This holiday gift-giving season we have a bumper crop of cool seasonal tech to explore, across a broad range of products. So we’ll take a look at new developments in these various product categories, exploring how companies are packaging new tech and new ideas into their product lines.
The focus here is on portability (so you can easily take these products with you), and wireless connectivity (so you’re not tethered and don’t have to fuss with finding and connecting the right cable).
The well-known engineering aphorism says that of the three traits — better, faster, cheaper — you can only pick two because of the inevitable trade-offs involved. But the rapid and relentless advance of technology has proved this wrong, and once again we can see that products are getting ever smaller, better, faster, and cheaper.
We’ll look at smart home fixtures, portable audio from speakers to headsets, and video cameras for monitoring and security — from front door visitors to back yard critters.
Another exciting development is STEM / STEAM toys for kids (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), to encourage hands-on learning and interest through physical involvement with tech.
And we’ll add a couple of bonus ideas: personal drone cameras and universal translators.
Making Rudolph Proud
Wi-Fi Power and Bulbs
Smart home companies like TP-Link make products that you can use to control and manage your home, including Wi-Fi plugs, light bulbs, light switches, and smart cameras — plus the networking routers and Wi-Fi extenders to communicate with these devices. And these smart devices can be controlled and scheduled from smartphone apps, or by voice using digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
While this year’s crop of smart home devices does not feature exotic new technology, it is another striking example of how technology continues to advance with smaller, better, and cheaper products.
For example, this year’s TP-Link Kasa Smart Light Bulb line includes new dimmable (adjust brightness), tunable (soft to bright light), and multicolor bulbs that have improved in all three of these ways.
The new TP-Link Kasa Multicolor Smart Light Bulb is dimmable, tunable, and can adjust the color. The big difference is the further compaction of the Wi-Fi and color tuning electronics, thinning the shape so that it’s even closer to the volume of a traditional light bulb. It’s available for around $39, compared to $42 for the previous model last year.
Similarly, the TP-Link Kasa Smart Plugs allow you to remotely control anything that you plug into them, for example to turn the holiday decorations on and off. The new TP-Link Kasa Smart Plug Mini also has dropped in price, now at around $26 compared to $34 last year. But the real fun is the new TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Power Strip, which crams six smart outlets plus three USB charging ports onto a power strip for only around $79. It’s a tad long at 14.2 inches, but you get full control of all the outlets — you can power them on and off independently, or all together as a group.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
The excitement in audio recently has been in Wi-Fi speakers for smart homes that can be controlled by voice commands. But Bluetooth wireless speakers still are very useful — especially as personal, portable speakers that can move from room to room, indoors to outdoors, and come along when you are on the go.
This year’s focus seems to be on making these speakers more rugged — and not only waterproof, but even able to float. The Altec Lansing line of portable speakers also integrate with voice assistants, and some support extended range up to 100 feet for the Bluetooth connection.
For personal use, at your desk or in a hotel room, you can start with a mini speaker like the Altec Lansing Baby Boom (around $29), a compact, rugged speaker that is smaller than your hand (around 4 x 2 x 1 inches, and a quarter pound). It even has a carabineer clip to attach to your backpack.
It puts out plenty of sound, and you can pair two of them as stereo speakers, with a 30-foot wireless range. It also works as a hands-free speakerphone for your smartphone. The Baby Boom has six hours of battery life, is waterproof, and floats.
For more volume and separate bass, step up to a slightly larger speaker like the Altec Lansing Mini LifeJacket Jolt ($79). It’s not quite pocket size, at around 6.25 x 2.5 x 2.25 inches. It has an extended 100 foot wireless range, and you can pair up to 50 speakers at once for a really big house party.
The Mini LifeJacket Jolt also has a dedicated button to activate Apple Siri or Google Assistant, and has a USB port so that it can be used as a charger for your smartphone. It has 16 hours of battery life, and is waterproof and floats for pool parties.
The Altec Lansing Versa line of smart speakers supports both Wi-Fi (for at home) and Bluetooth (for on the go), and is integrated with Amazon Alexa for tap-to-talk voice control.
The Altec Lansing VersA 2 Go model is still relatively compact (around 4 x 4 x 2 inches), and delivers impressive sound with a 100-foot wireless range. It’s also waterproof and has eight hours of battery life.
These also have speakers on both sides to fill a space better by pumping out sound in all directions.
Beyond wireless portable speakers, the best way to hear music is to put the speakers directly in your ears, with wireless earbuds. With today’s technology, you can minimize all the necessary electronics into the two small earbuds, so there are no wires — not between the two earpieces, and not to the audio player.
The issue here is that the small earbuds need to be small and light enough to fit comfortably in your ear, but also need to hold a large enough battery to last for at least a few hours. Plus, the earbuds are so small that it’s tricky to keep them safe and accounted for.
One nice solution, used with the Altec-Lansing True EVO Wireless Earbuds (around $99), is to include a carrying case that also has a battery to charge the earbuds while they’re being stored.
The True EVO earbuds have a four-hour battery life and can add four additional charges from the case. The case can be charged either by USB or through Qi wireless charging.
The other issue with earbuds is the hostile environment that builds up in your ears when you move around and exercise. The True EVO earbuds are designed to be rugged, especially for sports, and are sweatproof and waterproof.
The tiny size of wireless earbuds does require tradeoffs, including shorter battery life. Wireless headsets with a bit more room can have the capacity to provide extended listening times and additional audio processing. This is particularly useful for extended wear, in the office and for travel.
For example, Plantronics has a wide range of products, both single-ear earpieces used mostly for phone calls, and stereo earbuds and headsets for listening to music. These come in a variety of styles — in the ear, over the ear, over the head, and behind the head.
In particular, the Plantronics Backbeat wireless headsets feature extended listening times (eight-plus hours), voice assistant integration (Apple Siri or Hey Google), and have built-in active noise-canceling (ANC). This provides clearer audio in high- and low-noise environments, especially by filtering out low frequency noises like AC, fans, motors, and buzzing electronics. The noise-canceling level can be controlled from the Backbeat app, along with selecting balanced or bright EQ modes.
For longer use in earbuds the Plantronics BackBeat GO 410 Earbuds (around $129) add a flexible neckband that sits behind your head, with cables running up to the two earbuds. Having the neckband provides extended use — up to eight hours listening with ANC and ten hours without. And it allows the use of additional electronics, especially the active noise-canceling and voice assistant integration.
The design also allows you to insert and remove the earbuds easily. When you remove them, they snap together magnetically to hang out of the way, which also turns off ANC and disconnects Bluetooth to save power. Unlatching them automatically re-connects Bluetooth and will answer an incoming call.
The power cable also is cleverly dual-use — the USB charging tip pops off to convert the cable into a standard 3.5 mm audio connector, so you can still use the earbuds with a wired connection even if the battery is dead.
Of course the best way to isolate yourself on a long plane trip is to use over-the-ear headphones with earpieces that physically cover your ears. For example the Plantronics BackBeat GO 810 Headphones ($149) are designed for commuters and travelers, with up to 22 hours of listening time with ANC and 28 without. These have a slim over-the-ear design with memory-foam padding, weigh only seven ounces, and fold flat for travel.
They support an extended range Bluetooth connection of up to a 164 feet with compatible devices. You also can connect to two devices simultaneously and stream from either one. The earpieces have room for multiple playback controls, including volume, skip tracks, and take calls, plus setting controls including EQ presets, ANC on/off, and activate voice assistants.
He Knows If You’ve Been Bad or Good . . .
Wireless Video Cameras
Video cameras are becoming quite popular for do-it-yourself home security and monitoring, with smart home products like the Ring Doorbell cameras and the Blink Indoor and Outdoor. These are designed to monitor an area, send an alert if they detect activity, and post an associated video clip online.
