Week in Geek 11.21.14

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

*My visit to Boxcast was rescheduled for next week, and in its stead i give you coverage from GIS Day and the prevalence of robots in our world today.

Discovering the world through geographic information systems

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 its applications to the public.

In the Cleveland area, GIS Day was celebrated by Lakeland Community College as i mentioned last week, and i had the good fortune of visiting the school Nov. 19 to check it out. Most of the action took place in Lakeland’s geospatial technology lab, where experienced users of GIS technology have demonstrations and exhibitions for visitors, who could also participate at one of the lab’s numerous computer terminals.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist
Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

The lab itself was adorned with GIS maps lining each of the walls that highlighted just a few of the countless applications for the software. As one of the demonstrators – Brian Villers from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District – explained, “90 percent of data has a spatial component to it, and if it has a spatial component, you can use GIS.”

Villers became interested in GIS while a student at the University of Akron, and along with his colleague Jeff Duke gave a very cool presentation on how the NEORSD utilizes ArcGIS software to have a major impact on the efficiency and efficacy of their work. Field crews, equipped with tablets, can pinpoint trouble spots and indicate the severity of problems so the organization can respond quickly and effectively to correct them. Duke also pointed out that tasks which used to take months or weeks could now be completed in days, because ArcGIS allows information from multiple sources, like spreadsheets on various people’s computers and countless files, to be consolidated into a single cloud-based platform that Villers built.

In order to gather the data instrumental to Villers in building the platform, technicians walked over 250 miles of streams and other waterways to provide a comprehensive inventory of the system. Using their tablets, they added info points as well as video and photos that anyone with access to the platform can use to get detailed information about any of the areas. The info points, indicated by colored dots on the map depending on their severity, include the technician’s name, date, observation type and description.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist
Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Outside of crew tasks such as debris-choked water flow, NEORSD uses ArcGIS software to keep track of and manage all the water flow lines throughout their district, which is a dizzying array when shown on their live ArcGIS map. Technicians can monitor the flow of water and make adjustments as needed, as well as survey areas for potential new lines and coordinate any land development necessary to keep NE Ohio’s water running. The latter is particularly useful to NEORSD’s legal department, because the database displays not only a map of the areas in question, but land and project costs, easements, the progress of jobs and more – all shown live in real-time.

Part of NEORSD’s strategic plan, these comprehensive dashboards are used to track the progress of all strategic objectives and their metrics.

In addition, the ArcGIS data can be quickly and easily shared with other departments like firefighters, police and emergency crews in severe events, which can greatly increase their ability to respond to situations. As Duke said, one of the best things about this technology is how it visualizes data collected from all over clearly and concisely. The momentum behind their use of ArcGIS answers the question, as Duke put it, “How can I provide best services for my customers?”

The ArcGIS information isn’t just for internal use, either. Customers can access GIS maps through NEORSD’s website to find information about fees, stormwater management and more.

In a more general way, the demo from NEORSD’s Jeff Duke and Brian Villers showed just another way that technology makes things more efficient and how huge of an impact it has on our world. Lying beneath the surface of all the things we use each day, like our water systems, is an intricate network of technology where people like Villers play a key role in improving its use.

Earlier in the day, technology specialist Stephen Titchenal led a workshop that focused on Google Earth, a powerful and free application with a huge amount of imagery that also allows for citizen mapping, and showed some of the more advanced things users can do with it on their own.

Titchenal introduced guests to his website Rails and Trails that “provides high-resolution digital images of historic maps and documents that can be re-used by students, educators and historians.” All the seats in the lab were filled during Titchenal’s presentation, during which he pointed out several aspects of Google Earth that may go unnoticed by the casual user, like the display of images’ origin, how to use the clock feature to look at how maps change over time, and how to add layers or overlay other maps and then adjust transparency to see how those maps interact with Google Earth. The mixed crowd of men and women of all ages were keen to follow along with his guide through the application, as well as ask questions about its capabilities.

Essentially, what Titchenal brought to the group was insight into just a few of the ways Google Earth can be heavily customized by users not only in its UI but through using information from other sources like the historical map overlays mentioned above. The bulk of the presentation delved into the Layers, and specifically the Earth Gallery option through which users can browse through shared maps to use as layers in Google Earth. In particular, Ohio and Pennsylvania have very good maps, as those two states were the first to use LIDAR (light and radar) over both of the entire states to create elevation maps. He also pointed out that users’ operations are all saved under “My Places” so you can return to them easily later, download onto your computer or share with others.

