Challenger anniversary brings back memories

The first thought that goes through my mind, thinking about the anniversary of the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, is where i was at the time.

i was in the third grade, if i recall correct, and i’d stayed home from school that day, more than likely due to a “sore throat.” (That was always a good go-to ailment.) i was at my grandma’s house, sitting on the living room floor watching the TV when it happened.

More recently, i’d had an opportunity to learn more about one of the astronauts on that mission: Dr. Ronald McNair. While attending Cleveland State University, i wrote a story about the McNair Scholars Program, and during research for that i was happy to find out more about the scholarship’s namesake.

Ronald_mcnair wikimedia commons

Dr. Ronald McNair

If you’d like to check out the original publication of the story, it’s still available at The Cleveland Stater website.

Or, you can read it here below under the image of the Stater page as the story originally appeared, where i’ve copied the text from my original draft for your convenience.

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The road to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is daunting.  The challenge requires a serious commitment of time, focused research, comprehensive exams, publication and completion of a journal of the dissertation.

It was a journey made in 1976 by Dr. Ronald McNair, a first-generation college student from South Carolina.  He grew up in a house without running water or electricity.  He took a stand for his civil rights at 9-years-old when he refused to leave a segregated library without his books, a library that would later be named after him.  He was a high school valedictorian who went on to become a PhD in physics.  And he was selected as one of 35 from a pool of 10,000 to become a NASA astronaut.

On his second mission, on Jan. 28, 1986, Dr. McNair was killed along with six others aboard the space shuttle Challenger after it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.

His legacy is preserved by the McNair Scholars Program, a U.S. Department of Education funded program that helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study.  The program is offered at 200 institutions across the US and Puerto Rico, including Cleveland State University.  Participants in the program are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a traditionally under-represented group in graduate education.

For students majoring in STEM disciplines, the deadline to apply is Friday, Nov. 1 this year.  On Nov. 12 there is a follow-up interview for selected applicants.

“The goal of this program is to increase the diversity of the professoriate,” explained Dr. Valli Sarveswaran, director of the McNair Scholar program at Cleveland State.  “Every college has their own diversity challenge, to increase their numbers.  That has to start somewhere, like our program.”

The McNair Scholars program launched at Cleveland State in 2008 after Dr. Sarveswaran was hired as the first director.  Prior to that, he was an administrator for an outreach program funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Notre Dame.  Through his work at universities, he came to admire the interactions that took place and bonds that formed amongst students and faculty.

“I have a PhD in chemistry and spent several years doing research,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Then I realized I started liking working with students more than chemicals.”

The program sponsors 30 students each year and takes a comprehensive approach to prepare them for doctoral studies.  Students receive support in the form of research opportunities, paid full-credit tuition for independent study, meal and housing allowances, and mentored research with a chance to present their findings at Cleveland State.  Additional research and presentation opportunities exist beyond Cleveland State’s campus, with travel expenses covered by the program.  Trips also include visits to graduate schools and professional conferences, with expenses covered by the program.

“We offer a lot,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Financially and through other support like a GRE [graduate record examination] prep course and writing courses.”

The GRE prep course is a 32-hour workshop offered in the summer.  Other workshops include effective resume building and cover letters, writing a statement of purpose, and financial guidance like how loan forgiveness works and how to pay for graduate school.

One of the current cohort of McNair Scholars is Shannon Walker, a senior environmental studies major.  She learned about the McNair program before transferring to Cleveland State, while attending Tri-C Metro.  Walker joined the program in spring 2013, and worked with Dr. Robert Simons to update the CSU Master Plan this past summer.  After the summer program ended, she was offered a position to stay on until the project is complete.

“The program’s been a great asset in facilitating opportunities and connections for all of us – especially as a first-generation college student,” Walker said in an email.  “The mentoring portion of it has been extremely valuable.”

Scholars work with both a discipline and non-discipline mentor and meet with each of them at least once a month.  The discipline mentor guides students with research projects and helps to navigate their interests and choices in graduate schools, internships and opportunities outside of Cleveland State.

Dr. Dan Simon, a professor of electrical & computer engineering at Cleveland State, became a discipline mentor at the request of Dr. Sarveswaran.  He considers a PhD important for anyone who wants to become a leader in their field.  Becoming a PhD means that you’re not only an expert in your discipline, but also that you can effectively communicate that knowledge.

“Communication is huge, and it goes both ways” said Dr. Simon.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we can’t understand what other people have done and explain it to other people then we can’t advance the state-of-the-art.  Communication is a two-way street and it’s very important for engineers, especially leaders.”

He noted two things that are vital to students of any discipline thinking about pursuing a doctorate.  The first is to maintain good grades throughout your undergraduate studies.  Second, he stressed getting involved with professional organizations.

Non-discipline mentors provide students with a faculty perspective in a more casual relationship removed from the pressures of study and research.  This mentor’s role involves teaching students what to expect as university professors and informing them of job opportunities.  And because 80 percent of McNair Scholars are first-generation college students, mentors often become a friendly refuge in what can be a challenging environment for them.

One of the McNair non-discipline mentors is Dr. Ulrich Zurcher, a professor of physics.  Dr. Zurcher got involved with the McNair program because he identified with the under-represented groups in doctorate studies.  Himself a first-generation college student in his native Switzerland, Dr. Zurcher understood that minority students can feel out of place in college.