These smart cameras are small and inexpensive, and so depend on the web for storage. As a result, they tend to capture relatively short clips, limit the amount of stored video, and/or charge a monthly fee for storing clips for longer than a short period. They’re also not designed for extended live viewing.
But these security cameras are great for their purpose, and you can spend lots of time on YouTube watching clips of people who were caught acting badly at front doors — trying to break in, stealing packages, and hogging all the Halloween candy.
Another approach, taken by D-Link, is to build the intelligence and the storage into the camera, still with online cloud storage as an option. The camera detects activity, records clips to a local SD card, sends alerts to your smartphone, and optionally uploads the video to the cloud. And you can monitor them live, watching continuously for extended periods (and also record while watching).
The associated mydlink app also provides a broad range of configuration options, including remote viewing with zoom, split-screen to monitor multiple cameras, detection sensitivity (sound and/or motion), selecting zones within the view to monitor, alert types, and the use of night vision lighting with infrared (IR) LEDs.
With this flexibility you can use one of these cameras indoors to keep an eye on a room or larger area for pets or kids. And you can use one to monitor your house or a vacation home while you are away. You also can put a camera in an upstairs window to monitor the front or back yard. You then can watch the view live to keep an eye out for a package delivery, or set up multiple detection zones to alert when an unexpected visitor pulls in the driveway or walks up to the house.
The base D-Link Mini HD Wi-Fi Camera (around $59, two for $99) is a small cylindrical camera (3.6 inches tall) designed for indoor use, which records only to the cloud. It captures high-definition video with a 120-degree field of view. It will alert on sound or motion, and the night vision LEDs illuminate up to 16 feet in complete darkness.
The D-Link HD Wi-Fi Camera ($59) is an adjustable camera with similar specs, but it stores video locally, plus optionally to the cloud. It also has a speaker to allow two-way conversations. It’s designed as a camera puck on an adjustable base and is only 3.6 inches high.
The D-Link Full HD Wi-Fi Camera ($79) steps up to higher-res full HD video also with a wider 130-degree field of view. It stands a bit taller, at 4.3 inches.
Finally, there’s the D-Link Full HD Pan & Tilt Wi-Fi Camera ($99). This is a full HD camera with a 114-degree field of view. It adds the ability to move the camera to see a wider area — you can use the app remotely to pan side to side to see behind (170 degrees to each side), and tilt up and down (up 90 degrees to look straight up and down 20 degrees). It’s 5.26 inches high and 4.58 inches deep.
D-Link does provide storage plans for its cloud storage option, which allow for multiple cameras. You can store video for free for 24 hours with up to three cameras. You can extend this to seven days for $2.49 a month or $24.99 a year, and go up to 30 days with 10 cameras for $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year.
Wireless Trail Cameras
Another specific application for video cameras beyond the home is trail cameras. These are specifically designed for mounting outside for extended periods to monitor an area for activity (as simple as strapping to a tree).
These can be used as a wildlife camera to capture critters on the trail. And they can be used as a security camera for unobtrusive capture of people or cars in a general area, using invisible lighting. In our area, trail cams also can be useful for watching your backyard to understand what is demolishing your plants at night.
While trail cameras are now available for $100 or less, they also are adding interesting and useful features that increase the price. Typically, current products detect game and other activity using a passive IR (PIR) sensor, triggering on a combination of heat and motion, to a distance of up to around 100 feet. They use night vision IR LEDs, not to constantly illuminate the area like smart cameras, but as a flash after activity is detected to light up the scene when recording. The flash can be “low-glow” (faint but visible red) or “no-glow” (invisible).
When triggered trail cameras can shoot a sequence of photos, a video clip, or sometimes both simultaneously. Higher-end models capture higher resolution images, fire more quickly after the trigger, and shoot at a faster rate.
These products also can automatically adjust for day/night conditions and temperature, and offer a variety of configuration options, including the capture resolution and rate, the detection sensitivity, and day vs. night vs. time-lapse shooting.
Trail cameras are typically packaged as durable and weatherproof plastic boxes, roughly 10 x 7 x 4 inches, often in unobtrusive camouflage designs. These are designed for leaving out in the field for extended periods, so they can have a battery life of six months to a year, albeit powered with an array of up to 12 AA batteries. They also can be compatible with a solar power accessory.
As stand-alone devices, trail cameras are designed to record to local SD card storage. You can go out in the field to swap cards, or retrieve the camera and plug it into a computer to access the image files through the USB port.
But this is changing. One new development in trail cameras is cellular models, which include a cell connection so you can check the status of a remote unit and receive immediate alerts and associated image thumbnails. Some also include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, so, for example, you can check for overnight activity in the back yard and transfer video clips without needing to go outside and open up the unit.
As an example of new advanced cellular products, the Bushnell Impulse Cellular Trail Camera ($299) is due to ship right about now. It has AT&T or Verizon models with advanced 4G LTE cellular connections, so you can send images to a smartphone, via email, or to the Web or Facebook. And it supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth without requiring a cellular plan.
The Impulse shoots 20 megapixel HD images, and true full HD video. It has hybrid capture (simultaneous photos and videos), and can tag the images with overlay annotations including date/time and temperature, plus record associated weather, wind, and moon data from the cellular connection. The no-glow flash uses 48 black LEDs to illuminate up to 100 feet. It runs for up to six months on 12 AA batteries.
The Bushnell cellular data plan offers flat monthly rates for different numbers of images. You can start at $6.99 a month to just configure and monitor the camera over cellular, but with no images. Or sign up for low-res thumbnail images for $9.99 a month for 1,500 images to $15.99 for 15,000 images. Then you can add additional downloads of high-res images for $0.99 each, 10 for $7.99, or 25 for $16.99.
Flying Selfie Camera
Speaking of cameras, don’t you hate it when you’re out in a group and want to take a selfie — but your arm isn’t long enough to get everybody in the picture? Wouldn’t it be great if you could pull a flying camera out of your pocket, toss it in the air, and then position it higher and at a wider angle for the perfect photo?
Your dreams may have been answered with the AirSelfie2 Portable HD Flying Camera ($199). This is a small drone that is palm-sized and only 2.8 ounces. You pilot it from your smartphone over a direct Wi-Fi connection, and it transmits live video of the view so you can shoot photos and capture video clips. It has a reasonable 12 megapixel camera with 81 degree field of view, and shoots high-res full HD video.
This second edition of the AirSelfie includes two imperfect but key features from higher-end drones: auto stabilization, so it can hover in place without you needing to constantly adjust the controls, and auto tracking, so it can lock the camera on your face and keep you in the view even as you move around.
The AirSelfie2 flies for around five minutes on a charge. There also is a PowerBank accessory that can recharge the unit 20 times in the field for a total flight time of 75 minutes (bundled with the AirSelfie2 for $249). The Wi-Fi connection should work to a distance of 65 feet, but a distance of closer to 20 feet is recommended.
The AirSelfie2 can be used outside, but it is so light that it’s really only practical in controlled conditions without wind. It uses bottom-facing camera and sonar to control its motion, so the company suggests that it works best in a well-lit environment, over flat and multicolored surfaces, and without sound-absorbing surfaces (like rugs). Even so, it seems to readily handle flying over furniture and other obstacles of different heights and textures.
Universal Language Translators
As a final example of technology getting better and coming to fruition for use in our daily life, here are two very different approaches to the idea of a universal translator — something to help you get by in a foreign language without the time and expense of learning that language.