“You could take your whole life to look at this stuff,” Titchenal said. “It’s really very fascinating.”

And indeed it was, especially considering the application itself is free. Many times, i’ve used Google Earth as a simple distraction for entertainment. “Ooh, look, i can see that place i went to one time!” But it is so much more than that, able to create routes, help with historical and geographical research and a multitude of other tasks. Titchenal’s presentation was worth it alone just for his pointing out the Earth Gallery’s shared maps and overlay ability, which has things like worldwide Climate Change since 1910, voter turnouts and park systems just to name a few drops in the bucket.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist
Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Mark Guizlo, professor and chair of the department of geography and geospatial technology at Lakeland, was really pleased with the response from both guests and presenters.

“It is especially rewarding to hear from students who have gained a new understanding of how their own field of interest can (be) related to GIS and to a spatial perspective of the environment,” he said. “The presenters were impressed with the questions they got from students, which is great to hear.”

Guizlo estimates that about 500 people participated in GIS Day at Lakeland, with 80 students that completed a GIS workshop during that time and 15 exhibitors from public agencies and private companies.

“We need students who want to add GIS to their skillset or who want to become a GIS technician,” Guizlo added. “The job market is growing, and Lakeland offers a robust program that is grounded in the real world and based on the U.S. Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model.”

Guizlo went on to say that the most impressive thing about GIS is the interdisciplinary nature, something that Villers echoed when i spoke with him after the NEORSD presentation. He stressed that students are well-served by attending events such as this and other networking events, making the point that “in order for them to build a future, they have to take seriously (these additional steps) since they need every tool available to compete.”

Like the LeanDog meetup, events such as this are plentiful not only in my hometown of Cleveland in Northeast Ohio, but i imagine all over. These free community events are great ways to not only network as Guizlo mentioned, but also to learn new skills and improve existing ones. As i mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there are avenues out there for everyone hoping to move forward with their aspirations whether they’re technology-based or not – you only need to take that first step.


Oh, hi.
Oh, hi.

A fair bit of news this week from the robotics field, something i am both fascinated and a little wary of. First up, i saw a video of two robotic arms programmed to conduct an elegant katana swordfight. The extreme precision is flawless and amazing, to be sure. On the other hand…why do robots need to conduct samurai battles again?

On a less violent, but probably more impactful to human life (via roboticizing of jobs) is a robotic pancake maker. Like the katana-fighting robots above, this robotic system comes courtesy of ABB Robotics, a leading supplier of industrial robots and modular manufacturing systems.

In both cases, precision is showcased through these machines’ impressive software that does anything a human can do, only better. Maybe someday i’ll post more deeply about my theory of where humankind is heading in light of AI and robotics advancement, but for now, let’s move on to more current-day robotics news which comes from The Atlantic.

In an article titled “Robots at Work and Play” posted Nov. 19, the terrific magazine shared a gallery of 30 photos showing a wide range of robots like Awabot, which allows absent students to follow as well as participate in classes. Kinda like the time Sheldon built a robot version of himself to extend his lifespan on The Big Bang Theory.

Life imitates art...?
Life imitates art…?

A few other noteworthy robots featured in the gallery are one built by an Iranian schoolteacher that instructs children on how to perform daily prayers, the X-37B Orbital test vehicle – a robotic spaceship, and a strength-enhancing exoskeleton. The gallery is really quite fascinating and worth checking out. Several of them stray into the “uncanny valley,” the point at which robots are so lifelike as to cause human revulsion, but nevertheless there are numerous really intriguing examples of robotics.

The dark world of the future

My fascination with science fiction’s depiction of a world that might come to be (and eerily often does) stretches back to when i first became interested in authors like Philip K. Dick and Daniel F. Galouye, who’s 1960’s sci-fi books told of pervasive technologies and mankind’s struggle to find a place in the world we’d created for ourselves. Reading them as i did in a time when much of what they imagined had come to be, and in some cases even more dramatically than they envisioned, fostered in my both a respect and caution towards technology.