“I’m highly motivated about this,” said Dr. Zurcher.  “When I went to college, because I’m not from an academic background I always felt excluded.  I felt I did not belong.  Minority students sometimes feel like they don’t belong, to some extent.”

Dr. Zurcher, who came from a working class family, can relate to students for whom college is a wholly unfamiliar environment.  As a non-discipline mentor he hopes to help students acclimate to college and find their niche.

Sara Al-Nimer, a senior McNair scholar double majoring in mathematics and psychology, considers the program invaluable.  She cites her mentors as well as fellow scholars and especially Dr. Sarveswaran as a wonderful support system.

“I have been fortunate to be a part of this program and I wouldn’t trade the experience, the skills or the people I have met for anything,” she said.

Enyx Studios reloaded

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since my path first converged with Enyx Studios, the indie-game development studio helmed by Don Hileman. At that time, our connection was an opportunity for Don to share a developer journal here at The Long Shot, and for me to get more contributor content posted.

Enyx Studios

That interaction evolved into my visit to Enyx’s then-home at eCenter @ LindenPointe, a technology incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Don and his partner at the time shared their thoughts, ideas and work on Unholy, a horror-themed cross platform video game.

Fast forward a few weeks, and i found myself part of the Enyx team as a creative director, writer and designer – tasks that i felt woefully unskilled at but that i was assured as exemplary, much to my delighted surprise. Due to several other obligations, and an eventual parting of ways between Don and his partner, the project faded into the background.

But that past is prologue to an excited new venture by Enyx Studios.

“A Haunting: Witching Hour” is a brand new title that Don and a new team of designers is hard at work on, building off of what he learned from his experiences with Unholy.

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Promotional image from Enyx Studios’ “A Haunting: Witching Hour” game.

Now based at the Youngstown Business Incubator, a development that came about through Don’s association with Blackstone Launchpad’s Bob Sopko at Case Western Reserve University

The team at Enyx mostly came about through Don’s relationship with YBI. Mitch, who worked with Don on Unholy, remains as the audio engineer for A Haunting. Along with them, Byron works in a mostly research capacity, discovering ways to include real-world elements into the story that add to the immersion and authenticity. Art chores are handled by Steve and Marissa, and as head of the team, Don is involved with everything.

“For the project that we’re taking on, you kinda need a decent size team,” Don explains. “And last week, we got the email that we’ve been waiting for – that golden email from Playstation. We had submitted a concept to them, a full design document and everything, and not only did they approve it, but they want to give us a page on playstation.com that’s all about the game. Once we have a trailer, they want to put it on their YouTube channel as well as on the Playstation Network – which means it will be on 36 million Playstations worldwide.”

Settling on the Playstation platform initially, A Haunting takes advantage of the Playstation VR, Enyx Studios is working with some “really cool equipment” including a full motion-capture system that they’re using to give all the in-game characters a higher level of realism.

Porting the game over to other platforms like Xbox or PC is certainly not out of the question according to Don, but for the relatively small team to produce a multi-platform game right out of the gate is one of the stumbling blocks he experienced with Unholy. Instead, Enyx is focusing on producing the best title they can for a single platform, with an eye on a Q3 2016 release.

The game itself takes revolves around an indie film crew who travels to the fictional town of Shady Hollow to create a documentary about the murder of several coal miners that occurred in 1975. The owner of the mine had always insisted there were supernatural forces involved, claiming an entity known as the Hollow Creek Witch is to blame, but of course no one believed him. As the filmmakers dig deeper into the story, they begin to uncover evidence that the claims of evil occult forces might actually be true.

“We’re pulling a lot of real facts from things like the Salem Witch Trials and how that all occurred,” Don elaborates. “We’re using that as a background for this witch, and we picked up a bunch of books on witches, Wiccans and things like that to learn about that culture and what certain symbols mean, like air, wind and fire, different moons and that sort of thing.

“We’re trying to make it as real as possible,” Don says. “Of course, you have to change it up a little bit. But from day one, the whole goal is to be a creepy, scary game, and when you play it, it just scares the hell out of you.”

Described as a storytelling video game of dark horror and desperate survival, Enyx is taking great strides to create a rich background for all of the characters and places in the game, including Eddie, the protagonist controlled by the player.

Eddie, a mysterious character with a troubled past, possesses the “Gift of Sight” that manifests as psychic powers such as the ability to see things others cannot, psychometry (the ability to read the psychic residue left on objects), clairvoyance and more.

These abilities come with a price, however – every time a player uses Eddie’s Gift of Sight, he becomes weakened

Like Unholy, A Haunting aims to follow an episodic path, with new chapters of the game down the road building on the experience and offering new locations, paths and twists to the tale.

“We want to tell a story and have it build,” Don explains. “Just when you think you kind of have it figured out, oh my gosh – something else happens that makes you go ‘huh.’ One of the things that really inspired us was that thing on Netflix, ‘Making a Murderer.’ The whole time, you’re bouncing back and forth – did he murder them? Did he not? And we’re trying to bring some of that element into the game.”

The gameplay starts with Eddie in questioning, with the player traveling back into the story throughout the experience. Based on the player’s actions such as discovering clues, answering questions and so forth, the story will change depending on these outcomes. In essence, the game is a flashback, and the player controls how the past manifests in the present.

“As you play the game, that’s your story that you’re telling,” Don shares, revealing that there are multiple possible endings. “It’s almost like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books.”