The universal translator has been a staple of science fiction (if nothing else, to avoid a huge slowdown in the plot while learning to communicate with each new alien species). And universal communication has been a dream of humankind since the Tower of Babel. With continuing advances in speech recognition, especially driven by voice assistants, and similar advances in automated translation, we’ve now reached practical voice translation for around 70 human languages, if not for alien planets. Yes, this is not universal translation, but it’s quite impressive, considering that we are still 250-some years before Star Trek.
You can get a heck of a translator for free by downloading the Google Translate App for Android or Apple iOS. The app builds on the Google Translate website, originally introduced in 2006, which provides text translations. It can now translate between 103 languages and serves more than 200 million people a day. It can automatically detect the language that you are using as you are typing — with live spelling corrections — and then immediately starts translating into your selected language. For some languages, you also can click to hear the original or translated text spoken aloud.
The website can translate up to 500 characters at a time. While this automated translation cannot really capture the deeper meaning in longer passages, it can be useful to extract at least the gist of the meaning, and it is very successful at translating straightforward phrases and sentences.
The app, available since 2010, provides instant two-way conversational voice translations, plus an array of related features. You first select the two languages to translate between, and then can type, speak, or use photos of text to perform translations. The app will translate between any of the 103 languages currently supported. Or you can use your finger to draw letters or characters (for 93 languages).
In comparison the Pocketalk Voice Translator is a portable instant two-way voice translator. It currently supports voice input in 74 languages and voice output in all but around 20. It’s small and rounded and definitely pocket-sized, at 4.3 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches and 3.5 ounces.
The interface is very simple on the small 2.5 inch touchscreen. It is focused on holding conversations — first select the two languages to be used, then press the associated (physical) talk button to speak. Then you can hand the device to your interlocutor, who can hear and read the translation, and then press the button for the other language to speak its response.
The Pocketalk does require an Internet connection to perform translations. (It’s basically a customized Android-based smartphone.) The full Pocketalk with built-in mobile data ($299) comes with a global SIM card that works in more than 100 countries. There’s no additional monthly fee — the price includes a two-year unlimited mobile data plan. You can add another two years of data for $100.
The Pocketalk Add Your Own Mobile Data model ($249) comes without the SIM card, so you can add your own. The Pocketalk also supports Wi-Fi for translations (even without cellular), and Bluetooth for connection to external speakers.
So how well do these work? We tested the Pocketalk and Google Translate side by side translating phrases back and forth between English and languages including French, Spanish, and simplified Chinese, plus bits of Russian, German, and even West African Hausa. In general, both systems provided the same (or really close) translations, and they tended to make the same mistakes when words were not enunciated clearly.
Pocketalk is a dedicated device, with extended battery life up to eight hours of talking. It’s small and easy to use, without needing to swim through a plethora of options — just click the button and start talking. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it’s sharable — you will not be in the position of deciding whether to hand your personal smartphone and the personal information it holds to a stranger in the street.
So, looking to the future, while these products will not be able to help translate the native language when the Martians land, they should be very useful for at least basic back and forth conversations, no matter which of our planet’s radio broadcasts the Martians have been studying.
They’re Gonna Build a Toyland All Around the Christmas Tree
STEM Learning Toys for Smart Kids
There’s a big push to encourage science and technology education (STEM), which is also extended to STEAM by adding the “A” for Art. This push has helped to drive innovation in educational toys that can serve as a gateway to STEM, helping kids to learn by doing and engage with tangible physical objects, while still having fun. Two such products, the littleBits electronic building blocks and the Ozobot creative robot, have significantly stepped up their offerings, and they are seeing success — for example, littleBits reports that up to 40 percent of kids using its kits are girls, four times the industry average.
The littleBits electronic building blocks, first released in 2014, allow kids to engage with electronic circuits by embedding a collection of electronic modules into “Bits” — small circuit boards that simply snap together magnetically. There are some 70 different bits now available, along with 10 themed inventor kits. The individual bits are priced starting at $7.95 and $9.95 for basic bits, around $17 to $25 for more complex bits (temperature sensor or servomotor), and up to $39 and $49 for specialty bits (MIDI or MP3 music). These are designed for ages 8 and up.
You build your invention by snapping together the four kinds of bits — power bits to power the chain, input bits to control the following bits, wire bits to route and change the flow, and output bits to do something at the end. The input bits include touch controls like buttons, switches, and sliders, sensors for light, motion, and sound, and sound generators like a keyboard and micro sequencer. The wire bits can perform logic (and, or, not), fork the signal on multiple paths, and communicate wirelessly to other bits via radio. Then the output bits display light like a bar graph or number, generate a sound with a buzzer or speaker, or can be in motion, from a fan to a DC motor.
Newer bits even perform more sophisticated actions that bridge from toy circuits to smartphones and computers. These include taking input from a microphone or MP3 player bit, communicating using USB or Bluetooth, sending/receiving signals from the Internet, and programming with mini-computer bits.
littleBits also has packaged a variety of kits with a selection of bits for different themed types of inventions. You can get started with Hall of Fame starter kits ($39), a Rule Your Room kit for touch-based inventions ($79), and a Droid inventor kit for creating robots ($99). The new collection of Inventor Kits includes the introductory Base Inventor Kit to build an intruder alarm or voice-activated robotic gripper arm ($99), the Electronic Music Inventor Kit to experiment with electronic instruments from a keyboard synth guitar to a hands-free air drum ($99), and the Space Rover Inventor Kit to customize a planetary rover ($199). There’s also an Avengers Hero Inventor Kit to build high-tech hero gadgets ($149).
In contrast, the Ozobot is simply a pocket-size 1.25-inch robot, first released in 2014. The brilliance of its design is that you can play with it at many different levels. You can start out with only pen and paper — just draw lines to have it follow paths and randomly pick directions at intersections. Then add commands by drawing patterns of colored dots or using stickers — change speed, move in a direction, pause, count down until change, and perform pre-defined moves. You then can use the color commands to create activities for the Ozobot to perform, including race tracks, obstacle courses, mazes, puzzles, and other games. You can share these online and download and print designs to try out. The company calls this “screen-free coding” — you’re thinking about programming logic by drawing colors on paper.
You also can bridge the physical and digital worlds by having the Ozobot explore different activities on a tablet. The Ozobot website (www.ozobot.com) has a playground section with a variety of play ideas and printable games, plus interactive games you can play using a web browser with the Ozobot on the tablet screen.
All this physical fun can then transition into programming using the OzoBlockly programming tool, which also runs in the browser. This has five levels of sophistication, starting with simply dragging and dropping to link icon-based code blocks, with the same kind of logic that you have already done using colored pens. You can transfer the program to the Ozobot by holding it up to a circle on the computer or tablet screen, which then blinks a sequence of colors to transmit the program without requiring connecting any wires or setting up any wireless connection. OzoBlockly is based on Google Blockly and can progress to advanced programming with logic statements.
There are now two Ozobots available. The original Ozobot Bit ($59) works as described above, and is designed for beginner coding for ages 6 and up. The new Ozobot Evo ($99) is designed for ages 9 and up to grow into advanced coding. It adds more lights to flash, proximity sensors for detecting obstacles, a built-in speaker, and a Bluetooth connection. You then can use the Evo app to play games, write code, and connect with others online. The Evo also has a few built-in tricks that it performs out of the box using the proximity sensors to follow or run away from your hand or to play musical notes as you touch the different sensors.
There are also DIY packs for decorating your Ozobot ($10), and Marvel Avengers Action Skins to turn your Evo into a superhero and program its actions ($15 each).
Over the River and Through the Woods: Portable Presents
For every trendy toy and newfangled gadget given this holiday season, there are bound to be some more mundane items stuffed into stockings and nestled under trees. These necessities for power and storage aren’t necessarily the things you want, but they may be the things you need.
