then, when I interviewed neuropsychologist Sanam Hazeez — and in the middle, her twin 5-year-old boys burst into her office, crying. One had driven a truck over the other’s foot. (To be clear, it was a toy truck.) It was completely unplanned — but could not have made my point any better.
Well, except when Wilbur the Wonder Cat started pacing back and forth in front of my laptop camera during the interview.
Sheltering in place doesn’t mean you’re not allowed out of the house. My 3 kids are all home, of course. I corralled one of them into taking a walk with me beside the Bedford Middle School field, and another to pilot a Mavic Mini drone to film the scene. It came out great!
As it turns out, it’s even safe to meet friends face to face, as long as you maintain a decent distance. In hopes of finding examples to film, I posted a note on NextDoor.com. It’s kind of like a Facebook for neighborhoods, like Eastern Westport or whatever. (If you haven’t joined, you should. It’s free.)
Usually, NextDoor is full of lost-dog notices and “Can you recommend a plumber?” posts. But during the crisis it offers great social-distancing ideas, invitations to virtual gatherings, even a Help Map where you can see who needs errands or groceries, and you can volunteer.
My query led me first to a group of young women, all sent home from college, who gather in the parking lot of Weston Middle School, where they had been together years ago. They park their cars in a circle, sit on their trunks, 15 feet apart, and just hang out. It’s glorious. I filmed it from overhead, with my drone.
I also heard from Westport Library fundraiser Barbara Durham, who lives in an apartment building in Bridgeport. She told me that some evenings she gathers with her neighbors across the elevator lobby, each pulling a chair into her apartment doorway, for “Cocktails in the Foyer.” I drove over to film one of these wonderful social-distance parties.
I love how the story came out. I’m grateful to everyone who helped, who allowed me to film them, and who believed in the idea. (That includes my bosses at “CBS Sunday Morning,” who took a leap of faith in trusting me to deliver a story they wouldn’t see until it was finished.)
Once we’re allowed to be close to each other again, I’ll thank you all in person —with a tender, heartfelt elbow bump.
But enough about David’s back story. Click below for his piece — and Westport and Weston’s contribution to surviving in our new work-at-home world.
Alert reader/nationally known tech guru/writer/TV star/proud Westport parent David Pogue writes:
Last year at this time, I wrote a guest post for “06880” about the Hasbro North American School Scrabble Tournament. The huge, 2-day event for kids was in its 16th year. First prize for the middle-school division: $10,000.
The reason: Last year, my son Jeffrey — then a Bedford Middle School 7th grader — and his partner Noah won it.
This weekend, they went back to defend their championship.
The North American School Scrabble Championship competition.
There were reasons for optimism: The boys had had another year to prepare, playing Scrabble online every day and studying lists of obscure words.
On the other hand, their team — the Rackmasters — caught everyone by surprise last year. “They kind of came out of nowhere,” said Kevin Belinkoff, a play-by-play commentator (it’s live-streamed, so far-flung family can watch). “They weren’t one of the favored teams coming in, and did a tremendous job.”
Great! But that meant another “out of nowhere” team could sweep the tournament this year.
And of course, luck is a factor. If you get terrible letters — all vowels, for example— it’s hard to win.
This year’s event was held in a Marriott ballroom in Philadelphia. It did not start well. Jeffrey’s partner, Noah Slatkoff, lives in Canada. Thunderstorms canceled his flight. So Noah and his dad drove through the night — 7 1/2 hours — to get there on time.
Nonetheless, the Rackmasters dominated the 6 games of Day One. They defeated their opponents by huge margins (like 603 to 271!). That’s important, because in the event of a tied record at the end, the total point “spread” determines who advances to the finals, for all the marbles.
Jeffrey Pogue (right) and Noah Slatkoff, in the zone.
There weren’t as many marbles this year. Hasbro had a tough 2018 — the demise of Toys R Us hurt sales — and cost-cutting affected the Scrabble championship.
The top prize was $3,000, down from $10,000; the venue was an airport hotel instead of a sports stadium, and the opening party was a ghost of its traditional carnival-like self.
Nobody cared. A kids’ Scrabble tournament is a friendly affair, a chance to spend a weekend away from home, running around with fellow word nerds. It still felt thrilling and well-run.
Day Two did not begin well for our Rackmasters. They lost their first game by 7 points — their first championship loss in 2 years. Their opponents (the Scrabble All-Stars) drew some amazing tiles, including 3 incredibly useful “S”s, both of the blank tiles, and all of the high-point ones: J, X, Q, K, and Z.