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(Wood)turn your attention

Living in Las Vegas by way of a poker career that took him first to Rhode Island, Jerrod Toth has been busy shaping a new facet to his life as the man behind the Woodturners Journal.

A native of Kirtland, Ohio (go Hornets!) woodworking is something ingrained in Jerrod from his father, although he didn’t explore his interest in it until settling down in Vegas about 8 years ago.

“He actually got mad at me,” Jerrod explains. “I moved away, and he said ‘your whole life, you never had interest in it, and then you move away and all of a sudden you’re interested in it.’

“But I’ve actually always had an interest,” he admits.

He began exploring that interest first through several PBS shows devoted to the woodworking craft, which grew into eagerness for anything involving wood.

“It started because I bought a house out here, and my girl wanted furniture,” Jerrod says of his motivation, starting off with only a small miter saw. “I built end tables, our nightstands, an oak bookshelf – I built a ton of stuff.”

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A nightstand built by Woodturners Journal craftsman Jerrod Toth.

Back in Cleveland, his brother had gotten into woodturning, and during a visit home the two went to a friend’s shop to try using a lathe to make wood-handled pens. With the new experience under his belt, back in Vegas Jerrod absorbed all that he could through resources like Woodturning with Tim Yoder. Still without a lathe of his own, his imagination was filled with project ideas and the know-how to get them done.

Arriving the following year with those project ideas and the wood to make them, a lathe-less Jerrod had worked out how to properly make a natural edge wooden bowl and explained to his brother how to mount and cut the piece.

“I did mine first, then we got his piece of wood up on the lathe and he’s like ‘I really don’t know how to do this,'” Jerrod relates. “So, I tell him what I would do if I were him, and he ends up doing it. He liked it and it looked good.

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Natural edge black walnut bowl by Jerrod Toth.

“He’s like ‘How do you know so much about this already? You don’t even own a lathe, and I do own a lathe,'” he says of his brother’s surprise at his aptitude for woodturning.

Part of that aptitude comes from Jerrod’s background in art, the focus of his studies at Ohio State University. That background helps when it comes to imagining new designs, as well as looking at a piece of wood and seeing the potential hidden inside. To Jerrod, woodturning is an art form with endless opportunities to let his artistic side show. He considers himself an artist first and a woodworker second.

Despite the growing interest in woodturning, Jerrod’s woodworking efforts were bent primarily towards making furniture, and to that end his girl surprised him with a “really, really nice table saw.”

His brother, meanwhile, recognized Jerrod’s natural talent and pushed for him to get a lathe to explore what he could do with one. After a big argument hinging on his brother’s insistence that he owed Jerrod money, he returned home to find a package waiting for him.

“I come home – he bought me a lathe,” Jerrod relates of his brother’s method of settling the dispute. “His point was, I seem too good at this (woodturning) to not do it.”

Starting the Woodturners Journal YouTube channel evolved from his existing interest in similar channels and, again, his brother’s push for him to take his craft further. Plus, there was always the chance of getting endorsements to help take him even further.

Like any good man, he discussed the prospect with his girl, telling her about how his brother had asked why he wasn’t making his own videos.

“She’s like ‘Yeah, that is a very good point – why aren’t you?’ ”

Without any good reason why not, Jerrod set about getting a camera and software to produce his videos.

Since starting to share his videos early in 2015, the response has been terrific.

“It’s nonstop, everything I do,” Jerrod says of the work he puts into both coming up with projects, planning and then creating the woodturned objects as well as filming, editing and sharing his videos. “Somebody writes me about once a week, from all around the world. A guy wrote me from Russia, in Russian, and I had to translate it. People write to thank me and say they really love my videos.”

Even though his time is limited (he still maintains a full-time job as a department manager at Whole Foods), Jerrod’s love of the craft keeps him dedicated to growing his channel and constantly challenging himself with new projects that push the envelope of what is capable through woodturning.

“In the woodworking community, there’s people that travel around and do workshops,” Jerrod prefaces what he envisions as his long-term goals. “I want to get a big enough name where I could be invited to go and talk and show people techniques.”

Those techniques and skills are essentially self-taught, through observation and trial-and-error. Viewers on his videos find out right alongside Jerrod whether something will work or not. Even with forethought and planning, since he strives to push himself, he’s always trying new methods. More than once, he’s gotten responses from viewers who say they’ve never seen anything quite like some of the pieces he creates.

“Every single thing I do, I’m trying to push the limits of what I even know how to do, and everything’s setting me up for something in the future. I keep on trying to come up with something way different, that I don’t know how to do, than anything I’ve seen.”

Complex, unusual projects serve another purpose, too – building an audience. By continuously challenging himself and imagining things he’s never seen before, his videos are must-see viewing particularly for other woodturners. One of these projects, a slotted candle holder, received just the kind of response he hoped for, with comments about never having seen anything like it before. And in order to learn how he achieved the results…you gotta watch the video.

“I do want it to be instructional, and I do want to try to help people,” Jerrod explains of his video-making approach. Talking to the viewers throughout each video gives greater insight into his thoughts and plans, and helps to answer questions that viewers might have. “The point is hopefully give someone an idea, or get them motivated to take that idea, twist it and do something else with it.

“I want to inspire other people to go and, hey, steal my ideas and make them better,” he says. “Just get out there and do it.”