Portable & Wireless Power. Even with continued technological advances, our portable devices still require power, which becomes more of a problem when we’re on the go and carry more of these power-hungry devices.
All these devices typically lead to a growing collection of cables, but a big focus this year is on providing power wirelessly. And wireless charging does sound like a great idea, with no more profusion of cables, and no more confusing plugs that always seem to be the wrong type or positioned upside down. Instead, you can just put the device down on a mat, and it magically charges. However, this promise has been hampered for years by confusion in the market caused by different competing standards.
Now the industry has coalesced behind the tersely-named Qi format. (Think of qi as meaning “energy flow” from the Chinese.) Qi wireless charging now has the support of a critical mass of major manufacturers, including Apple, ASUS, Canon, Dell, Google, Lenovo, LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony. In particular, it’s built in to Apple’s iPhone 8, iPhone 8 plus, and iPhone X.
Wireless chargers are typically designed as mats or pucks, so you can just put your smartphone down to charge. Of course, you do then need to plug in the charging plate. These products use inductive technology, which requires close contact (basically directly touching), and typically also requires aligning the device with the coils in the charging plate.
Companies like Ventev offer a range of power accessories, including portable batteries, wall chargers, and car ports. (Ventev uses a trademark matte light grey finish with orange accents.) For wireless charging, Ventev has integrated the charging mat into a smartphone stand, the Ventev Wireless Chargestand (around $59).
The stand and its aluminum frame are adjustable, for two viewing angles, for different positions (portrait, landscape, or flat on table), and for optimal charging centered on the back of the smartphone. And the wireless charging puck is removable, so you can use it (and the stand) independently.
The Chargestand provides 15W of power, so you can use the smartphone while it is charging. And it supports fast wireless charging, so the smartphone can charge 50 percent in one hour. It also supports both the Qi and PMA wireless charging standards, so it can work with a variety of older and newer devices.
As an example of a flexible portable wired charging, the Ventev Powercell 6010+ Backup Battery is a combination external battery pack and wall charger (around $49). It has everything you need built in — folding AC prongs to plug in to the wall to recharge the battery, and a built-in cable (Apple’s proprietary Lightning power cable or USB-C) to feed your devices.
The battery can charge a tablet, or two smartphones at once using the built-in cable and the additional USB port. It still is relatively small and light — shirt-pocket size at 5.2 x 0.7 x 2.7 inches, and 6.7 ounces.
Another option is a combination desktop charging stand and backup battery like the Ventev Chargestand 3000c Backup Battery/Stand (around $49, with built-in microUSB, USB-C, or Apple Lightning).
As a stand, it pops open so you can position your smartphone in either portrait or landscape orientations. As a desktop charger, you can dock your smartphone with the included flat cable that nests in the stand. As a portable battery, you can close the stand and unroll the built-in cable to charge your smartphone on the go.
Portable Storage: SD Cards. Our portable devices also need storage for all the images, videos, and other data that we collect and carry around with us. The preferred storage medium for portable devices is SD cards for larger devices like cameras, and the tiny microSD cards for smaller and thinner devices like smartphones.
Since SD cards are removable, they can bridge nicely to computers, where you can copy files using an external USB card reader like the Kingston MobileLite G4 USB 3.0 Card Reader ($11). It’s small enough to easily carry along with your laptop and has slots to read both SD cards and microSD cards (without requiring a separate adapter). Or you can solve several needs with one accessory by using a multi-outlet USB hub that also includes SD card slots.
For these cabled connections, the big development this year is the broad adoption of the new USB Type C connector. For portable devices, USB-C is like microUSB, except that the connector is reversible — so you no longer need to fuss with plugging the cable in the right way around. For laptops, it’s smaller than USB, and has the capacity to be used for power, disk data transfers, and even digital video displays.
The Kingston Nucleum USB-C Hub ($49) is a multiport adapter that showcases the flexibility of USB-C. This small and light device includes a built-in cable to plug in to your host laptop and seven expansion ports to allow for charging, connections to other external devices, and additional memory — all in one device.
However, some smartphones and tablets do not have a microSD port (here’s looking at you, Apple), so how can you do backups or transfer files locally, without the need for intermediate SD cards or the vagaries and slower speeds of wireless connections or cloud services?
One answer comes in flash drives for portable devices, like the Kingston “Duo” products. These take a traditional flash drive with a standard USB port (for computers to access the stored files) and add a second port on the other end to connect directly to portable devices (either microUSB, USB-C, or Lightning).
The Kingston DataTraveler microDuo 3C is a tiny dual drive (1.2 inches long) with both standard USB and USB-C ports. It’s available from 32 GB of storage for $12 up to 128 GB for around $39.
Similarly, the Kingston DataTraveler Bolt Duo looks like a USB flash drive but also has a Lightning connector to provide extended storage for iPhones and iPads. Since Apple’s operating system does not support general file access to storage, the Bolt Duo focuses on handling your photos and videos. From your device, you can transfer your photos/videos to the drive, capture directly to the drive, and view the files on the drive. It’s available from 32 GB of storage for $34 up to 128 GB for $69.
Portable & Wireless Storage: External Hard Drives. SD cards are great for local storage on portable devices and for transferring files between these small devices and computers. But if you need serious external storage for computers — with lots of capacity and big-file speed (especially for high-def video) — you really need an external hard drive. Today we’re talking about a terabyte or more of storage.
The new focus in external drives is hardware encryption. The contents of your drive can be password-protected and encrypted, so the drive is always safe from prying eyes if happens to wander off. And the encryption is in hardware, so it is built-in and unnoticeable.
For example, Western Digital has a full line of portable storage products. You can get simple plug-and-play drives starting as low as around $50 for 1 TB of storage, but for $10 to $20 more you can step up to higher-performance drives with built-in encryption.
The WD My Passport portable drives are available with two types of drives, wired and wireless, and with two different storage technologies, Hard Disk and Solid State Drives (HDD and SDD). HDD are significantly less expensive and offer higher capacities, while SSD are smaller, faster, and more rugged, which is especially wonderful for small, thin, and light laptops. However, SSD is still expensive — prices are multiples of hard-disk drives.
You can start with the Western Digital My Passport Ultra portable hard drive. It’s slim and light (4.44 x 3.21 x 0.5 inches), with hardware encryption, and is available from 1 TB of storage for around $69 up to 4 TB for $129.
Then the Western Digital My Passport SSD provides the advantages of solid-state storage, in a smaller and thinner package (3.5 x 1.8 x 0.39 inches), also with a USB-C native interface and hardware encryption. However, the advantages of SSD requires a serious jump in price for the benefits of SSD — from 250 GB for $99 to 2 TB for $599.
Or you can go wireless with drives that also can communicate over Wi-Fi, so you can access them without wires and from multiple devices, including computers, smartphones and tablets, and even cameras. The Western Digital Plus My Passport Wireless line also has a built-in SD card reader and a USB port so you can share files wirelessly from a camera or another drive. And they even can serve as an external battery power source for your other portable devices.
The Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro is a wireless hard-disk drive, plus SD card reader and powerbank. It’s a bit bigger, at 5 x 5 x 0.9 inches, and weighs around 15.5 ounces. It’s available from 1 TB for around $149 up to 4 TB for $189.
The Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD provides the same functions using a solid-state drive. 256 GB of storage for $229 up to 2 TB for a hefty $799.
For the fastest wireless connection, you connect directly to the wireless drive as its own Wi-Fi hotspot. Or you can connect your devices and the drive to your local Wi-Fi connection, which then allows you to access the Internet as well — though with lower transfer rates since the connection is indirect and shared.
The Rider University board of Trustees renewed the appointment of President Gregory Dell’Omo, above, for a second term running through July 31, 2022.
