Cantrip: D&D Beyond boosts the game to new levels

DDBeyondi love D&D Beyond.

Let’s get that out right away. The digital toolset from Curse working in close conjunction with Wizards of the Coast puts the entire fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons experience at your fingertips. i’ve got the Legendary Bundle and proudly subscribe at the Master tier. Continue reading

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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.”

toth cabinet

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Robotech is more than just transforming robots

Robotech: The Movie?

i read some news the other day about the real possibility for a Robotech live action film. As a kid, i fondly remember rushing home from school to watch this classic animated series, and i’ve rewatched the saga several times since, including just last year.

robotech

It’s been reported in various places that this-or-that person is attached as a producer, or is interested in the franchise or whatever. i can’t conjecture what any of that means exactly for the potential of a film franchise, but i am certainly excited about the possibilities. One article i read said something about Leonardo DiCaprio, and my first thought was “he’d make an awesome Roy Fokker!”

One of my friends, who is himself a flimmaker, told me that there’s some issues with the rights to the actual Macross Saga story though, which is troubling. i can’t imagine making a Robotech film without the seminal storyline and characters.

At any rate, the thought of seeing this franchise made into a movie with the amazing technical options of today’s cinema is just completely amazing to me. Robotech captivated me as a kid, not just because of the cool veritech fighters and SDF-1 but the complex relationships between the characters and mature themes. It says a lot that a cartoon with jets that turn into robots fighting the giant Zentradi took a back seat to Rick Hunter’s infatuation with Lynn Minmay and evolving relationship with Lisa Hayes. Likewise, if it weren’t for the well-developed relationships between Roy and Claudia, and Max and Mirya, the action and danger wouldn’t have had the same impact. Even the gruff Admiral Gloval added a lot of gravitas to the story, always weighing their options against the loss of life and compromising principles.

If and when a Robotech film franchise develops, i sincerely hope all effort is put into thoughtfully developing the weighty themes and relationships from the animated series. In the mean time, i’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for any news related to this project!

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Thanks for visiting The Long Shot!  If you liked what you read please click Follow at the top of the page and share/Tweet/repost your favorite articles. i’m getting close to 500 followers, a milestone i hope to reach this year. Thank you so much to everyone who already follows this blog, it means a ton and i appreciate each and every one.

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

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen! One team of contributors will be going to Yuri’s Night Space Party at the Great Lakes Science Center, where they were asked to be judges for their official costume contest. So be sure to check back for coverage of that. If you are celebrating Yuri’s Night anywhere in the world (or off of it – looking at you International Space Station) please share your experiences and photos!

My Week in Geek column also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Check out the articles i’ve written for The News-Herald.

Thanks for reading!

Week in Geek 3.13.15

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

This week, my duties as a reporter for The News-Herald kept me busy during the free time i typically put into following up on any of the multitude of story ideas which continue to accumulate on my desk. There was the big donkey basketball game at Cardinal High School in Middlefield, and a pair of profiles on National Historic Register buildings in Lake County for an upcoming special section.

Unfortunately i was unable to schedule time for a timely interview to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, but with any luck that will come together for next week.

On a side note, i was going to refer to my duties as a stringer, but that wasn’t quite accurate since i’m employed by the paper primarily as a copy editor, page designer and social media provocateur (that’s not what they call it, but it sounds more exciting that way). However, while looking into the term “stringer,” i discovered something called a superstringer that’s sort of the same thing except the writer is contracted with a news organization. It seems that with the collapse of the traditional newspaper model and the emergence of the Internet, stringers are fading away. But i am pleased to consider myself a superstringer, because it “super” is part of the word. Super cool.

Embracing life as a night owl means it's not unusual to make coffee at 3:00 a.m.

Embracing life as a night owl means it’s not unusual to make coffee at 3:00 a.m.

What free time i did enjoy this week came in the wee morning hours, which thanks to daylight savings time means the sun is coming up when my head is going down on the pillow. It’s a strange lifestyle that took some getting used to, coming to terms with not feeling lazy for sleeping in until noon because i was up all night at work.

So, what did i do with those precious hours, when there wasn’t anyone to Skype or speak with about Northeast Ohio tech and pop culture?

Discover new programs

Two new shows that break me away from my typical niche of serial killers and crime procedural dramas debuted recently.