For those interested in where Jerrod gets the wood for his projects, he says living in Las Vegas makes it difficult. He did find a very good lumberyard where he was able to get some exotic wood, but a lot of his supply comes back with him on trips to visit family and friends in Cleveland, including a suitcase full of black walnut (his favorite), as well as shipments from his brother. His biggest haul, though, came from a tip from another woodturner, who directed him to the largest tree-clearing service in Las Vegas. From them, he was able to fill the back of a pickup truck with wood to the tune of $20 that included mesquite, sycamore and ash.

As for average project times, something like the very popular black walnut coffee mug takes about 8 hours to complete, plus about 3 hours of video editing.

To film his videos, Jerrod uses a Xiaomi Yi Action Camera that he discovered as an alternative to the popular GoPro camera with a lower pricetag. Made in China, Jerrod was a bit concerned when he discovered the software and phone app accompanying the camera are written in Chinese. Nevertheless, he figured out how to use it and is now in the market for a second camera to get multiple angles and speed up the production process (and workaround the 45-minute battery life).

The intro video to Jerrod’s videos (embedded at the top of this article), was created by Jerrod and includes licensed music he discovered on a site that offers music services for a fee. 

*****

Although not a woodturner or artist myself, I simply became entranced when I came across the Woodturners Journal on YouTube. Watching Jerrod explain his project idea and following right along with him as those ideas spring from his imagination into finished objects is fascinating.

His outlook, methods and story reminded me a lot of Stefan Pokorny, who combined his talent for classical art with his love of D&D to develop a unique artistic identity.

It’s really a pleasure for me to get a chance to speak with people like Jerrod, whose dedication and talents are plain to see and who modestly share the pursuit of their craft with others.

On a larger scale, a lot of the work I do here at The Long Shot involves sharing the stories of people who inspire me personally. If I have any talent at all, I hope it lies in an ability to properly connect readers with some of the fascinating people out there who are basically just following their dreams. Every single one of them will tell you that there’s nothing easy about it, but at the same time it’s infinitely rewarding – a message that everyone should take to heart.

Just a guy who played D&D

The best and most memorable of RPG campaigns and the rich tradition of fantasy behind them all start in the simplest of ways, with fledgling entrepreneurs who look at the world around them and feel an innate, sometimes imperceptible desire to help shape the kind of world they inhabit.

Whatever collection of skills and talents they are imbued with are recognized, and as they grow in competence through experience, form the core of their identity. Never put to the side and forgotten, the abilities they bring to the table are in fact celebrated. Through them, these folk engage with their world. Although their journeys do not often turn out the way they expected when they first began, they can nevertheless look backward and recall how they arrived, by remaining true to themselves to the best of their ability.

And maps.

Lots and lots of maps help ignite the memory and the imagination.

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An illustration of The Hyborian Age primarily based upon a map hand-drawn by Robert E. Howard in March 1932.

 

“I liked to read Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and they all have maps,” Stefan Pokorny says of the road that lead him to Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, when he was 12. (note: Paul O’Connor aka Longbox Graveyard considers 12 to be the ‘golden age’).

Middle Earth map

Map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I think it even said in the Dungeon Master’s Guide ‘you should be drawing a map of your world,’ so that’s what I did,” he explains. “I immediately thought that one of the most funnest parts of playing the game was to create all your own stuff.

“It’s the creative part that’s fun.”

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Stefan Pokorny, with some of Dwarven Forge’s terrain pieces

These days, when New York City native Stefan isn’t waiting for his Brooklyn building’s laundry maintenance person to arrive, he stays plenty busy with a career as an artist whose start, like the fantasy characters of RPGs and literature, lay in between the pages of a notebook.

Combining his devotion to medieval fantasy and D&D with a talent for sculpting, Stefan launched Dwarven Forge in 1996, offering pre-painted 3-D dungeon terrain to the gaming community, a business that endures today.

“It happened more out of desperation – I was trying to find a way to make money somehow, because I’d been a painter,” he discloses, dispelling the notion that this path was planned from the beginning. “I wasn’t really selling enough paintings to survive in New York City.”

He was working as a model painter for a company that would take his painted pieces, like small lighthouse figurines, and ship them overseas for mass production. At the same time, he was already beginning to build his own dungeon terrain for gaming, just for fun.

“I was thinking I could just take this to the next level (note: innocuous RPG reference there) and actually cast these things in resin and paint them. It dawned on me one day that I should do that – I should make dungeons.

“So that’s what I did.”

A friend from his neighborhood hobby store The Compleat Strategist suggested getting a booth at Gen Con, and with about 300 of his first dungeon terrain box sets, Stefan set up at a 10-by-10 booth at the world’s largest gaming convention.

When the convention doors opened, people ran to the booth and mobbed the place.

Four hours later, he was sold out.

Gathering contact info from would-be customers for the rest of that first convention trip (“there was still four days left!”), he headed home to prepare new stock.

“Now it’s been, what, 18 years? I dunno,” Stefan says humbly, happy if only for the fact that the same talent for art that drew him to fantasy in the first place continues to help him shape the world he lives in.

Stefan learned to sculpt while earning Master’s degree in painting from Hartford Art School, and on Dec. 19 will be celebrating the grand opening of his own, first art gallery, Zaltar’s Gallery of Fantastical Art in Brooklyn. Named after one of his oldest D&D characters, the gallery’s first show is titled ‘Transmutation.’

“It’s my transmutation from a classical artist to a sort of artist of the fantastical,” Stefan describes. “There will be a bit of both in the show.”