Dell’Omo, who has been Rider’s president since August, 2015, has come under fire in the last two years as the university has negotiated the sale of its music school, Westminster Choir College, in the face of severe budget shortfalls.
Nonetheless, a statement from Board president Robert S. Schimek said the decision to retain Dell’Omo was unanimous and “reaffirms our steadfast belief in President Dell’Omo’s leadership of our university.” Schimek cited accomplishments during Dell’Omo’s tenure including a new strategic plan, reaccreditation, and the beginning of “the most ambitious capital campaign in university history.”
“In addition to his unwavering resolve to transform Rider into a fiscally strong institution committed to its mission of student growth, transformation and leadership, the trustees are confident in President Dell’Omo’s future vision and plan to ensure the successful growth and development of Rider University,” Schimek said.
Princeton Identity, a company that develops iris scanning devices (U.S. 1, November 2, 2016), has been granted three new patents for its iris recognition technology by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office including a novel use for the technology: targeted advertisements.
This patent takes biometric identification in a new direction, proposing that iris identification be used to track individuals around the real world and make targeted ads appear in front of them wherever they go.
“Collecting and Targeting Marketing Data and Information Based upon Iris Identification,” patent 10025982, opens the door to tailored marketing and communications based on biometric recognition of an individual, including billboards that scan onlookers and deliver different advertisements depending on who is looking at them.
“For example, a customer in a grocery store can be detected, and their iris can be stored in a local or remote database,” the patent says. “If the customer enters the grocery store again, or an associated store with which the iris information is shared, the store can build a profile of the customer, the items they most often purchase, peruse, or the like by using iris detection and gaze tracking.”
The store could then use this information for product placement, or sell it to a third party as marketing data. This information could be used to target the user with more ads if he or she came back to the company’s website later on.
The patent also says that an iris scanner could be placed in a public area such as a bus stop or a billboard, where it would scan the crowd, identify passersby, and pass this information along to marketers so they know exactly where you have been and when. It would also let the billboard show advertisements “appropriate for the subject.” The patent suggests iris scanners would be placed in casinos, childcare facilities, drug testing collection centers, gyms, hospitals, medical labs, hotels, or other public places of interest to data collectors attempting to build a profile of the personal habits and hobbies of onlookers.
The scanners could also tell whether the subject was running or walking, the better to sell them sneakers.
“For example, if it is determined that a subject or group of subjects, each of whom takes the subway each morning at 7 a.m. are all interested in running or jogging, the electronic video display may include advertisements for running shoes at that particular time,” the patent says.
Two of the new patents cover uses that are already on the marketplace. Princeton Identity’s technology is already supported on devices like the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Note 9. Patent 10042994, titled “Validation of the Right to Access an Object,” would appear to cover something like unlocking a smartphone with an iris scan; while patent 10038691, “Authorization of a Financial Transaction,” pertains to the biometric authentication used to confirm payments on systems like Samsung Pay.
In a statement announcing the patent awards, Princeton Identity CEO Mark Clifton said his team is “extremely excited that the USPTO has recognized Princeton Identity’s latest inventions and team of biometrics experts,” adding that the company now has 11 patented technologies “and many more pending.”
Princeton Identity, originally a division of SRI, has built its business on iris scanning technology first developed in the 1990s. Back then, the machines were bulky and impractical, and an effort to commercialize them by putting them in ATMs failed. But since then the technology has become so miniaturized it can easily fit into a smartphone. Samsung’s line of phones incorporates Princeton Identity iris scanning technology that enables users to unlock their phones just by looking at them.
The latest round of patents shows that the company is looking beyond smartphones for its next big application. In an interview with Security Info Watch, a trade magazine, Clifton said there were no customers yet for the proposed ad targeting system.
“People use just about anything you do online to target marketing towards you, so this is really another example of how this technology can be used,” Clifton said. “I don’t have anyone knocking on the door for that application but we thought when we were going through this brainstorming exercise of all of these applications that was one we thought might be worthwhile, so we went ahead and patented that as well.”
Clifton could not be reached for additional comments.
Princeton Identity, 300 Horizon Drive, Suite 304, Hamilton 08691. 609-256-6994. Mark Clifton, CEO. www.princetonidentity.com.
Were you at the Princeton-Dartmouth game? You may have heard about it: Two undefeated teams facing off in a game that would determine the Ivy League championship. It was a bitter ending to an otherwise great season: Before a capacity crowd of around 45,000 at Palmer Stadium, Princeton’s vaunted offense took a first quarter lead, but then was stifled by the Indians of Dartmouth and lost, 28-14.
The Princeton-Dartmouth game I am referring to, of course, is not last month’s game between the Princeton Tigers and the Big Green of Dartmouth. Princeton won that one, 14-9, clinched a tie for the Ivy League title with a convincing win at Yale last week, and can win the title outright and preserve a perfect 10-0 season by defeating Penn Saturday, November 17, at 1 p.m. at Princeton Stadium.
I’m referring to another Princeton-Dartmouth game, on November 20, 1965. It was the waning days of a different era in college football, when a team like Princeton still cradled memories of not-so-distant glory days. There was the undefeated “Team of Destiny” in the fall of 1922, when Princeton defeated the University of Chicago in the first college football game broadcast on national radio. A generation later, in 1951, Dick Kazmaier led Princeton to an undefeated season and earned the Heisman Trophy in the process.
By the 1960s Dartmouth had become an arch rival. Two years before the big game of 1965, Princeton and Dartmouth postponed the game for a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Only (!) 35,000 fans showed up on the cold and windy game day. With a win Princeton would be the Ivy champion. But Dartmouth scored in the waning minutes when Princeton’s Cosmo Iacavazzi fumbled deep in Princeton territory and Dartmouth recovered on the 2 yard line.
Two years later, in 1965, Princeton and Dartmouth both cruised to successive victories. Early in the season Princeton defeated Rutgers, 32-6. George Paul Savidge was Princeton’s captain. His fraternal twin, George Peter Savidge, was captain of Rutgers (the brothers had the same first name). The game was decided by Charlie Gogolak, who kicked six field goals for Princeton, including one from 52 yards. Later in the season opposing teams had players stand on other players’ shoulders in attempts to deter Gogolak. The rules were later changed to ban such maneuvers.
By the 1965 Dartmouth game Princeton had a 17-game winning streak, including all nine games in Iacavazzi’s senior year of 1964. Even though he had graduated (and been drafted by the New York Jets), the Princeton team and its idiosyncratic single-wing offense was still highly regarded. There was a feature-length article in Sports Illustrated and talk that Princeton could win the then-prestigious Lambert Trophy as top team in the east. By game time Palmer Stadium was filled to capacity.
I was a freshman that year. More than 50 years later many memories have faded, but the image of 45,000 fans, with some standing in the parapet that lined the horseshoe-shaped stadium, remains. So does the feeling of the bubble bursting, as Dartmouth rolled to a 28-14 victory. Late in the third quarter Paul Savidge sustained an injury as he tackled a Dartmouth runner. He stayed in the game for two more plays, and then limped to the sideline. It was later determined that his neck was broken. He spent four months in the hospital and decided to pursue a medical degree.
Lots has changed in Ivy League football. The Dartmouth Indians became the Big Green. Princeton’s single wing was discarded in favor of the T-formation.
As a young freelance writer a few years out of college I covered Princeton games for two seasons for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. In 1972 Princeton’s record was 3-5-1. The tie was a scoreless game with Columbia, as good as kissing your sister, I reported.
That turned out to be Jake McCandless’s last year of coaching. The results-oriented Princeton athletic department brought in a younger coach, Bob Casciola, like McCandless a former Princeton football player. The team finished the season 1-8. In the first game, a harbinger, Rutgers defeated Princeton, 39-14. In those days Rutgers wasn’t used to beating Princeton so handily — its fans tore down both goal posts before the game was over.