The Last Man on Earth stars Will Forte as Phil Miller, in a delightful comedy about life on earth after every one on the planet but him is gone due to a devastating virus. Phil, like anyone can imagine, spends a couple of years searching the United States for other survivors before returning home to Tucson in a bus laden with artifacts from across the nation.

Resigned to life as the solitary human left on the planet, he proceeds to indulge in increasingly outrageous behavior while gradually loosening his grip on reality. Just as he reaches his lowest point, spending his days lounging in his margarita pool, he decides there is no reason in continuing and plans to commit suicide. But just as he’s about to go through with it, he spots a distant plume of smoke rising into the Arizona sky and rushes to discover another survivor.

The Last Man on Earth, Phil Miller spends his days immersed in a margarita pool

The Last Man on Earth, Phil Miller spends his days immersed in a margarita pool

And it’s a woman!

Carol, played by Kristen Schaal, quickly gets under Phil’s skin though, and what Phil desperately hoped for sours as the two of them learn to deal with each other.

Both of the show’s stars have been making me laugh for years, and this vehicle is a great opportunity for Will Forte to shine. It would be a disaster if either of the two characters didn’t allow for some kind of audience connection, and thankfully they both pull off an excellent blend of evoking some sympathy while at the same time remaining human enough in the sense that their actions border on the bizarre, irritating each other but not viewers. And, of course, both Forte and Schaal are very funny people who portray their characters terrifically. With only each other to play off of, timing is everything and each accomplish the comedic beats with aplomb.

Post-apocalyptic comedy doesn’t get any better than The Last Man on Earth, which airs Sunday nights on Fox.

In a similar vein, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt spins comedy out of a disturbing premise. This Netflix show, which in streaming program fashion dropped the entire first season at one time, stars Ellie Kemper as a former doomsday cult captive who decides to start a new life in NYC after being discovered and rescued.

Ellie Kemper is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

i’m really only familiar with Kemper’s work as Erin on The Office, a show that for me was must-see for its entire run. As Kimmy Schmidt, she brings the same sort of awkward naiveté that she did as Dunder Mifflin’s receptionist, except amped up to the Nth degree. i’ve read that the Erin character was originally supposed to be more sarcastic, but was altered by the writers to fit Kemper’s real personality more.

In an interview she did years ago regarding her role on The Office, she described Erin as “an exaggerated version of myself.” After watching a few episodes of Kimmy Schmidt, i get the feeling this new show is the perfect opportunity for Kemper to ramp up her comedic skills by exaggerating her personality even more.

There’s something almost magical about Kimmy the character, with Kemper’s body language and physical comedy matching her verbal delivery to spin out some really funny laughs. The absurdist alchemy she performs on the show transformed me into an instant fan, and i’m happy to discover there’s at least a second season planned.

What a Wednesday!

With a lifetime of interest in comic books distilled these days down to a selective few titles from Marvel Comics, there’s typically only one book per week on my digital pull list.

This past Wednesday, March 11, i opened up the Marvel Comics app to find there were five comics to add to my library!

Ant-Man #3 cover by Mark Brooks

Ant-Man #3 cover by Mark Brooks

First up was Ant-Man #3. Longtime Long Shot readers will know that new books get three issues to make a fan of me, and Ant-Man did it in just one back when Ant-Man #1 came out in January. When it comes to comics, i have pretty particular tastes. Classic superheroes are my favorite by far, but i’m just not interested in the standard sorts of stories about monthly superhero slugfests, big event crossovers and whatever villain is threatening mankind/the universe/whatever.

i’m more interested in what these colorful characters do when they’re not punching bad guys or each other, and Ant-Man delivers those stories. In this book, current Ant-Man Scott Lang (to be portrayed by Paul Rudd in the upcoming MCU film) is more concerned with being a good father and making a decent living than foiling nefarious schemes, with dramatic beats more about ties with his daughter and ex-wife than life-and-death struggles against supervillains.

Written by Nick Spencer, who also penned Superior Foes of Spider-Man – one of my favorite books that was of course canceled – brings the same brand of offbeat humor and breaking tradition to Ant-Man while still acknowledging the character’s place in the greater Marvel Universe.