Drawing inspiration from classical artists like Michaelangelo and Bernini and contemporary artists, particularly Frank Frazetta, Stefan explains that the gallery is his dream come true – the full circle from fine to fantastical art.

 

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Frank Frazetta’s “A Fighting Man of Mars” from 1973.

“He was the man,” Stefan says of Frazetta, but he also notes that many of the artists who contributed work to those 1st Edition AD&D books captured his imagination as well.

“They were artists of the fantastic, and they stimulated your creativity,” he continues, noting that artists such as Donald A. Trampier and Clyde Caldwell had a big influence as well.

Trampier

Selection of art from Donald A. Trampier from the 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual

“I’ve finally accepted myself as being not just a regular artist, but an artist of Dungeons & Dragons and these kinds of things, and seeing that as being art in itself,” he explains, describing not just his body of work but his vision for what Zaltar’s can represent.

“I really believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of art. The way actors in theater are considered artists, and writers are considered artists. I think that dungeon masters are also artists, and should be seen as such.”

Initially featuring his work, Stefan considers calling for other artists’ entries in the future. Later shows may display maps that other dungeon masters have created, or painted miniatures.

Beyond the featured art show, the gallery will host other events throughout the week, like figure drawing classes and other traditional art programs, gaming nights and fantasy movie showings.

“It’s going to be a cauldron of creativity.”

Although Stefan doesn’t have a regular D&D group at this point, he still gets opportunities to game through the convention circuit, where he’s often invited to run game sessions. In addition, several of his ventures are funded through Kickstarters, and some of the rewards for contributing are a chance to go to NYC and play in a game run by Stefan – something a lot of groups chose to donate for.

“It’s a DM’s dream come true, to get paid to play D&D,” he points out. And those who play in Stefan’s games are in for a retro treat, since he still plays 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, having never felt the need to do anything else. Likewise, D&D video games don’t compare to what the pencil-and-paper style offer, “sitting around a table with actual people – taking the game wherever it might go, improvising. It’s ten times better than any kind of video game you could play.”

An upcoming Kickstarter scheduled for March will support Dwarven Forge’s World’s Greatest Modular Castle System. Past Dwarven Forge Kickstarters include things like Caverns and City sets. The latter of those projects made Dwarven Forge the 35th most-funded project of all time, surpassing Stefan’s earlier success with the caverns set (No. 41 or all time) and gaming tiles set (No. 48 of all time).

For the upcoming Kickstarter, Stefan teases that they may explore a new proprietary building material, similar in concept to the custom PVC variant ‘Dwarvenite’ used to make recent products. (note: he’s gonna have to go adamantine or something; Dwarvenite stands up to a lot of punishment without damage to the structure or color).

At the end of the day, it’s a simple thing that keeps Stefan motivated to continue following his passion, despite the lean times he’s experienced when Dwarven Forge’s future was in question (“At least we’re not losing money! So many years we were on the brink of going out of business.”).

“I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do, so everyday isn’t really like work. It’s just like playing, doing your thing. There’s times when it’s tedious, but it’s better than working in a coal mine – there’s lots of worse jobs I could have. There’s stressful times, for sure. But the greatest thing is that I own my own business, so I decide what I want to do and either sink or swim with whatever my decisions are. I’m the master of my own universe. There’s something to be said for that, and not following other people’s orders too much.”

Going back to his roots, Stefan will soon be publishing a book as well, in January 2016, that contains a collection of many of the meticulously drawn maps from his D&D games. Hundreds of his heretofore secret maps will be available for gamers to incorporate into their own campaigns, or just admire as works of art.

For Stefan, 2015 has been a crazy year (in a good way), notably because a camera crew has been following him around.

On top of his continued success with Dwarven Forge, Zaltar’s and the upcoming book, as well as being featured in several D&D-related documentaries, Stefan himself is the subject of a documentary called “Dwarvenaut,” directed by Josh Bishop.

“I was just a guy who played D&D with my friends,” Stefan reflects on the path that led him to where he is today, and bids farewell in classic D&D fashion. “Good gaming!”

Personality goes a long way

An enjoyable, if grainy, documentary called The Dungeons & Dragons Experience led me down an Internet spiral the other night that included the woefully produced Dragons of Autumn Twilight animated film and settled eventually on a nostalgic blast from the past that is the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.

This clip in particular, the intro from season 2 of the show, inspired a new alt creation for DDO as well as a question in my mind: what makes a character stick? Framed in the context of DDO, for me it all comes down to personality. New toons get rolled up all the time, and the vast majority wind up in the scrap heap. The most recent of these, however, carved out a niche for himself in my heart so i think he’ll stick around a while. We’ll get to that in a bit. As prologue, a peek into what makes a DDO character stick around in my stable.

As a rule of thumb, they must be ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres.

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Thinking, feeling, behaving

In DDO, with its static storylines and essentially linear quests, there aren’t any opportunities in-game to shape a character’s personality. You either accept the quests presented by NPCs, or you don’t. And in the course of completing them, your only real option is to follow the path to the end and eliminate a boss monster to finish it out.

For a game based on the preeminent model that the entire genre stems from, this has always struck me as somewhat odd. But, it is what it is and nevertheless i’ve been enjoying it since 2006. Incorporating my ideas of how any of my characters think, feel or behave within the confines of the game system occurs only in my imagination – there’s no way to make any choices that affect the outcome of quests in a measurable way.