The Rackmasters’ 1st loss in 2 years was livestreamed.
Our boys were no longer undefeated, nor in first place. Their spirits crashed.
When they won their next game though, their record was 7-1, tied with the All-Stars and another team. Who would advance to the final, against the sole 8–0 team?
Rackmasters! Their huge point spread from the previous day ensured them a place at the big table onstage.
Their opponents — the Dyslexic Manic Shop — weren’t strangers. One boy had been Jeffrey’s partner 2 years ago at this event.
The final game was brilliant. First one team pulled ahead, then the other, over and over again. Parents and players, sequestered in a different room and watching by video, shrieked and applauded each play.
As usual in high-level Scrabble, many of the plays were not common English words (oolite, scry, haj awa …).
As the letters ran out, Jeffrey and Noah faced a tough call. They could play “ixia” for 39 points (as everyone knows, that’s a South African plant of the iris family), or “xis” for 19 (the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet).
They played the lower-scoring word.
It was strategic. They figured on their next turn they could add an A, forming “axis,” thus harvesting all 8 points of that X tile a second time. That A could also be a part of a new word going down — and landing on the juicy Triple Word Score tile in the lower-left corner.
That’s exactly what happened. The Rackmasters won — for the 2nd straight year.
It will be their last victory. Next month, Jeffrey graduates from Bedford. As a Staples freshman he’ll no longer be eligible for the middle school division. That’s the main event, with big cash prizes and the most participants. In the high school division, you play alone.
The winners: Jeffrey Pogue and Noah Slatkoff.
It’s time for the next generation of Westport Scrabble champions to emerge. Jeffrey got involved (and met his partner Noah) through Cornelia Guest, a national Scrabble figure. She runs a weekly club at the Ridgefield Library, where she teaches, coaches and nurtures young players. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.)
Jeffrey also plays at weekly Scrabble Club meetings at the Pequot library in Southport, closer to home.
Jeffrey highly recommends Scrabble clubs to your kids (so does his dad). It’s a full-brain activity, requiring skills in language, math and strategy. It’s non-electronic and tactile. It’s social. And it’s every bit as exciting as any sporting event.
For Jeffrey there are benefits far beyond prizes, trophies and thrilling weekends in Philly. For the rest of his life, should the conversation ever turn to Greek letters or South African flowering plants, he’ll be ready.
One of the highlights of the holiday season — far better than fruitcake, much less stressful than holiday parties — is Techno Claus.
That’s “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s annual present to viewers. “Santa” — who for some reason has a New York-ish accent — offers viewers a whimsically rhyming musical look into some of the season’s more intriguing high-ish tech items.
It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that Techno Claus is really David Pogue.
His clever patter and fun piano playing are no surprise. The nationally known tech writer/journalist/author/TV star majored in music at Yale, then spent his first 10 years after graduation working in New York, with a theatrical agency, and as a conductor and arranger on Broadway.
Pogue is also a longtime Westporter. Yesterday’s gift to viewers had a decidedly local flavor.
Nearly all of the scenes were filmed at his house: inside, in front and out back.
The only other locale was Granola Bar. That was for a segment on a reusable straw. Okay, it’s not exactly high tech — but it is important.
Click below to see Pogue’s Santa’s take on a speaker with scents; a spy camera for pets (it dispenses treats too); a keyboard for phones, and a wallet with tracker.
The other day, David Pogue — the tech writer (Yahoo, New York Times, Scientific American), TV correspondent (“CBS News Sunday Morning,” PBS “Nova Science Now”) and author (“Missing Manual” series, “Pogue’s Basics”) — reported a Tesla story.
Pogue is also a devoted Westporter. He decided to localize his piece, exclusively for “06880.” After all, our town is (supposedly) the Tesla capital of Connecticut. He writes:
These days, we’re seeing a lot of Teslas on Westport streets. And no wonder: These electric cars are gorgeous, fast, and unbelievably smart. They’re far better for the environment than internal-combustion cars. You never need gas. There’s no engine and no transmission, so there are no oil changes, tuneups, or emissions checks. You get a total of $10,500 from the state and federal government, in cash and tax credits, to help you buy one.
And in Westport, there are free charging stations all over town — in the sweetest electric-car-only parking spots.