As you can see from the cover to issue #3, Ant-Man runs into trouble with Taskmaster, a great Marvel villain who shows up to give our tiny hero a hard time. Like in earlier issues, Ant-Man uses his powers of both shrinking and communicating with ants to some clever effects against the guy with the photographic reflexes, and also manages to crack wise by about something i’ve long wondered myself:

“Your costume? It doesn’t make any sense! It’s like ghost-pirate-Captain America clone. With a cape!”

Howard the Duck #1 cover by Joe Quinones

Howard the Duck #1 cover by Joe Quinones

This was a surprise to see under new comics for the week: Howard the Duck #1 by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones with color artist Rico Renzi. A new title starring this talking duck who displays remarkable common sense in a world gone mad was not something i’d heard about, and i felt compelled to check it out.

Not surprisingly, this new series debut was funny and unusual, setting up Howard the Duck as a private investigator whose first case provides him and readers to an introduction into the Marvel Universe. His pursuit of the case brings him for a visit to She-Hulk’s law firm, which occupies space in the same building as Howard’s office, and from there he has a rooftop meeting with Spider-Man.

A one-page training montage that involves dodging laser pointers and somehow integrates D&D miniatures results in success when he and new mysterious new assistant, the tattooed Tara Tam, run afoul of Black Cat before the interstellar hunter shown in the book’s beginning pages comes back around to abduct the book’s star at the behest of The Collector – something those who stuck around for the after-credits scene from Guardians of the Galaxy will find familiar, along with an appearance by one of that team’s members on the final page that will presumably lead to an escape attempt in the next issue.

i’m curious to see where this series goes, and the first issue has me intrigued enough with the wonderfully colorful art, irreverent humor and nod to the character’s ties to Cleveland from the 1986 film that was set in my hometown. Also, i wonder if there’s potential for discussion at the Get Graphic! group at Cleveland Public Library since the series organizer Valentino Zullo mentioned his interest in intersections of character traits like gender, race and so forth. With Howard, we’re given an intersection of mankind and aquatic bird, a character traditionally used for satire and social commentary that i hope continues to do so in this new series.

Waugh!

Silver Surfer #10 cover by Mike and Laura Allred

Silver Surfer #10 cover by Mike and Laura Allred

Another installment of cosmic ginchiness arrived with Silver Surfer #10, written by Dan Slott with art from the incomparable Mike and Laura Allred.

This issue wrapper up a storyline that had earthling Dawn Greenwood discover Surfer’s past as a herald of Galactus responsible for the World Eater’s destruction of countless planets and their inhabitants.

Packed with pathos, Surfer won the trust of a planet populated by the only survivors from world already consumed by Galactus who initially hated and feared the skyrider of the spaceways (with good reason) as well as a building on the humanity of Norrin Radd when, in the midst of trying to fend off Galactus, he admits to himself as much as to Dawn that he loves her.

Awww!

The emotional core of Silver Surfer has always been one of the things i’ve most enjoyed about this character, who despite vast cosmic power and awareness still cleaves to the humanity he gave up to save his own planet long ago. Despite everything he has seen and endured, and his basically limitless power, he still understands the importance of individuals in the cosmic scheme of things.

One of the other things i’ve most enjoyed about this book during its run is the development of the Surfer’s board (dubbed Toomie by Dawn) as a supporting character. The ways in which the writer and artist give Toomie a personality are creative and fun.

The end of this issue has a lot of tears and heartache, but hope as well – a hallmark of great Silver Surfer stories. In a clever twist of the paradigm Galactus shares with those who seek out planets for him to consume, the Surfer declares himself a herald once more. But this time, he is a herald of those who survived, and vows to find them a new planet.

i’m a little surprised that this book hasn’t included a letters page yet, since most of the other Marvel books, at least the ones i read, have a page or two at the end for reader interaction. i sincerely hope they are receiving astronomical amounts of great feedback on this series, because frankly its one of the all around best comics out there right now and it would be sad indeed if it were to get canceled.

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Thanks for reading the latest edition of  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 are 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!

i’ve got to wrap things up prematurely today due to a work emergency, and i didn’t get a chance to go over a few other noteworthy things (and thereby clear a bit from the To Do List). i’ll also include the usual further reading links that no one ever clicks on because hey why not?

Please visit again soon (like, tomorrow) for a follow-up Week in Geek to cover two other books, a little gaming update and – thanks to a reply i just received – some NE Ohio news from the tech community.