To illustrate this point, my two main characters are vastly different. Schir Gold, currently a capped warlock, has many past lives which are all some form of ranged combatant whether magical or mundane. She is always chaotic neutral, sports Free Agent Fuschia hair and loves engaging with the forces of Xoriat or any quests or stories involving madness.

At the other end of the spectrum is Experimenta, a disciplined soldier in any incarnation who cleaves to her sword-and-board roots, these days as a vanguard paladin. Ever-mohawked and adorned with Stormhorn Specs Cosmetic Goggles, she fights to keep some semblance or goodliness and order in her world.

Do either of these characters make any decisions that affect the outcome of their progression? Not really, no.

There are some quests either of them could avoid, based on my perceptions of their individual personalities. Purge the Heretics comes to mind, a longtime sticking point with many players that sees your characters doing some rather nasty work. But i would argue that, if you take the time to read and think about them, there’s an enormous number of quests that paint your characters as not so good and heroic – more like a greedy mercenary who will do anything for coin and loot.

Individual differences in characteristics

You’ve chosen your class and race, allocated ability and skill points, picked feats and selected starting spells, played around with the much-to-be-desired appearance options and finally, chosen an alignment (which has everything to do with gear choices later on and nothing to do with any sort of in-game paths).

Most of the time, players make these choices based on performance. There are some exceptions though, like building a Swim Cleric/Lifeguard or following a single weapon fighting path on a pure rogue assassin (more on this a bit later). And if you’re me, all of your characters feature a scar across one of their eyes. Even my own swimcleric, Jumponin Watersfine, whose facial detail came from an unfortunate incident at Siber Atoll – the best place for a high dive.

How any of this factors into a character’s personality lies, again, purely in the realm of imagination. As a non-min-maxer, i have no spreadsheets or analyses to reference to eke out every possible point of spell power or DPS. Multiclassing to achieve interesting syngeries is likewise not an activity i engage in, although i do try to build reasonably effective characters.

Whenever i am faced with a choice, which in DDO amounts to things you get to pick when you reach a new level, my first consideration is “what would this character do?”

For Experimenta, that always involves anything with the word “shield” in it, so feats, enhancements and the like are prioritized along those guidelines. At the other end of the spectrum, Schir Gold picks up anything that sounds otherworldly to me. That began way back in her first life, when she started the epic destiny of Magister solely because of the ability to “phase out from reality briefly.” And yes, i still twist that in to this day, every time.

Parts come together as a whole

Talking builds in DDO is probably the most frequent topic of conversation on our guild channel, at least in the odd hours i’m typically on there. Although i consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about game mechanics, i detect once in a while a note of bewilderment from my fellow conversationalists regarding the choices i make.

At the end of the day though, it usually gets mentioned that playstyle is paramount, and finding a build that’s right for you is of utmost importance. Something can make all the sense in the world on paper, but in practice it doesn’t work out the same for everyone.

In this way, DDO always reminds me a lot of Magic: The Gathering (i.e. the greatest game ever invented). The pilot makes the deck, and the right player with a starter deck could conceivably trump a novice playing a tournament-worthy deck because of this.

Likewise in DDO, knowing how to play the collection of pixel and points you’ve constructed is more vital than choosing what to play based on a net build.

A large portion of my playstyle boils down to the imagined character personalities. Experimenta likes to be able to charge to the front, protecting her teammates with a combination of tanking and mild crowd control. Schir Gold prefers to pelt enemies with a dizzying array of effects like DoTs and AOEs while madly jumping and tumbling around.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc

i won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a half-orc.

And i’m talking about my new alt toon here.

Sometimes there’s a half-orc who, well, he’s the half-orc for his time and place – he fits right in there – and that’s Zzarak in Eberron.

zarak 1

Zzarak, as you may have guessed, is a half-orc. Inspired through several avenues, he’s been skulking around Stormreach lately, primarily making repeated forays into the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The seed of Zzarak was planted by Stefan Pokorny, a devoted D&D gamer featured prominently in the documentary mentioned at the start of this post. Pokorny, who incidentally parlayed his love of the tabletop game into a career by starting Dwarven Forge, a company that makes 3-D gaming terrain and accessories, mentioned anecdotally that he’s always liked half-orcs because of their nature as societal outliers.

Further down the Internet rabbit hole were the old D&D cartoon and the line of toys TSR put out. Many excursions were made to KB Toys for these (really dating myself here). The crown jewel of my collection back then was Warduke, one of the coolest and underutilized bad guy creations ever. If any DDO devs are reading this – give us some Warduke!

Another of these figures was, as you’ve probably guessed, this fella:

Zarak 2

Zarak, the evil half-orc assassin

Something about the hood, and the foundation of imagination that had already been built the other evening, plus an overflowing bank vault with rogue assassin-y stuff i might not otherwise use, led to the creation of Zzarak, neutral half-orc assassin of DDO.

ScreenShot00403

Like Experimenta’s first life, Zzarak is far from optimal. He’s doing single weapon fighting with a dagger – Assassin’s Kiss seen here – and the cosmetic indigo hood works nicely to complete the look.

So far, i’ve been enjoying playing this sneaky killer quite a bit. He (and by default, me) have been getting well-versed in the Temple of Elemental Evil. That quest is quite divisive in the DDO community, and personally i love it. Each time i play through parts 1 and 2, i enjoy it more and i hope to see more quests like this in the future.

