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WNY Civic Hackathon, October 10 & 11

In light of the hubbub about Ahmed, his clock, all the national attention to this blog – and in the spirit of actually encouraging inventiveness and returning to a local focus here – it was perfect timing that this press release crossed my desk. I felt compelled to share, this sounds like a really cool event!

The WNY Civic Hackathon is coming up on October 10 & 11. It’ll be a gathering of local inventors, makers and tech enthusiasts who will form teams and tackle civic-minded problems like housing blight, transportation, and advocacy using technological solutions. $3500 in prizes are up for grabs at this free event – but if you’re interested in participating, make sure to register by October 5th, there’s a 200 participant limit. Visit the website at or read the whole press release below for details:


AT&T, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, University at Buffalo, dig Buffalo, InfoTech WNY and Buffalo Open Data partner to host a civic hackathon challenging teams to create innovative software and/or hardware solutions that will serve the community

BUFFALO, N.Y.  – WNY Civic Hackathon powered by AT&T, the first ever daylong hackathon dedicated to solving local civic issues in the region, will challenge teams to face off to deliver the best civic technological solution in a 13 hour period for the following local issues; Housing/Property Blight, Transportation, and Advocacy/Public Policy. Cash prizes totaling $3,500 will be awarded, with a grand prize of $2,000, followed by a second place prize of $1,000 and $500 for third place.

The WNY Civic Hackathon will take place on Saturday, October 10, 2015, 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., at dig Buffalo, 640 Ellicott Street, Buffalo, NY. Demoing, judging and awards will take place at dig from 9 a.m.-noon on Sunday, October 11th.  Partnering to put on the Hackathon are: AT&T, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, University at Buffalo’s Association for Computing Machinery (AMC) andOffice of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) , dig Buffalo, WNY Innovation Hot Spot, InfoTech WNY and Buffalo Open Data. The event builds off the success of the AT&T WNY Civic App Challenge in 2014, a two-month “virtual hackathon” in which developers were encouraged to “Solve Local” by building smartphone apps that serve the community.

During the hackathon, teams of local developers, makers, innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs, technologists, and community activists will compete to create intuitive and novel apps or hardware that address and provide solutions for social and civic issues in the Western New York region.

All submissions will be judged on their potential to impact on one of the three topics facing Western New York, the quality of execution, and creativity or novelty. A panel of judges made up of local tech experts, community leaders and elected officials will judge the submissions and determine the winners on Sunday, October 11th. Mentors from the regional tech and advocacy community will also be available throughout the day to provide advice and guidance to the hackathon teams.  Subject matter experts on housing/property blight, transportation, and advocacy/public policy will also be in attendance to discuss the issues and provide available data that can be used.

The WNY Civic Hackathon follows the same principals of National Day of Hacking, an annual event that brings together urbanists, civic hackers, government staff, developers, designers, community organizers and anyone with the passion to make their region better through technology.  Similar to National Day of Hacking the event provides opportunities to get people involved in civic hacking, a new form of civic engagement, and many of the activities are based on proven models provided by Code for America, Random Hacks of Kindness and Innovation Endeavors. Teams will collaboratively build new solutions using publicly-released data, technology, and design processes to improve our community and the governments that serve them.

The WNY Civic Hackathon is free and open to all interested participants across the region of all skills and levels of expertise who are ages 18 and over, but preregistration for the event is required by October 5, 2015 at Evenbrite ( There is a 200 participant cap on the event, so early registration is recommended. Meals and snacks will be provided throughout the day.  For more information regarding the WNY Civic Hackathon visit,

There’s Something in the Sky Tonight

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Tonight at approximately midnight, stargazers will be treated to a rare sight. Jupiter will be in near perfect opposition to the Earth, and at it’s closest in decades. Take a look to the sky tonight and the brightest thing you’ll see – besides our moon – is the red colored gas giant.

Jupiter's giant red spot, as seen from the unmanned Voyager 1 spacecraft. (NASA photo.)

While the planets cross once every thirteen months, their orbits are not perfect circles, so it’s of varying distances. Tonight marks the closest the planet will pass opposed to the sun since 1963, and it won’t align as so again until 2022 as Jupiter completes its nearly 12 year orbit. Tonight, it will be as much as 46.6 million miles closer than than usual for this sort of alignment, making it easily visible to the naked eye and outshining all of the stars in our view. (It will be at a near perfect minimum of about 365 million miles away; as opposed to it’s maximum distance of approximately 601 million miles – a 40% difference!) Jupiter will rise over the horizon beginning at sunset and will be at its closest, and brightest, at around midnight. While tonight is the best viewing in decades, Jupiter will remain close for the next few weeks if you miss your chance at midnight.