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

Week in Geek will be back tomorrow, Saturday March 14, and i’d love to see you here!

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!

Week in Geek also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Check out the articles i’ve written for The News-Herald.

Thanks for reading!

Week in Geek 2.27.15

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

Sad news

i just learned that actor Leonard Nimoy passed away at age 83. It’s no secret that i am a HUGE Star Trek fan and that show has permeated my life in so many ways.

As you might expect, the Internet and social media are blowing up with condolences for his legendary actor.

i would like to dedicate this particular Week in Geek to Leonard Nimoy. As his most famous character, Mr. Spock was beloved by fans all over the world including me. This icon of the science fiction world has inspired me so much. The complex character has always appealed to me because of his vast intelligence and underlying humanity.

Over the years, i’ve watched a lot of interviews with Nimoy, and when he talks about the character and how much it developed over the years, you can tell it was more than just a pointy-eared alien to him, and fans too of course.

He imbued the character with so many layers of emotion and spirituality which is what elevated Mr. Spock to such an important cultural figure.

Just the other day, my aunt shared a video with me on how the famous Live Long and Prosper greeting came about. Rooted in Jewish lore, the well-known Vulcan greeting is actually a blessing in the Jewish faith. If i take away anything from news of his passing, it’s that i believe Leonard Nimoy truly exemplified the philosophy.

In our memories, Leonard Nimoy will always Live Long and Prosper.

Just so i don't feel as sad, i think he would have liked for us all to party and have a logical time tonight.

Just so i don’t feel as sad, i think he would have liked for us all to party and have a logical time tonight.

The wait is over

i don’t know a whole lot about the Cleveland art scene, but one figure i do know, who is as much a part of our Rust Belt landscape as the gritty backgrounds he lovingly crafts in his work is John Greiner – or simply John G as most folks know him.

My introduction to this phenomenal fellow goes back to the early aughts, when the now-defunct Tonight Magazine in Cleveland (helmed by the prolific Bob Ramsak) tasked me with interviewing John G for their inaugural edition.

Since then, John G has been on my radar, producing not only comic book work but commercial art all over Northeast Ohio. A couple of years ago, i first heard about work on a documentary focused on his life from the crew at Turnstyle Films. And today, Feb. 27, the film was released on Fandor and VHX.

draw hard poster

The documentary opens with several people who know and work with John G describing his demeanor and work ethic, interspersed with shots of the man in question at work in his studio, and i particularly like the opening shot. Seated at his art table, shot from behind, the focus subtly wavers between his body and the table itself – blurring the line between him and the work that he does. Right away, you get the sense of how dedicated he is to his art, and how much a part getting at who he is as a complete person is woven into that.

“This dude is for real,” one of the speakers says to describe meeting him for the first time, shaking hands with the man who has the word “DRAW” tattooed across his knuckles. One the other hand – “HARD.”

When John G himself is first heard, he begins by talking about his lifelong history with comics books and it’s obvious he has a deep admiration for – and skill creating – sequential storytelling.

“There’s things you can only do in comics,” he narrates, while shots of him working with a brush to ink panels showcase his distinct line work. “There’s things you can only do with words and images juxtaposed together.”

Joshua Rex, another Cleveland artist, mentions his line work later in the film, offering a wonderful analogy.

“Something about his black line is just so distinct and unique and creepy,” Rex says over a series of images from John G’s portfolio. “It’s almost like it was burned rather than drawn.”

John G is revealed through a series of conversations with his friends and colleagues. One of them is Jake Kelly, another Cleveland artist and co-creator of the horror anthology comic The Lake Erie Monster set in Cleveland.

lake erie monster 1

Incidentally, this is a terrific quarterly series with a unique vision and fantastic artwork that i highly recommend. You don’t have to be from Cleveland to appreciate it of course, but the level of detail and nods to the city’s history and visual cues is an added treat.

“Cleveland is a pretty strange place,” Kelly says while explaining The Lake Erie Monster book. “You always see some bizarre thing.”

To illustrate his point, he relates a story of he and John G driving down East 55th Street and seeing a man sitting in his parked car alone, screaming and thrashing about.

“That’s fuckin’ Cleveland right there,” he said.