As for Zzarak, i like to think of him as a fellow with a penchant for evil just like the monsters who keep attacking him, and in my imagination he’s desperately trying to communicate to them that he’s not there to ransack them – he only wants to help!

On a side note, the name “Zarak” was already taken, hence the extra “Z” in his name. Is there another half-orc assassin out there on Sarlona somewhere?

TL;DR

Despite a lack of real opportunities to make story choices in DDO, characters can still act and react to things differently, if you use your imagination.

Do your characters have their own personalities? Do they affect your mechanical choices or playstyle?

Giving your characters their own personalities and stories can make the game much more interesting. Give it a try sometime!

Turkey and technology collide at Great Lakes Science Center’s ‘Turkey Tech’

This story originally appeared in The News-Herald and The Morning Journal

Great Lakes Science Center

The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland is shown in July 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

When you think about Thanksgiving, science and technology might not be the first things that spring to mind.

Sure, there’s the chemistry of starch behind the family recipe for gravy. And in the last four hundred years since the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621, kitchen gadgetry has come a long way. But, robots, 3-D printing and vacuum chambers aren’t the images that are typically conjured when turkey day draws near.

This year, the Great Lakes Science Center, 601 Erieside Ave. in Cleveland, aims to change those perceptions with Turkey Tech, a holiday-themed event Nov. 27-29 “where turkey and technology collide.” Regular admission to the Science Center gives access to the planned activities and presentations, with additional registration required for a couple of the items due to limitations on space and participation.

With the potential for chilly outside temperatures and the long weekend many look forward to from school or work, Science Center Communications Director Joe Yachanin explained that the event programming sought to give families a fun option for how to spend the holiday time.

There’s a bit of Thanksgiving-themed stuff developed just for the event, plus a holiday theme to several mainstays like the Big Science Show, he said.

“We thought, what better way to celebrate Thanksgiving weekend with the people in your family than coming downtown and visiting the Great Lakes Science Center,” said Yachanin. “We’re always looking for things to do that can engage multiple generations.”

On top of all of that, Yachanin said, the timing worked out for the debut of National Geographic’s “Robots 3-D” film in the OMNIMAX theater on Nov. 27, showcasing the latest successes and failures in robotics research.

“It’s a tour of robotics labs around the world, so that people can see what sorts of advancements are being made in the world of robotics,” Yachanin said.

RoboThespian, a humanoid robot actor designed to interact with humans in a public setting, acts as the film’s narrator. Viewers will be introduced to several high-profile robotics projects like CHIMP, ATLAS, Herb the Butler and more.

For more robotics, VEX Robotics exhibitions are scheduled all day for all three days. Builders will be demonstrating how to design and build robots with the VEX Robotics Design System, a platform geared towards students.

One of the more intriguing Turkey Tech exhibitions, which will run all day throughout the weekend, is the vacuum chamber floor demonstration. Attendees can see what happens when different Thanksgiving side dishes are put into the chamber to have the air sucked out of them completely and then put back in.

“It works really neat with whipped cream on top of pumpkin pie — to see the whipped cream expand and contract right before your eyes,” Yachanin said. “It works really well because there’s a lot of air in the whipped cream. It’s really neat to watch the food literally change size right before your eyes.

“And the education person doing that demonstration can of course explain the science behind how changing the air pressure affects the food.”

Both the Maker Workshop and Family Turkey Launch Tournament are free with regular admission, but require additional registration due to space and material limitations. The Science Center is asking for a donation of canned food for this event as well.

In the Maker Workshop, scheduled for Nov. 27 at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., participants will get an introduction to 3-D printing and make their own cookie cutters.

The turkey launch, scheduled for Nov. 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., challenges teams to construct a catapult using a basket of household objects provided. The catapult will then be used to launch plastic turkeys, with the winner being the team able to propel their turkey the closest to landing in a pot, with a bullseye for getting it to land inside.

“The closer you get, the more points it will be worth,” Yachanin said. “It’ll be tournament style, and the top teams will go home with a turkey trophy.”

Visitors who have been to the Science Center before may not recall seeing any bowling lanes on the premises. Nevertheless, Turkey Bowling is scheduled Nov. 27-28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Nov. 29 1-4 p.m. Set up in open exhibit space, participants will get to make and decorate their own head pins and then hit the boards for a chance to roll their own turkeys, or three strikes in a row — a term that originated when bowling tournaments handed out grocery items (like turkeys), eventually becoming part of the vernacular.

A staple of the Science Center, the Big Science Show will have a few surprises in store for anyone who’s seen it before. Turkey Tech-themed elements were integrated into the show, scheduled to run on Nov. 27 at 2 p.m., Nov. 28 at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. and Nov. 29 at 2:30 p.m.

“One of the new demonstrations is an explanation of why Thanksgiving Day parade balloons are full of helium instead of hydrogen,” Yachanin said. “And another one we’re doing is called the Tesla Turkey. We’re going to be conducting electricity through a turkey on a giant Tesla coil.”

For parents looking to take advantage of Black Friday shopping, the center is also offering a one day camp-like program called “Parent’s Day Out” on Nov. 27 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. By registering in advance, children ages 6-13 can be dropped off at GLSC for a day of supervised scientific fun with hands-on activities, a pizza lunch, an OMNIMAX film, the Big Science Show and more. The cost per child is $30 for nonmembers and $25 for members.