It was even worse the next year, when Rutgers broke a scoreless tie late in the game. Rowdy Rutgers fans tore down both sets of goal posts. But Princeton rallied, scored a touchdown, and then had no opportunity to win the game with an extra point kick. Instead a two-point passing play failed, resulting in a 6-6 tie. Years later I was reporting on nightlife in New Brunswick and ended up at a Rutgers fraternity party. Above the bar was a chunk of wood, with a statement on it, saying something like “Rutgers beats Princeton, 6-6.”
While probably no living Princeton alumnus would believe there is a correlation, it is nonetheless true that Princeton’s football fortunes generally went downward since the switch from the single wing. Coeducation, women’s sports, and the increased diversity of the student body contributed to the decline. In 1997 the colossal Palmer Stadium, built in 1914, was torn down and replaced by the smaller but more elegant Princeton Stadium, designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly.
More changes were made. Concerned about concussions, the Ivy League changed the kickoff line and reduced the number of run backs — plays with opposing players racing at each other at full speed and in which a disproportionate number of concussions occurred. The Ivy League schools also eliminated full contact during mid-week practices.
Football is a seductive sport for institutions trying to stand out from their peers. Princeton overreached when it planned its replacement for Palmer Stadium, commissioning a building that was about 10,000 seats larger (27,773 the official capacity), and $15 million more expensive ($45 million was the cost) than the typical stadium used by Princeton’s peers. Today the university is considering the possibility of tearing down the upper level of the “new” stadium to reduce the footprint of campus buildings and presumably make room for more buildings of a different sort.
Something similar, but not so easy to ameliorate, may be happening at Rutgers. In 2014 the Scarlet Knights, an independent school back in the 1960s, petitioned their way into the Big Ten. Since then Rutgers’ record has been 7-34 in the league, 19-40 overall. When I see a more established Big 10 team crush Rutgers I sometimes feel sorry for our neighbors up the road. But then I recall those glory days they still savor. How’s that goal post looking at the frat bar, guys?
Another big change is the attendance at the games. This year’s battle of the unbeatens, Princeton-Dartmouth, was played on a cool but sunny autumn day. The crowd was announced at around 8,000, enough people to create a real sense of excitement but not enough to fill even the lower level of Princeton Stadium. With anything less than perfect weather the crowd at Saturday’s game could be less than that. Of course, the team is also competing against itself — the games are webcast on ESP+.
But make no mistake: This is a big game for Princeton against an opponent that has little to lose except the game, and everything to gain if it pulls off an upset. A Princeton loss would be bitter ending to an otherwise great season. For Penn a win would be another glory day to savor, a chance to bring a memento back to some frat house bar.
A week after Richard K. Rein’s October 10 cover story on what could be done to improve the civic realm in Trenton, a reader suggested that Princeton University divert some of its significant resources to assist the capital city. “In the middle of Trenton’s worst areas, there sits an unused and crumbling campus — the former Mercer Hospital. What a grand gesture it would be for Princeton to turn this campus into a high school of science and technology open to the beleaguered youth of Trenton. The Architecture School could retrofit the campus, the university administration could create a staff supplemented by Princeton faculty, staff, and students, I dare to say even Rider and the College of New Jersey would be most helpful,” wrote Frederic Olessi.
We responded: “Princeton University was one of the major initial donors to the Greater Trenton organization. But more could be done. In the late 1960s, for example, Princeton architecture students manned a ‘People’s Workshop’ in New Brunswick to facilitate building projects in the inner city.”
As we have just discovered the “people’s workshop” concept for Trenton is close to reality. Just last week we received a press release from the university announcing the launch of an “ArcPrep” program at Trenton Central High School. It is already underway this fall.
If any profession could be designated as a discipline in need of diversity, architecture could be first on the list. According to a 2014 survey by the American Institute of Architects, less than 2 percent of all registered architects in the United States are African American and only 3 percent are Latino. The This fall the Princeton University School of Architecture took a step to address that under-representation by establishing an “ArcPrep” program in conjunction with Trenton Central High School. The program is introducing 15 Trenton high school sophomores to the discipline of architecture through an immersive, semester-long course that covers architecture, urbanism, and design studio practices. ArcPrep’s studio instruction is embedded within the high school curriculum and the daily schedule of participating students.
According to a university press release Princeton ArcPrep “aims to diversify the field of architecture by providing comprehensive support, guidance, and academic and cultural enrichment to students who are typically underrepresented in American architecture schools and thus the profession. A rigorous academic program, Princeton ArcPrep helps students develop skills, knowledge and awareness related to careers in architecture and aids them in college readiness.”
Princeton’s dean of the School of Architecture, Monica Ponce de Leon, is program director. The program instructor is Katie Zaeh, architectural design fellow and a 2010 alumna who concentrated in architecture. The architecture school provides programmatic support, and Trenton Public Education Foundation has raised $18,500 to support the program with the help of LENNAR-We Care Foundation, NJM Foundation, West Windsor Gardens, Sharbell Development Corporation, Eckert Seamans Charitable Foundation, and Mary Jo and James C. Hedden.
“Princeton ArcPrep is introducing some of our region’s most promising students to architecture, a field that has historically lacked diversity,” said Ponce de Leon. “I am deeply committed to providing these students — all of whom have an aptitude for architecture but lack access to formal training and support — an opportunity to develop the skills that will propel them into a successful career.”
Ponce de Leon launched an ArcPrep program in 2015 in Detroit while she was dean at the University of Michigan. That program has more than 200 graduates to date.
Zaeh spends three hours a day, four days a week engaged in a project-based learning curriculum with the ArcPrep students at Trenton Central High School, according to the university statement. “On the fifth day, the students participate in presentations by guest speakers and visit architecture firms, or engage in a career counseling module. They receive mentoring, prepare for interviews and presentations, create resumes and design portfolios, and prepare for the college application process.”
“By nature, architecture is multidisciplinary and requires students to reach into their archive of knowledge and apply it,” Zaeh said. “It challenges them to reconsider their prior education in math, social studies, language arts, and science from a designer’s perspective. Knowledge becomes an active asset instead of a static memory.”
It’s “The Nutcracker” season and 15 young dancers in a sea of buns, pink tights, and black leotards gently hold the barres and look to their teacher for a cue.
Their teacher, Aydmara Cabrera, raises her arms, and the music accompanies an opening combination with a curtsey and a bow.
Next combination. “Front and flex, ronde de jambe.” Cabrera works the room. She adjusts a student’s shoulder, places another student’s hip squarely forward, and offers a gentle prompt to straighten the back. She demonstrates how to lift arms while focusing on the abdomen, and shows a proper arch turnout. “That’s the line I’m looking for,” she says encouragingly to a student.
Cabrera is the new director of the Princeton Ballet School — the official school of the American Repertory Ballet and a source of young talent for the annual production of “The Nutcracker,” set for McCarter Theater from Friday through Sunday, November 23 through 25.
Trained traditionally in classical ballet, Cabrera infuses her teaching with lessons learned in Cuba, where she was a principal dancer in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
What Cabrera learned at the National Ballet School in Havana inspires her to produce technically strong dancers while reinforcing the syllabus material, with the “excellent” faculty who make up the Princeton School of Ballet.
“I’m so lucky. I was exposed to a very intense methodology. It was a complex program on every level,” she says of her development as a dancer in Cuba.
It was there that she was a dancer in the Cuban National Ballet under the direction of ballerina Alicia Alonso, who is still living in Cuba at age 96. The company, founded by Alonso in 1948, still enthralls audiences. “Alonso was complete artistically, ahead of her time as a technician,” says her former pupil. “Everything she did inspires me.