Another prominent figure in Draw Hard is Matt Fish, owner and operator of Melt Bar & Grilled, which has become a Cleveland-area institution since the first restaurant opened in Lakewood in 2006. Oddly enough, i found out about the place just before it opened from his then wife, a tattoo artist who was giving me some ink at the time.

Fish has nothing but positive things to say about John G in the film, attributing a healthy amount of Melt’s success to the work John G has put into promotional art, as well as his creativity in helping to name sandwiches.

One of the things i appreciated was that the filmmakers chose not to reveal a particular aspect of John G’s life until a few minutes into the film’s 20 minute run time. It’s a significant part, to be sure, but i like that they didn’t throw it at the audience right away or build the narrative around it.

Dave Gibian, from Cleveland thrash punk band All Dinosaurs, speaks about his relationship with John G, and how much impact it had on the band’s success. Early on, John G created the band’s first show poster.

“That was a big deal, if you had a John G poster,” Gibian says in the film. “You were playing a legit show.”

Echoing Gibian’s sentiments, Fish has nothing but praise for the artist whose work on Melt’s advertising brings the same kind of excitement to their menu that his show posters do for musician’s shows.

“Melt would be a completely different landscape if John G wasn’t involved,” Fish says. “John’s art is like part of our brand.”

As evidence of this, Fish points out a framed John G print in his office, the artist’s first work for Melt back in 2009. Since then, he’s done tons of work for Melt, and a panning shot of Fish’s office shows just a handful of those prints.

In the second half of the film, there’s more conversation with John G himself, sharing details about his life that reveal more about him personally and help to ground him after establishing the impact made by his work. By relating more of his personal story, you come to learn a deeper meaning behind the film’s title. After leading into the film with some discussion on his perceived demeanor as a grumpy or angry person, one might take “draw hard” to mean that John G is perhaps a harsh guy, or some kind of tortured artist. This is far from the truth, and the film’s title speaks more to his artistic journey than any sort of personality quirk.

“That’s what I do, so that’s kind of where that came from,” John G describes his method of drawing. “I don’t draw fast. I draw hard.”

Draw Hard knucks

On a side note, one of the things i particularly enjoyed about Draw Hard was the original score by Ryan Harris. He did a good job using music to keep the pace and enhance the mood of the various segments of the film. Towards the end, when John G talks about his past and how he got to where he is today, i thought the score added a wonderful layer of emotion.

If i have any issues with the film, it’s really only that the run time is too short! Clocking in at 20 minutes, the documentary does a terrific job of introducing audiences to John G and his vibrant importance in the Cleveland landscape. As a fan of documentaries in general, i would have liked to see more of the great work putting the narrative together by director Jon Nix, who clearly put significant time and effort into speaking with John G and people who know him as well as capturing footage of him at work, enjoying concerts and generally just living the Cleveland life.

One important thing that i feel got left out was John G’s role in organizing the yearly Genghis Con, the small press and underground comic convention held annually in Cleveland. Overall, the film focused a lot on The Lake Erie Monster and John G’s commercial work, and it would have been nice to explore his involvement with comics more, both as a creator and event organizer.

For more details on Draw Hard, please visit their Facebook page and head over to Fandor or VHX to check it out. It’s only $1.99 to stream it, and there are some upgraded packages with great additional bonuses. The top tier of these is The Gritty Package, which includes a digital copy, director’s commentary, trailer and hi-res PDFs of both The Lake Erie Monster and a John G art collection – for only $9.99!

Best of Cleveland

If you enjoyed Draw Hard, and want to support the film even more, head over to Cleveland Scene’s website and cast your vote for Made in CLE – Best of 2015. The Arts & Entertainment category has several entries you can vote in like Best Comic Artist and Best Illustrator.

There’s a Best Director category where you can vote for Jon Nix who directed Draw Hard.

And – shameless plug – there’s a Best Local Blog category too, so you can vote for The Long Shot 😉

You can vote once per day, so make sure to visit daily and vote for what you think is the best stuff Cleveland has to offer. Online voting ends on March 9, plenty of time to support your favorite stuff.

Wizard World addendum

A few other items of interest from my experience at Wizard World Cleveland last weekend that didn’t make it into my coverage i want to share here.

There were two different charitable organizations i came across while wandering the exhibition floor.

The first was Super Heroes to Kids in Ohio, who visit children’s hospitals and special needs centers in superhero costumes.