But every time you see a Tesla in Westport, remember that its owner drove to Mount Kisco, New York to get it.
That’s right: You’re not allowed to buy a Tesla in Connecticut.
Robin Tauck’s Tesla license plate sends a message.
Connecticut and 15 other states have an ancient law on the books. It bans a car maker from selling directly to the public, as Tesla stores do.
The law was designed 80 years ago to protect local franchises — the traditional car-dealership model — from having to compete with stores opened by the car makers themselves. Local Ford dealerships, for example, didn’t want Ford to open its own store across the street and run them out of business.
Of course, the law never envisioned a car company, like Tesla, that didn’t use the franchise system. (Why doesn’t Tesla use the normal local-franchise dealership model? It believes that electric cars require more explaining and patience than a traditional dealer would bother with.)
A number of states have recognized the anachronism and overturned the ban—but not Connecticut. Every time the ban comes up for a vote in our state legislature, our legislators continue keeping Tesla out of the state.
That’s a result of lobbying work by CARA (Connecticut Auto Retailers’ Association). “They’ll be the legislators’ best friends,” says Bruce Becker, president of the Electric Vehicle Club of Connecticut. “What some dealers do is, they’ll actually man the campaigns. They’ll have a campaign headquarters in their dealerships. There’s one dealer who’s actually running the campaign for someone who’s running for governor.”
He says that there’s a simple reason why car dealers want to keep Tesla out: because electric cars threaten their profits. Car dealerships make most of their money on service (3 times as much profit as they get from selling cars, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association). And as noted above, electric cars require almost no service.
“You’ve got these entrenched special interests that have really pushed hard, and they seem to be more entrenched every year, because they see the risks to them personally,” Westport state senator Toni Boucher told me. “There’s such an enormous amount of opposition.”
20 Saugatuck Avenue was considered recently as a site for a Tesla service center.
So what’s the result? Connecticut loses jobs, sales, and property tax to surrounding states.
“This is the unfortunate thing about CT politics: So much energy goes into creating these monopolies and protecting and limiting trade, as opposed to innovating and creating a more efficient economy,” says Becker.
I did a deep dive on this topic in my Yahoo Finance column this week. I interviewed not only Bruce Becker and Toni Boucher, but also Westport’s state representative Jonathan Steinberg; Tesla’s head counsel Todd Maron, and car-dealership lobbyist Jim Fleming, president of the CT Auto Retailers’ Association.
It’s a surprisingly fraught, sensitive, contentious issue, filled with back-room deals and arguments on both sides about what’s best for the consumer.
Meanwhile, next time you see a Tesla driving by, nod in acknowledgment to the trip its owner took to Mount Kisco.
Before he became a famous New York Times/CBS/Yahoo/PBS technology expert, David Pogue was a musical theater geek. Fun facts: His Yale degree is in music, and he spent his early year conducting and arranging Broadway musicals.
So it didn’t take Einstein to enlist Pogue — a Westport resident — as moderator of this Sunday’s TEA (Thinkers, Educators, Artists) Talk (October 21, 2 p.m., Town Hall).
Nor was it a quantum leap to design a theme (“The Arts Go Viral!”) or find speakers like Jerry Goehring, (producer of the off-Broadway musical “Be More Chill,” which became a hit on viral media), and pianist/arts educator/ Westporter Frederic Chiu to dive into the pros and cons of how technology affects art (and vice versa).
But it is a stroke of genius that Sunday marks the official launch of Otocast. It’s a mobile tour app that lets any Westporter or visitor explore our town’s long arts, cultural and historic sites.
Like Sunday’s TEA Talk, Otocast is a project of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. First unveiled in a soft launch at this summer’s Arts Festival, it’s now ready for prime time.
Otocast — available free for iPhones or Androids — includes audio, photos and info on a wide range of interesting sites. Location-based, it shows users whatever is closest to where they are.
Three separate “guides” are already live.
“Downtown Westport” offers details on Town Hall, Veterans Green, the Tunnel Vision arts installation, Westport Historical Society, Main Street, Saugatuck River, Jesup Green, the library, Levitt Pavilion, Westport Woman’s Club, Westport Country Playhouse and more.
“Our Creative Community” provides information on theater, film, non-profit organizations, schools and many other groups.
“From Saugatuck to Riverside” covers Westport’s original center, all the way to the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.
Westport artist Robert Lambdin’s “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” is the kind of artwork that can be seen — and heard about — on Otocast.