Taken from his amateur back-yard observatory right here in downtown Buffalo, local photographer Alan Friedman has an absolutely awesome shot of Jupiter from just three weeks ago on his website, here. (So awesome, it was was featured on NASA’s Science News website.) While you’re waiting for midnight, check out some more of his work at his home page,

On a related note, another once in a lifetime alignment occurs tonight with Uranus also at opposition to our sun, about one degree apart from Jupiter in the sky. It is a rare coincidence that both planets nearly align in opposition from the sun at the same time. This one however will be barely visible, if at all, to the naked eye, but even the most basic hobby telescope should be enough to catch a glimpse. So while you’re taking a look at Jupiter, you’ll might be able to find an emerald green point of light that is Uranus near by.

Geeky Gifts

For many, Black Friday marks the start of the holiday shopping season.  For others, it’s the newly coined “Cyber Monday.”  Some of you might have even started on December 26th last year.  So my apologies in advance, but I don’t fall into any of those categories.  I wait until at least the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off before I start thinking about it.  We’ve still got over two weeks to go, after all!

Before we get started on the geeky gift ideas, I just wanted to quickly share a few helpful resources.  First, you’ll want to check out Google’s special Holiday Shopping Search.  This is great for tracking down products and comparing prices from different vendors all in one shot.  Also helpful, you’ll see the top searches shoppers are using this holiday season – great to find out what the most popular gifts are (looks like video games, music players, and digital cameras top the list), and may also give you some ideas.  Secondly, you’ll absolutely want to refer to DealHack’s list of Holiday Shopping Deadlines.  There’s over 150 of the top Internet retailers listed with their shopping & shipping deadlines – if you like to wait til last minute as I do, it will come in handy to know you’ll be able to receive items in time.

So on with a couple ideas!

1. Duracell Pocket Inverter 175

The Duracell Pocket Inverter is a DC to AC power inverter.  Basically, it’s a device you plug into the cigarette adapter in a vehicle’s dash that provides you with a standard AC power, like an electrical outlet in your home.  This allows you to plug your gadgets in while on the go without buying special mobile adapters for each one.  This Duracell is one such model, however inverters come in many shapes and sizes from many manufacturers.  What stands out on the Pocket Inverter 175 is a USB port in addition to the AC power outlet.  Lots of devices nowadays recharge via USB power from a computer (like iPods & iPhones, digital cameras, etc.), so those devices plug right in as if you were recharging them at your computer.  Shop around for other models if you wish, however, understand that “bigger isn’t necessarily much better” if you’re looking for something portable – it’s just more expensive and probably overkill.  A typical vehicle cigarette adapter is rated at 15 amps, which can provide 180 watts of power: 12 volts * 15 amps = 180 watts (thanks Dr. Ohm!) So this 175 watt Duracell model is juuust right.  (Larger inverters serve special purposes: larger appliances in boats, motor homes, et cetera… and would just blow a fuse in your car if loaded to their capacity!)  An inverter the size of the ‘175 is perfect for portable games, music players, cell phone chargers, laptops, portable TVs and DVD players, and other such devices.  It’ll only set you back about $40, which in some cases is less than a single specialty adapter for just one device. (Search for it!)

2. Antworks Space Age Ant Habitat

The Ant Farm is a classic educational toy and cultural icon, dating back to 1956 when Uncle Milton’s began selling them.  In 2003, NASA brought ants into space to perform gravity experiments, and devised a nutrient “gel” to meet the food and water needs of their 6-legged passengers.  Back on earth, Antworks combines the nutrient gel and Ant Farm concepts, and we’ve got a space-aged makeover of the classic Ant Farm fit for a new century.  Ant Farm is a trademark of Uncle Milton’s of course, so Antworks instead produces an “Ant Habitat.”  Fill up the container with your nutrient gel, give the tunnels a head start, add ants (yes, they still come in the mail when you’re ready for them), and sit back and watch your colony thrive. There’s even an accessory light to give your colony a cool blue fiber optic glow.  If you’re partial to the original, Uncle Milton still makes ’em, as well as their own updated gel version too.  $15-25 for the Antworks Habitat (shop around!), $13 for the lighted base.  (Search it!)

