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NoWait Goes National

on Wed, 01/08/2014 - 10:49

The vast majority of the technological breakthroughs of the Twenty First Century have been utilized by entrepreneurs across the country to make our life easier. Facebook enables us to keep in contact with friends and relatives no matter where they might be, for instance, while smart phones give us access to the World Wide Web and an assortment of specially designed apps to go along with the ability to make phone calls. One area of particular focus is enhancing one’s dining experience, whether it’s locating the best restaurant in a specific area or making reservations online or via one’s phone. There are a number of companies entering this competitive field, including the Pittsburgh-based NoWait, which has not only found success within the Steel City but is now poised to make a national splash as well.

NoWait was founded in 2010 by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Robb Myers, and was initially part of the AlphaLab startup accelerator project on the South Side. During that time, the company developed a mobile platform that made it easier for anyone to make reservations at such popular restaurants as Texas Roadhouse, Mad Mex and Red Robin. More significantly, the NoWait platform enabled the restaurants themselves to better manage their seating capacities and availabilities, while providing a wealth of information about their customer-base in the process. The NoWait service was later launched as a smart phone app in September 2013. At that time, it was only servicing five local Pittsburgh restaurants but by the end of the year, that number had grown to fifty.

Duolingo: The 2013 App of the Year

on Mon, 12/30/2013 - 10:54

Application software programs have been around for decades, but since 2008 the shortened term “app” has been more readily associated with programs designed to run on mobile phones rather than home computers. In 2010, the phrase was even named “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society, demonstrating the degree that these software applications have weaved their way into the Twenty First Century in just a short amount of time. The Pittsburgh-based Duolingo, meanwhile, has been around an even shorter period, having launched in June 2012, but the language-learning software program has likewise made a big splash within the tech community as evident by it being named “App of the Year” by Apple.

Duolingo is the first language software to win the award, as well as the first company outside of Silicon Valley to be honored with the title. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, meanwhile, reports that the user base for Duolingo has soared from three million in May 2013 to a staggering sixteen million by the end of the year. Equally impressive, the company has raised $18.3 million dollars in startup capital since its inception, received a Webby Award in May and then signed online giants CNN and BuzzFeed to its client list in October. Despite such success, Duolingo’s latest honor was still somewhat unexpected. “Part of the surprise is that the App of the Year is usually awarded to entertainment or game apps,” CEO Luis von Ahn told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “So it was a big surprise that they would name an education app.”

Travelling Troubadours and American Minstrels

on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 13:25

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel “boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh” on their way to New York City to “look for America,” but the musical duo was apparently not the first singer and songwriter to make such a journey. According to the recently released This Land That I Love (PublicAffairs, 2013) by John Shaw, the original travelling troubadour Woody Guthrie made his own way from the Steel City to the Big Apple, on foot and with his thumb, hitchhiking through a snowstorm in 1940. He was constantly met with the voice of Kate Smith singing the Irving Berlin-penned “God Bless America” along the way, however, which apparently irritated him to no end. By the time he reached New York, he was determined to compose a scathing retort, but later reworked it instead into an equally powerful anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

“The story of ‘God Bless America’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land’ resonates most forcefully today not as a class battle between the Broadway millionaire and the Popular Front minstrel, not even as a clash of conflicting ideas about patriotism, but as a parable about musical populism,” Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times, exploring the same territory of This Land That I Love but over a decade earlier. “Pitting Tin Pan Alley’s greatest dream-weaver (Berlin) against the archetypal renegade balladeer (Guthrie), pitting urban pop sophistication and music industry muscle against homespun folk, the Berlin-Guthrie skirmish is emblematic of a question that continues to roil a music culture obsessed with authenticity—who speaks in the true musical voice of the American people?”

Garfield Joins Alice in Computer Education

on Fri, 12/06/2013 - 13:08

In 1978, Jim Davis launched Garfield, a newspaper comic strip that featured the title character cat, his owner Jon Arbuckle and fellow pet Odie. Over the decades that have followed since its first appearance, the popularity of Garfield has grown exponentially and currently holds the Guinness World Record for most widely syndicated comic strip, appearing in approximately 2,580 publications. Garfield’s personality traits are also well known, including his disdain for Mondays and love of lasagna. In December 2013, meanwhile, the fun-loving feline added a new profession to his already lengthy resume, this time as an education tool for high school students learning the art of animation and computer programming.

Garfield’s latest role comes courtesy of Alice, an educational software developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Alice allows users to create simple animation videos by selecting various characters, props and scenes from a 3D gallery and then drag-and-dropping them into place on their computer screen. Alice was originally the brainchild of the late Randy Pausch, a CMU computer science professor who published the life-affirming book Last Lecture before his death. “The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they’re learning something else,” he once remarked in regards to Alice. “They’re learning to program, but they just think they’re making movies and video games.” The approach has been a successful one, as Alice has not only become a popular teaching tool in middle and high schools throughout the country, but colleges and universities as well.

Hip Hop Family Tree Release Party

on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 10:52

Ed Piskor has already made a name for himself within the alternative comic book scene during these early days of the Twenty First Century, but his stock is once again on the rise with the release of Hip Hop Family Tree, a proposed five-volume graphic narrative detailing the history of hip hop music. Originally a weekly serial on Boing Boing, Hip Hop Family Tree quickly garnered praises from both comic book aficionados and hip hop musical icons when it debuted on January 1, 2012, and was soon recognized by such mainstream publications as Time and Billboard. Fantagraphics Books is now set to publish a 112-page softcover edition tracing the years 1975-1980, and Piskor will be on hand at the Copacetic Comics Company in Polish Hill on Saturday, November 9, 2013, to greet fans as part of a mini release party.

Hip Hop Family Tree is not only a great read, it’s a wonderful visual history of the important genre of music of the past thirty years—we’re excited to publish it,” Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds told Comic Book Resources. “While working on this project, I began to feel like the belle at the ball, in a matter of speaking, because lots of different publishers started getting in touch,” Piskor himself adds. “They had certain ideas that would have required compromises. Fantagraphics is one of the only publishers I personally sought out, because I thought they might facilitate my exact vision, and it feels like I was right. Basically, I’m a huge brat and I want what I want, and Fantagraphics is down for the cause.”