Like the Spooktacular Science Day in October, Turkey Tech continues a programming schedule of holiday-themed events. Coming up, GLSC plans a whole week of wintry/cold themed activities for Winter Week, Dec. 26-Jan. 2.

“Lots of kids are home from school, on winter break,” Yachanin said.

“We’re trying to put in a bit of added incentive with fun, wintry-themed activities. We’ll probably do some fun stuff with liquid nitrogen that week.”

Events like carpet skating will take place, with plans to run a snow machine inside GLSC to complete the wintry atmosphere for visitors.

“We basically just want people to make family memories,” Yachanin said.

“Come down and have a little fun with science. Hopefully we’re going to make it engaging and expose people to some level of creativity that they don’t normally associate with science.”

GIS Day at Lakeland Community College showcases geographic software

This story originally appeared in The News-Herald and The Morning Journal

GIS Day 1

Dakota Benjamin from Cleveland Metroparks shows the E384 unmanned aircraft during a presentation by GIS Manager Stephen V. Mather (left) to guests during GIS Day at Lakeland Community College on Nov. 18. The craft is part of a fleet used by Cleveland Metroparks that includes rotorcraft drones and kites for surveying land and gathering geospatial data.

Since 1999, the third Wednesday of each November has been designated as GIS Day, a grassroots global event developed by Esri — an international supplier of GIS software — that lets users and vendors of the geographic software to showcase their applications to the public.

On Nov. 18, Lakeland Community College hosted a GIS Day event, organized by Lisa Stanich, geospatial technology program assistant, and Mark Guizlo, professor and chair of the department of geography and geospatial technology.

The free and public event took place across two rooms set aside for presentations and demonstations, and a third room for exhibitors.
Lakeland also uses GIS Day to showcase their Geospatial Technology program. Developed in 2011, it is the first program in the state that’s aligned with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Geospatial Technology Competency Model designed to produce a skilled workforce.

“We set ours up based on the needs of the industry,” Guizlo said.

While developing the program, Guizlo attended professional meetings for the industry, noting that there were few academics there at the time. At the meetings, he began building relationships with industry leaders to help shape the program.

“We used the (Labor Department) model to guide what we are doing, and no we have a very professional, skills-based approach.”

GIS program participant Caroline Petersen, who manned the department’s exhibit table, was enthusiastic about her experience.

“It’s an amazing program that’s opened up so many doors for me,” she said.

Fellow student Joe Gragg agreed.

“From what I’ve heard, students coming from Lakeland’s GIS program are a year or two ahead when they go on to four-year programs,” he said.

Starting off the day, GIS instructor Bobby Oliver showed attendees a selection of free and open mobile apps for geospatial data collection. She explained that casual users and consumers can take advantage of app capabilities to gather useful information for things like fitness and health tracking.

One of the apps, Endomondo, can track workouts like running or biking, measuring speed, distance and elevation. Using the data, the app provides feedback on how to meet exercise goals.

“There’s lots of free software out there for your phones,” Oliver said.
Most of these sorts of apps are designed to sync with users’ social media networks, making it easy to share your successes or compare with other enthusiasts.

Sharing large swaths of data across multiple entities is one of the broader uses of GIS data, exemplified by municipal organizations like the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

Robert Stoerkel and Dennis Quigney, both graduates of Lakeland’s GIS program, presented attendees with a variety of ways NEORSD collects, uses and shares data.

With over 1 million customers in a 355-square-mile service area and over 90 billion gallons of water treated each year, managing geospatial data is vital.

Customized data logged in their Enterprise GIS system is used to aid many other departments, including Homeland Security, in order to coordinate infrastructure projects and ensure safety and stability for both consumers and professionals in the coverage area.

“Everyone in the district is using this app once a day,” Stoerkel said.

Michael Foley, GIS specialist with CT Consultants, a local municipal engineering and planning firm in Mentor, echoed Stoerkel’s sentiments about the importance of geospatial data.

“People don’t care about maps, they care about apps,” he said.
Situated in the exhibit hall, Foley explained the work that went into developing and managing a comprehensive database and map for the city of Euclid’s sewer system using aerial photos and other techniques. The resulting web application allows the city to access and input data as needed.

Aerial photography was also the focus of Cleveland Metroparks presentation, where GIS Manager Stephen V. Mather showed what his department’s fleet of unmanned craft can provide.

Using OpenDroneMap, an open source toolkit, in conjunction with both fixed wing and rotorcraft drones as well as kites, they’re able to reconstruct the world using series of overlapping photos from repeated drone flights.

The highly-detailed maps created allow for precise attention to problems like erosion, stemming invasive species like phragmites and promoting healthy vegetation growth.

GIS Day 2

A selection of quilts on display at GIS Day at Lakeland Community College on Nov. 18 created by Debbie Berkebile, owner of Mountain Trail Quilt Treasures. Berkbile uses GIS data to create artistic representations of geographic locations, including (from left) the Painted Desert, Eye of Sahara and Sustina Glacier.

Exhibitor Debbie Berkebile, owner of Mountain Trail Quilt Treasures, puts her GIS training to use for an artistic pursuit.

Using image data from various locations around the globe, she creates quilts and uses topographical information to hand-paint landscape features on them.

“Each one has characteristics of what the colors really mean,” she said.

“I’ve been quilting for over 15 years, but this I just started after graduation. I like mapping.”