The app blends audio commentary (from well-known voices like 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, natives like Sam Gault and others) with maps, photos and artwork.
It draws extensively on Westport Public Art Collections. Users learn, for example, of Howard Munce’s Remarkable Book Shop painting, and one of the old Westlake restaurant. They hear about — and see — art at Town Hall, Fire Department headquarters, the Parks & Recreation office, and of course Westport schools.
They learn about the history of the Doughboy statue on Veterans Green, and the nearby Honor Roll — a painting of which hangs in 1st Selectman Jim Marpe’s office.
Stevan Dohanos’ “Honor Roll” painting has a place of honor in Town Hall. Now it’s on Otocast too.
They also watch a video of Sally’s Place — the beloved record shop — and see changing views of Main Street. They listen to Charles Reid talk about Famous Artists School.
Two more Otocast guides are in the works: one on Westport’s Natural Beauty (Compo Beach, mini-parks, Earthplace, the Saugatuck River, with compelling artwork from the 1930s through now), and one focused exclusively on the WESTPac collection.
Otocast is the perfect app for residents and visitors to tour Westport. Of course, you can also download it and enjoy it in the comfort of your home.
It’s great too for former Westporters, relatives who live elsewhere, and anyone anywhere in the world who wants to visit us virtually.
In other words, Otocast is a superb mix of art and technology. Just like Sunday’s TEA Talk.
(For more information on the TEA Talk, click here. To download the app, search for Otocast on the App Store or Google Play.)
Alert “06880” reader/tech guru/proud father David Pogue writes:
When I grew up in Cleveland, my parents regularly brought out the familiar Scrabble set — 100 letter tiles in a bag — as a family activity.
But competitive Scrabble is a different world, and around here, Cornelia Guest is the doorway into it. She’s a Scrabble champion in her own right, a real aficionado, and she runs a weekly Scrabble club at the Ridgefield library. Over the years, she’s cultivated a number of Scrabble champions.
My older son Kell joined her club for a couple of years. That’s how we discovered the Hasbro North American School Scrabble Championship, an annual 2-day tournament for middle and high schoolers. (There’s a Rubik’s Cube championship held concurrently.)
My youngest son, Jeffrey, is 13 and a 7th grader at Bedford Middle School. Last year he entered the Championship in Boston; he and his partner came in 10th. “I was a bit upset that I didn’t do as well as I hoped,” he says. (Yes, I interviewed my own kid for this story.)
“But I also learned what it’s like, and how to study and practice. This year I studied a lot more. I used a study program called Zyzziva.”
Only months before the North American Championship, Jeffrey found himself without a partner. “Cornelia has a lot of contacts in the Scrabble world. She found Noah Slatkoff, a Canadian kid. In a previous tournament he placed 2nd in his division against a bunch of adults.”
Jeffrey met him online, via Skype. The video didn’t work for the first month or so, so Jeffrey never knew what his partner looked like. But they screen-shared, and played online games of Scrabble a couple of times a week.
Jeffrey Pogue (right) and Noah Slatkoff.
Jeffrey says that their skills matched up nicely. “Noah is really good at getting us out of sticky situations — like if there are a few tiles that are hard to fit onto the board, he’ll find a place to play them — whereas I like finding high-point plays. So if we have, like, the W or the F tiles, which are worth 4 points each, I try to find a place to play them where they’ll be worth 30 points.”
Incredibly (to me), the 2 boys never met in person until they arrived at the Championship in Philly past this weekend.
It’s an unbelievable event. Hasbro runs it (the ulterior motive is probably to foster a new generation of Scrabble fans). But it’s warm, well-run, and spirited. It feels like a friendly sort of nerd Olympics.
Hanging out at the North American Championship.
The event was held at Lincoln Field, where the Eagles play. Not on the field itself (Scrabble isn’t that popular), but on the mezzanine areas inside the stadium. Huge banks of tables are set up with Scrabble boards, score sheets, and timing clocks.
Family members sit in a different area, so we can’t watch the games. But during each of the 9 rounds, we can watch one particular game — the matchup of 2 current leaders, for example — on big screens mounted through the area. There’s an overhead camera for the board, a manned TV camera trained on the players, and sneaky little surface cameras to show the players’ Scrabble racks.
Jeffrey and Noah in mid-match. Note the chyron at the bottom of the screen.