3. USB Cell AA Rechargeable Batteries

These are an absolutely ingenious idea sure to score a perfect “10” on the nifty scale with any nerd.  They look like regular AA batteries, and they are, sort of.  Flip the top back to reveal a USB plug.  The battery plugs right in to a USB port for recharging.  USB Cell managed to fit a rechargable battery, re-charging circuitry, and the USB plug itself all inside the normal form factor of a regular AA battery.  These are NiMH rechargables that work like any other rechargable battery as far as your devices are concerned.  When you’re out of juice, you can plug it right in to your computer or any powered USB port, which are nearly ubiqutous on a lot of electronic equipment these days.  There’s some drawbacks: they don’t last quite as long as normal rechargables, take a bit longer to recharge, and are a little more pricey.  But the geek-chic coolness factor trumps some of that.  They are however a perfect match for battery powered things that hang out near the computer anyway: wireless keyboards, mice, game controllers, and they’d be handy for traveling if you’re bringing a laptop anyway and want to avoid the battery charger too.  $20 for a pair.  (Search it!)

4. Logitech Harmony series Universal Remote Controls

Logitech has a whole series of programmable, universal remote controls.  These can be a little pricey, but these aren’t your typical remote control.  They’re universal remotes, which means they can control every piece of AV equipment in your home – Logitech can boast close to a quarter million different devices supported, and the remotes can “learn” from other old remotes that aren’t otherwise supported.  Unlike cheaper generic universal remotes, these can control several devices at the same time.  There’s no switching between “TV” or “Receiver” functionality; press the volume button, and it controls your receiver volume.  Press the channel buttons, and the channels change on your cable box.  You configure the remote control to your AV environment, so the controls for the buttons go to the right device, every time, the way it should work! The remotes are fully programmable and customizable via a computer interface connected by USB connection (Mac or PC compatible), so you don’t have to worry about punching in all this information on the remote itself.  The best feature are the “activity centered” buttons.  Think of the steps you might take now to watch a DVD: power on the TV, power on the receiver, power on the DVD player, set the TV to “input 3”, set your receiver to “input 2”, whatever your setup calls for.  How about a button that says “Watch DVD” that automates all those different button presses for you?  That’s exactly what you can program these remotes to do.  They’re a great gift for somebody to tidy up their huge collection of remotes, or somebody who struggles with working their complex AV system – but beware, you WILL need a little tech-savvy to set these up, so this might be a gift best given FROM a geek to a non-geek, along with a little configuration help to send them on their way.  The remotes retail from $99 to $499; there’s a whole slew of options, shapes and sizes, even customizable color screens and rechargeable models.  Shop around and you’ll find them for less than those retail prices.  (Logitech Website for Harmony series)

5. An HD Radio

Not sure what an HD radio is?  You’re not alone.  These are the greatest new products that either nobody has heard of, or doesn’t understand what they are.  I’ll try and break it down, short and sweet.  An HD radio is a digital radio, that picks up over-the-air signals, like an AM/FM radio.  An HD radio IS NOT a satellite radio, although it boats similar sound quality and features.  You pick up local stations, that are broadcast for FREE; there is no subscription required.  An HD radio is most similar in concept to the new digital TV broadcast scheme that’s forcing consumers to either upgrade or use converter boxes to keep using their rabbit ears.  Unlike the DTV transition, there’s no deadline set for a conversion to digital radio.  There likely won’t be one set for some time to come – so don’t get worried that you have to upgrade – but if you have a radio afficianado on your shopping list, they sure will appreciate the upgrade.  These radios are all over the charts when it comes to prices and options – they come in many varieties from table top and alarm clock size, to stereo component size, to units for installation in the car.  (Some ’08 and many ’09 vehicles will start shipping with HD radios standard… and there’s no portable models as of now, the electronics required haven’t been shrunken down small enough just yet!)  Your one-stop-shop for information on HD radios is the aptly named  On the site, you’ll find a station locator to see which stations broadcast in HD in your area; in the Buffalo area there’s already about two dozen stations. You can still tune into regular AM & FM stations with these, but when you tune into HD stations you’ll get much better sound quality: AM now sounds like FM, FM now sounds like CD, and there’s never any fuzz or hissing.  Like DTV, some exisiting stations broadcast multiple versions at once, so you can pick between different tunes on the same station, and some are even commercial free.  Pictured is a Cambridge Soundworks Radio 820HD, which is a great choice for a mid-range, entry level, mid-priced table top model.  Retails about $129 – but again, shop around, you might beat the factory direct price.  (Cambridge Soundworks site)

What did you get for your geek this Christmas?  Leave a comment and share your idea with us!

Post Election Bits & Bytes

Election ’08 is now in the history books – so I figured it’s time to take a look backward, and a look forward at some relevant headlines.