In addition to my great love of old timey science fiction, which motivated me to write about the fantastic (and now canceled) Prophets of Science Fiction program, i also love street-level classic comic book superheroes like Daredevil, Hawkeye and Moon Knight – depending on the creative team of course. The latter of those heroes recently enjoyed what i thought was one of the finest comic book runs in recent years, courtesy of the creative team of Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey. So i was quite dismayed when their collaboration on Moon Knight ended after six issues. Six issues! The title continued, and it might be great, but i was so disappointed and so into the book that i can’t bring myself to continue reading.

However, i was quite joyous to come upon this little news flash – a new title from Ellis and Shalvey coming in 2015 billed as “an all-new ongoing series about the disturbing, unruly future that looms near for society.” The book is called “Injection,” and although i’m a pretty solid Marvel zombie, i will definitely give this the ol’ three-issue chance to see how it goes. If it’s anything like Moon Knight, i’m in for the duration. For me, the most important thing about comics is the art, and Shalvey’s work is so cinematic and evocative. Ellis is hit-or-miss for me, and to be honest i’m much more into the artistry of comics that a great artist and bad writer can still be enjoyable under the right circumstances. Not that Ellis is bad by any means, and a dark sci-fi tale by these two gives me high expectations.

Promo print for the upcoming Injection comic
Promo print for the upcoming Injection comic

i put my money where my keyboard was and picked up the first couple of issues of the new Thor series and i’ve got to say, it’s terrific so far. It’s no secret that i am a great fan of strong female heroes, so i was already excited about this book since day one of hearing about it. Now two issue in, the new Thor has delivered imo. The artwork is fantastic, and although the story isn’t exactly riveting so far, the new version of Thor certainly has my attention. To be honest, i don’t really care who is under the helmet wielding Mjolnir, although it will be interesting to follow the story and find out.

What i enjoy most so far is the feel of the book as a great jumping on point for new readers to comics in general and the Thor character in particular. Thor has never really been all that intriguing to me, but this iteration has my attention because of the duality represented in her character so far. To others, she speaks and acts as traditional Thor would, but internally she is unsure of herself and her abilities. In fact, it seems the hammer Mjolnir has quite a bit more to do with the persona of Thor than being a mighty weapon…

The action in the book is also very exciting so far. As this new Thor learns what she can do and the tests the limits of her abilities, she does a masterful job of battling foes like the frost giants currently plaguing the storyline. What i’m really looking forward to is her first interactions with other established heroes in the Marvel Universe, especially Thor’s teammates in the Avengers. i flipped through a few pages of the new Captain America which has former Falcon, Sam Wilson, wearing the stars-and-stripes and making yield all those who would oppose his mighty shield. The pages i saw had him standing up quite strongly to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. and i’m curious to see how he’ll react when he meets Thor.

So far, i’m not 100% convinced i’ll stick with this book for the duration, but for now it’s a fun story that i look forward to seeing how it plays out. A great number of people i know, as well as lots of people online, were very critical of Thor’s new direction, and i urged them to pick up the book to see for themselves. That suggestion still stands, especially for those who may not have ever been into comics or used to but drifted away. It’s worth three issues at least.

Marvel NOW's Thor
Marvel NOW’s Thor

Lastly, and briefly because i’m short on time, i want to give huge praise to the current Silver Surfer run by Dan Slott and Michael and Laura Allred. There’s several books from 2014 that i really love like She-Hulk and Superior Foes of Spider-Man, but above them all is this book, which is just pure fun. For anyone familiar with the Allred’s work, i don’t need to mention that the art is spectacular, and the story is right up there, too. It’s no secret that i’m not really into the slugfest-of-the-month or big crossover stuff, so this book’s tale of cosmic journeys is just a joy to read. Seeing the blossoming relationship between the Surfer and his traveling companion Dawn is really sweet, and the development of the Surfer’s board as a real character is a treat as well. If you love offbeat comic stories and have a place in your heart for classic characters, i strongly urge you to pick up this book. In the comics biz, it’s all about the sales to keep titles alive, and i would be supremely sad to see this one go away because it doesn’t have Surfer zapping Thanos every month or whatever.


Seriously. There’s probably a collected edition out of the first six issues. Start there. The Power Cosmic demands it.



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Thanks for reading the fourth Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these were the ones that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Nov. 28 and i’d love to see you here! Week in Geek also be appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Thanks for reading!

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