Professional commentators deliver play-by-play, just like on ESPN. It’s amazing. “Oooooh, that’s a brilliant play! They managed to dump those extra vowels, and landed on the triple-word score square. Now the Scrabbula team is at a huge disadvantage. The only question is, will they realize that ‘outgets’ is not actually in the Scrabble dictionary? Will they challenge?” And so on.
By the end of the first day, the Rackmasters — the Jeffrey-Noah team — had won all 6 of their matches. Undefeated! We, their parents, were freaking out.
“Before every single game, Noah and I got really nervous,” Jeff says. “A lot of the players are older than us. ‘Oh no, these opponents look scary! Do you think we can do this?’ And when we finally realized, ‘Wait a minute, we’re going to the finals!,’ we both got really excited. It was crazy.”
As Day 1 ends, Hasbro throws a huge party for the competitors and their families: face painting, a DJ, dancing, sketch artists, giant Jenga towers, Nerf football toss, food for all the competitors. Suddenly the competition is forgotten, and they’re all just kids. It’s kind of awesome.
On Day 2, Sunday, there are 2 more matches. Each new opponent is tougher than the one before. The Rackmasters had won Game 6 by only 27 points. It seemed improbable that our boys could sustain their incredible momentum.
But sure enough they won Game 7, and then Game 8, guaranteeing a slot in the final playoff.
This final game pairs the top 2 teams. It’s winner take all. Doesn’t matter what your record is from the weekend so far; whoever wins this game wins the $10,000 first prize.
The tournament is livestreamed online, so Jeffrey and Noah’s far-flung relatives and friends all tuned in to watch. These kids are so advanced, you probably wouldn’t even recognize half of what they played as words. Aurei? Tavs? Agee? Ferin? Zori?
After 45 minutes of intellectual battle, the Rackmasters played their last tile, signifying the end of the game.
Jeffrey and Noah’s final board. How many of these words do you know?
“At first my brain didn’t register it,” Jeffrey says. “We shook hands with the other team, and the room was really quiet for a bit. Then we’re like, ‘Oh wait — we have a few more points than they do! We… WON!’ I gave Noah a little hug. It was crazy. My mind was racing.”
His mind, but my heart. The competition was thrilling to see (you can watch the final match online here), and of course I’m proud enough to burst. These kids really worked for it — Jeffrey sat on the couch, night after night for weeks, teaching himself every possible 7-letter word from the 300 most commonly-drawn sets of tiles — and it’s my hope that they’ll take away some good lessons in the value of preparation, good sportsmanship, even money management. (Jeffrey plans to invest some of his $5,000 share and give some to charity.)
In the meantime, Cornelia welcomes anyone in grades 3 to 8 to join the club, which meets at Ridgefield Library every Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. (Email her at email@example.com for details.)
Who knows? Maybe one day soon, it could be your kid scoring 126 points for QUIXOTRY or MUZJIKS at the North American Scrabble Championship.
In the summer of 2016, over 500 people had their “geek moment” at the Westport Library.
Talented family and portrait photographer Pam Einarsen snapped them, as they held or wore objects identifying their particular passions. The “I Geek…” project portrayed an astonishing array of talents and interests, all of which the library encourages and helps us fulfill.
Among our geeks: human biology, burgundy, Harry Potter, Greek Islands, Toquet Hall, astronomy, break dancing, coffee, archery, knitting, astronomy, the Green Bay Packers, folk music, dragons, baking, and sleeping.
It all ended with a big party. The Great Hall was filled with food, entertainment — and Pam’s compelling portraits.
Now she’s at it again.
This time, when library users sit for their photos, they’re asked for 3 descriptors. Pam’s images, and those self-identifying phrases, are then shared on the library’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.
David Pogue says “I am a dad. A showoff. A softie.” (Photo/Pam Einarsen)
It’s part of the library’s goal — in the midst of its Transformation project — for folks to imagine how the library can help them, in entirely new ways.
“What are you passionate about?” library director Bill Harmer says the “I Am…” campaign is asking.
“And how can we work together, with you and your passions, in this great new space?”
Mary Brown’s “I Am…” photo on Instagram. She says she is “an art historian, obsessed with music, and a Fireball Island master.” (Photo/Pam Einarsen)
The new library, Harmer adds, is “all about building community, and creating spaces where human beings can interact.”
More photo sessions will be scheduled soon. Check the library website for details.
Hey — it’s me! To find out my 3 descriptors, you’ll have to wait until the library posts this on social media. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)
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