“I loved Cuba National Ballet,” she says. “I had the opportunity to share the classrooms and stages with the founders of the company. My teachers were the founders. They gave me the knowledge that is with me.”
As a mentor, Alonso was “very helpful in mastering some rehearsals, and helped me in ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Coppelia,’” and other technically rigorous roles, according to Cabrera. “She is a person I really admire. This was the first ‘Hispanic American Ballet Theater.’ After (Alonso) was principal dancer in the United States for many, many years, she started a new career. Her purpose was bigger than any political situation.”
A career highlight for Cabrera was developing a love for the Adolphe Adam ballet “Giselle.” While Alonso cast mostly older dancers, around ages 27 or 28, Aydmara danced the difficult role when she was 22. To dance “Giselle,” she says, “You need mileage, stage maturity. It is a demanding role technically, requiring a high quality of artistic development and acting, a respect of romanticism.”
Although Cabrera misses her childhood home, her journey from Cuba to Princeton ended happily last year when she joined the Princeton school faculty, and recently, was made director of the school. She and her two teen children enjoy the Princeton area.
She did not follow her parents with her career in dance (her mother was in real estate and her father was an accountant), but she literally followed her brother, tagging along as he studied visual arts at an arts center. She joined him for art, music, and dance, but felt particularly drawn to dance. “I was so determined to be a dancer that my mom had no choice but to bring me to audition,” she says. At age 9 she entered the National Ballet School.
Her family members began coming to the United States in the mid 1990s, and Aydmara settled in Miami to care for her mother. Although she missed her “company family” in Cuba, she switched gears and taught in her own Miami ballet studio. She also did guest appearances in other companies and then danced and taught for two years with Ballet Hispanico in New York City. A friend suggested she audition to teach in Princeton.
“Teaching in Princeton is a continuation of what the teachers that founded the Cuban ballet school instilled in me,” Cabrera says. “They taught me how to teach a strong, strict class, with students steeped in a good foundation.”
The school faculty, staff, and students are immersed now in rehearsals for the annual “Nutcracker” that will be performed at several New Jersey locations beginning November 23. This is Cabrera’s first “Nutcracker” as school director. As the only time the school performs jointly with the company, students get the chance to be in a full production and dance on stage alongside professional dancers. The production is directed by company artistic director Douglas Martin. Julie Diana Hench is executive director of the company. The students appear in the beginning party scene, in the “rats vs. soldiers” battle, or the snow scene.
This “modeling” of fulltime dancers also is carried out in an American Repertory Ballet trainee program. Some 35 “trainees” from the school work alongside professional dancers, and they are exposed to different dance styles.
School students will have another chance to be included in a performance when the school performs “Don Quixote” in the spring. Students who register for classes now through December are eligible to be considered to dance in “Don Quixote.” Rehearsals start in January.
Princeton Ballet School was founded in 1954 by Audree Estey. It has some 1,000 students, starting at age three, and includes an open enrollment division for adults. Princeton Ballet School has studios in Cranbury, New Brunswick, and Princeton and offers classes in ballet, modern dance, jazz, hip-hop, CardioBallet, CoMBo (Conditioning for the Mind and Body), among others.
Inspired by Alonso, who sought dancers in non-traditional places, like orphanages, Cabrera also has a passion for outreach. She is interested in attracting students from non-traditional circumstances. “I want to expose them to dance, search for talent. I want to show it can be therapeutic and a career. I want to reach out to neighborhoods less exposed to dance. I want to reach even more kids and search for talent in many different ways.”
She is proud of the company’s Dance for Parkinson’s, taught by Rachel Stanislawczyk for those with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. Classes provide participants with a warm atmosphere, socialization, and movement exploration.
The school and company are involved in Dance Power in New Brunswick, the longest continuously running community/arts partnership in the state, according to the school, in which 20 weeks of dance are given in third grade physical education classes. The program expanded to Piscataway in 2016.
“I learned from Alicia (Alonso) to reach as far as I can, and reach out to others. In this area, there is still a need for access. We want to give back to society. I want to make the kids fly. I want them to make dance a passion for life.”
Although she misses her homeland, she says she “felt in Princeton what I did not feel before in other cities here. It is where I want to be. When I teach, I am rejuvenating my own background.”
The Nutcracker, McCarter Theater, 91 University Pace, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, November 23 and 24, 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 25, 1 p.m. $25 to $65. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
State Theater New Jersey, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, December 21, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, December 22, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, December 23, 1 and 5 p.m. Performed with live orchestra. $25 to $65. 732-426-7469 or www.stnj.org/event/nutcracker.
The McCarter Theater appearance presentation by the Jessica Lang Dance Company on Friday, November 16, presents area audiences with the opportunity to experience the work of one of the today’s most innovative choreographers as well as ponder architecture — specifically one Princeton University building.
The company’s “Tesseracts of Time” represents the collaboration of Lang, an internationally known dance figure originally from Bucks County, and Stephen Holl, the architect of the Lewis Center Complex across University Place from McCarter. The building opened in fall, 2017.
Holl says he created the set for four sections of “Tesseracts of Time” to correspond to the four types of architecture, and refers to them as “(1.) Under the ground (2.) In the ground (3.) On the ground (4.) Over the ground.”
In a promotional release for the dance’s 2015 premiere in Chicago, Holl Architects noted, “Both architecture and dance share a passion for space and light in time, however they are on opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to time. Architecture is one of the arts of longest duration, while the realization of a dance piece can be a quick process, and the work disappears as the performance of it unfolds. Here the two merge. Corresponding to the four seasons, but within a 20-minute period, the collaboration between choreographer Jessica Lang and architect Steven Holl merges dance and architecture in a compression of time and space.”
Holl often talks about the connection between architecture and music and leads the course “Architectonics of Music” at Columbia University. And in 2015 he shared with a reporter the following thoughts regarding designing for dance and Princeton University:
“I think in creative work you have to be open to every possible process. There’s always new work,” he said. “And that’s a totally new field, doing these sets for dance. It’s a dance for architecture. That brings up a whole new territory, in a sense. Where light and movement and the passage of another artist, the choreography moving through the architectonic becomes the total experience. I feel that architecture — the movement of a body through space — that’s the instrument of the measurement, space. And you can’t really photograph it. Tomorrow we’re going to go down to Princeton to this new quadrangle that we’re building and it’s fantastic because the space — finally, now — all the elevations are up, it’s topped out, so you can sense the great proportions of this space . . .
“I think it’s going to be an incredibly inspiring place. It’s all about the proportions and the light and the subtle play of movement. So, to work in dance you’re certainly seeing it in a different position: I think somehow that’s opening up some new territory. I’m thinking about how spaces could change and how they are made maybe in a more dynamic way from the standpoint of another art.”
Jessica Lang Dance, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, November 16, 8 p.m. $25 to $75. 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org.
What in the world have we done to our planet? Two paintings at the entrance to “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment,” on view at Princeton University Art Museum through January 6, place the big question of our era front and center.
Albert Bierstadt’s “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” depicts water cascading, as if from a bright blue sky, over a stone edifice and into a natural pool within the rocks. It was painted between 1871 and 1873. Positioned right next to it is Brooklyn artist Valerie Hegarty’s 2007 work, “Fallen Bierstadt.” She makes a facsimile of the original 150 years later and shows it to us as if it were charred remains. Fragments of the lower portion of the painting have crumbled to the floor.
But was our nation’s nature ever as pristine and unpeopled as depicted by Bierstadt and his Hudson River School contemporaries, who promulgated the notion of sublime in the American West? Nature so spectacular, overwhelmingly grand with a capital N, that humans weren’t a part of the picture. Or if they were depicted, Native Americans are shown moving off in the mist, making room for European settlers.