Hacking Democracy

First, we’ll take a look at one of the best kept secrets of the campaign season, from both sides, care of a Newsweek article published just today.  Over the summer, the FBI had its hands full with simultaneous cyber crime investigations: the hacking of the Obama campaign computer system(s), and the hacking of the McCain campaign computer system(s).  While the intrusions have been acknowledged,  little else has been released or confirmed yet.  At this point, it’s known for sure that the FBI was involved, that “a large number of files” were stolen from the Obama side, and that the attacks came from a “foreign entity” and definitely did not come from the opposing sides.  The McCain campaign systems were intruded on in a similar fashion as the Obama systems, but the extent of the compromise on their side was unmentioned.  The rest is speculation of course: security experts have suggested the attacks likely came from China or Russia, and anyone’s best guess is that the goal of such an intrusion was to gain an inside line on procedures and policies used by the campaigns for a leg up in future dealings with the to-be president. (H/T to Newsweek)

This of course wasn’t the only politically motivated cyber-crime this campaign season – I’m sure many recall the Sarah Palin e-mail intrusion back in September.  Though it’s significance is near nil at this point, we’ll remember it as the day our servers felt the shock wave of a web traffic explosion.  If anyone is still interested: David Kernell, a college student in Tennessee, and the son of Tennessee democratic representiative Mike Kernell, was indicted by grand jury in late October.  His trial begins on December 16th, and faces up to 5 years and fines.  Not so “anonymous” now, eh David?  A court has also ordered the e-mails in both of governor Palin’s Yahoo! accounts be preserved for further investigation.

Another dishonorable mention is the state of Ohio election information and registration website that also came under attack, and experienced some brief downtime in late October.  (H/T to Reuters)

Technology Promises

I also want to give a nod back to another item I’ve talked about here: Science Debate 2008.  We’ve got a list of policies and action-items promised to us from pre-president-elect Obama in the realm of technology.  I’ll be saving a copy and keeping score for the next four to eight years.

Along the same lines is Obama’s “Blueprint for Change” video on technology issues.  Maybe you missed it?  Don’t feel bad; for whatever reason, this wasn’t released until the night before the election, effectively burying it in the rest of the 11th hour buzz.

Hi-Tech Election Day Coverage

Election night itself was a grand display of technology as well.  CNN debuted it’s new “hologram” technology – much to the chagrin of pocket protector pencil neck purists who are still complaining two days later that the effect isn’t actually a hologram.  “True” hologram or not, I personally found it a bit silly.  We’ll see if CNN or others bother with this technique down the road.

Ratings speak volumes though, and CNN enjoyed second place of 14 major networks covering the event with 12.3 million viewers.  ABC was the victor, at just over 13 million viewers.  In all, it’s estimated about 71 million viewers tuned in on Tuesday to watch the results unfold.  As impressive at it sounds, it’s still over 25 million shy of this year’s past Super Bowl.  Apparently the world’s couch potatoes are still more interested in the Patriots than in patriotism. (Nielsen’s complete ratings here.)

Nielsen also kept an eye to the web to gauge coverage ratings in cyberspace.  There’s a comprehensive list here if interested; CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo! News being the top three destinations for surfers on Tuesday. The official campaign sites also received a boost on Tuesday, with Obama’s site receiving 1.2 million unique visitors, and McCain’s site receiving 479,000 unique visitors.

The Future

Lastly, let’s look ahead to some new developments that will affect us going forward.

While not related to presidential politics per se, this is still a governmental policy decision that flew under the radar with all the elections buzz, that could mean huge developments in the wireless arena.  On Tuesday, the FCC approved a measure to free up “white spaces” for unlicensed (read: free but regulated) use.  In short, this means unused areas of the wireless spectrum in the general area of digital TV transmissions can be used by consumer devices.  This coveted piece of intangible mathematical electromagnetic real estate means higher bandwidth (faster) transmission of information to and from consumer devices, at greater distances than the current public bands allow.  It’s been a long fought battle mostly centered around issues of interference with licensed bands (at least, that’s the PR friendly argument – it’s probably been a long fought battle because telecommunications companies have sunk billions into competing technologies that may have just been rendered obsolete.)  To appease the interference complaints (some of which are probably valid), devices will have to be extremely smart: they’ll be required to be GPS aware, and to communicate over the Internet with a central database to announce their position and ask permission for an interference free frequency.  There’s a loophole for less intelligent devices, though they’ll have to pass some pretty rigorous interference tests.  You can read more here.  Dell claims to have laptops with “white space radio” already in the works that you can learn about here.

The last “bit” we have to pass on is some news about some technology related appointments to the Obama transition team.  Named to the team include Google philanthropy officer Sonal Shah, and Julius Genchowski who is a former IAC executive and former chief council to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt.  Rumors abound about Google CEO Eric Schmidt may be in the running for U.S. Chief Technology Advisor as well.

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