In telling the story of our changing relationship with the natural world, “Nature’s Nation” looks inside the politics of a utopian Arcadia in which European settlers took the land from indigenous people and altered it with industry that spews toxins into the skies.
One of the very first things to catch your attention upon entering the exhibition space is a prominently positioned wampum belt made by a Leni Lenape artist titled “Mathakawenanak Scheyichbink (We Fight Them in New Jersey).”
“It is a way to acknowledge the people who lived here before us,” says co-curator Karl Kusserow, curator of American art at PUAM. “The broken peace pipe refers to broken promises, and the tomahawk signals that they will fight for the rights that the history of this place prior to us be acknowledged. We thought it was appropriate to display alongside the list of funders.”
“The land on which this building stands is part of the ancient homeland and traditional territory of the Lenape people,” the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement states. “We pay respect to Lenape peoples, past, present, and future and their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Lenape diaspora.”
Kusserow worked with Alan C. Braddock, professor of art history and American studies at the College of William and Mary, for seven years on this major exhibition.
Encompassing three centuries of American art with works in painting, sculpture, works on paper, video, and decorative art borrowed from 70 lenders, it is twice the size of most exhibitions at PUAM, taking up the back wing where contemporary art is often exhibited (20th and 21st-century works from this show now fill that space).
The artists in “Nature’s Nation” include, among others, John James Audubon, Edward Burtinski, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Mark Dion, Thomas Eakins, Theaster Gates, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Ana Mendieta, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Maya Lin, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Robert Smithson, and N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth — indeed it’s an exhibition that will require numerous visits to take it all in.
To supplement the exhibit ongoing programming includes a conversation with author and environmentalist Naomi Klein on Thursday, November 15; a gallery talk with PUAM Native American Art collections specialist India Young on Friday, November 16; a conversation with artist Alexis Rockman on Thursday, November 29; and a symposium, “Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective,” Saturday and Sunday, December 7 and 8. (For times, venues, and additional programming, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu)
“Nature’s Nation” takes a different approach to the history of American art, using ecocriticism — a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment — to look at art and visual culture. For example, we see Thomas Moran’s painting “The Golden Gate, Yellowstone National Park” in 1893, celebrating a site once inhabited by Native Americans and set apart for tourists.
Then nearby, in “The Browning of America” (2000), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (a member of Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) presents a map of the U.S. that reasserts Indigenous presence through pictograms and brownish red stains. Names of marauding groups such as Saxons, Druids, and Celts on the right are being pushed out and replaced by those who had been here before.
“Yellowstone Park is for everyone,” says Kusserow.
Similarly, Aaron Douglas — a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance — in his 1966 painting “Song of the Towers,” brings attention to the fact that nature is not just non-urban, it’s everywhere. His African-American saxophone player is presented against the New York City skyline, smokestacks spewing pollution. After the freedom gained by African-Americans following the Great Migration to northern industrial areas, there remain environmental forms of injustice, with disproportionate levels of pollution in minority neighborhoods, says Kusserow.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s drawing for Central Park, on view here, reminds us of how nature was imported to New York City, with its controlled and planned irregularities.
Many of the portraits in American art were commissioned by white people. “People didn’t want to see wilderness and unsettled land” in paintings, says Kusserow. “If you want to see representations of land in the early 1700s, you have to look in the portraits, at the liminal space between inside and outside,” such as scenes outside the window behind the well-to-do portrait sitter. “In the early 19th century we started to get landscape paintings.”
Even the materials from which arts are crafted speak of environmental injustice. For example, a Colonial-era chest of drawers is made from mahogany, a wood that was grown in Jamaica and harvested by slaves clearing sugar plantations. After decimating the growth in Jamaica, plantation owners moved on to Honduras and further spread slavery.
Objects made from silver, such as an urn and a festive hat, show the real cost of extracting silver — Indigenous Americans often died in the silver mines to extract the metal.
“It’s not just about people but other beings,” notes Kusserow, indicating Subhankar Banerjee’s colossal chromogenic print, “Caribou Migration,” which presents an aerial view of a herd of pregnant caribou migrating across frozen, federally protected land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a recurring locus of partisan debate over oil drilling, with congressional Republicans advocating extraction and Democrats arguing for protection.
In fact, as the exhibition reminds, retired U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer once displayed one of Banerjee’s images as proof against Republican claims that the Arctic refuge was nothing but “flat, white nothingness,” that might as well be drilled. In 2003, when Banerjee exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, he became a victim of petro-politics, relegated to a small basement gallery without the essential explanatory labels about ecological vulnerability. (Here we have the artwork, and its explanation, in all its glory.)
Just as its subject lifts its curtain up to reveal the artifacts of art history, the enormous Charles Willson Peale painting “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) opens a curtain into the world of aesthetic objects past and present. The nine-foot-tall canvas, ordinarily on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, is among the many masterpieces in this exhibition.
“I can’t believe we actually have it here,” says an enthused Kusserow.
Peale’s monumental self-portrait commemorated his lifelong effort to build an interdisciplinary public museum in Philadelphia. The first American institution of its kind, Peale’s museum contained 10,000 specimens of flora and fauna along with portraits of illustrious patriots and scientists. Following Linnaean principles of classification, its exhibits demonstrated the enduring influence of European ideals of natural order through systematic ranks of display cases containing different species in appropriate habitat dioramas.
“Peale’s harmonious vision faced a looming threat, however, from the greatest attraction in his museum: a fossil skeleton of an extinct mastodon, lurking in the shadows at right — tangible proof of discontinuity and disorder in nature.
“Which means there’s extinction,” says Kusserow. “There was a shift in how people saw how the world came into being. The central tenet of ecology is that there is a connection between species.”
In 1847 Thomas Cole — the “founding father of American landscape painting” — painted “Home in the Woods,” in which a small family is living in a log cabin along a lake in the misty mountains. The patriarch returns from a trip in the canoe, bearing a single fish, as his wife and child open their arms to greet him. Cole is moving from an unpeopled sublime wilderness to accommodate human presence. His settlers tread lightly on the land. Resource extraction — fishing, the clearing and harvesting of timber — appears to be minimal, leaving little impact. The fictional account of settlement is without environmental cost and leaves out the extermination of Native Americans that made such settlements a possibility.
Nearby is Alan Michelson’s 2012 “Home in the Wilderness,” reproducing the cabin in Cole’s painting, this time made from paper bearing the words of the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, which removed Native Americans from 3 million acres in Indiana Territory.
Works by Winslow Homer — “some of the greatest works ever made,” says Kusserow — show the human impact on Nature’s Nation — as oil is extracted, wars are fought, resulting in deforestation and other environmental impacts. With the 20th century comes the Dust Bowl, nuclear war, and increasing industry, and beginning with the first Earth Day, artists begin to show their concerns about the environment.
Cleverly, the “Nature’s Nation” organizers have compiled a website, “The Ecology of an Exhibition,” to scrutinize behind-the-scenes ecological costs of creating an exhibition: loans, printing a catalog, lighting, gallery walls, and painting. Any effort at calling attention to the crisis of our time comes with environmental costs.
After its Princeton debut, the exhibition travels to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. It is accompanied by a 448-page catalog with essays by the curators and 13 scholars, including artists Mark Dion and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.
Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, Princeton University Art Museum. Through January 6.
Author Naomi Klein, McCosh 50. With writer and environmental activist Ashley Dawson. Thursday, November 15, 5:30 p.m.
Gallery talk with India Young, Princeton University Art Museum. Friday, November 16, 2 p.m.
Conversation with artist Alexis Rockman, McCosh 10. Thursday, November 29, 5:30 p.m.
Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective, McCosh 10. Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.