This is a great example of parlaying the immense popularity of comic book superheroes into something really positive.

In a similar vein, Heroes Alliance is another nonprofit group using costumed superheroes to make a difference in the community. Founded in Florida, the group has expanded throughout the U.S. and is focused on fundraising for organizations like Give Kids the World as well as making appearances to brighten spirits.

Both of these groups operate as nonprofits through donations, so please check them out and donate if you are able. We can never have too many heroes and, as both organizations agree, it’s those they seek to help who are the real heroes that keep them inspired.

Both groups also accept volunteer help, so if you want to take the extra step and participate yourself, there’s information on their websites to help you do just that.

Apama

One of the things i didn’t get a chance to check out directly at the convention was the film Hero Tomorrow, a homegrown Northeast Ohio superhero story.

The hero in question is APAMA, and i recall seeing posters for it plastered around downtown Cleveland when i was still attending Cleveland State University.

i love the description of the project from the website:

David spends his days cutting grass and his nights smoking it while desperately trying to keep his superhero fantasies alive. When Robyn, his aspiring fashion-designer girlfriend, makes him a Halloween costume of his original character APAMA it doesn’t take David long to hit the streets and begin blundering towards disaster.

The character of Apama has elements of several super heroes i’ve enjoyed over the years, like The Creeper from DC Comics and Mike Allred’s Mad Man. His kooky adventures are represented by tight artwork, and as many people know, i’m a sucker for schmaltz so it’s cool to see that his girlfriend Robyn is an integral part of his escapades. Plus, Apama is Cleveland-based which adds a whole other level of cool to the property.

Yuri Night

A table with a big sign that read “Space Party” was something i had to swing past.

Yuri’s Night in an international celebration every April to commemorate milestones in space exploration. Named for the first human to launch into space, Yuri Gagarin, Yuri’s Night was first held on April 12, 2001, exactly 40 years after the launch of the Vostok 1 spacecraft that Yuri piloted.

In Cleveland this year, Yuri’s Night Space Party will be held at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 11 from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The celebration will feature live music, refreshments, a “cosmic trip” with The Solar Fire Light Show, space-themed costume contest, a new Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition and more.

Visit the Great Lakes Science Center website or call 216.621.2400 for more details and to purchase tickets.

This sounds like a really awesome event, and a great opportunity for someone to Take a Shot at covering. If you need added incentive, there’s a chance for you to earn some exclusive geek loot in the process.

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With my usual caveat to editors and audiences that “brevity is not my thing,” this is a good point at which to wrap it up this week. Wizard World Cleveland was an amazing experience and it was a bummer heading back to the real world on Monday.

Thank you so much to everyone who read my preview article and visited the media gallery at The News-Herald. All the awesome fans who checked it out helped it to account for over 5% of the total traffic to their website for 2015 so far, so on behalf of my resume and measurable results everywhere, i sincerely thank you all. The opportunity to attend comics convention as a professional writer is literally the reason i got into journalism in the first place. So, Nerd Mission Accomplished.

Thanks for reading the latest 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!

If you would like some further reading, about some science, technology and pop culture stuff that happened this week, here’s a few links i hope you find as interesting as i did:

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

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, March 6 and i’d love to see you here!

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!

Week in Geek also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Check out the articles i’ve written for The News-Herald.

Thanks for reading!

Week in Geek 12.19.14

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

Learn to code

A couple of weeks ago in the course of writing up the goings-on at the monthly LeanDog meetup, i mentioned my growing fascination with the world of code and how a quick Internet search turned up Codecademy, a free online resource that teaches how to code interactively. A few days ago i registered with the site and started down the path of learning this skill for myself through the tools available there. After just a few days of following the recommended lessons, i can report that the journey is uber satisfying and a continual eye-opener to layer upon layer (or stack upon stack?) of clearly presented material and knowledge.

codecademy

After setting up a profile, the site presents a handful of options on where to start. The one that caught my eye was “build a professional website” because i would like to do just that, simply put.

My approach to the material was as a blank slate – i know nothing of code, the terms involved or the procedure – and to that end i tackled it like i would have a college course or anything else i want to learn about. i took notes.

Copious notes.

Starter lessons in HTML

As i dove right in to the beginner lessons, i didn’t take any time to explore the site and see what else it had to offer until a few days later. The site itself doesn’t really prompt you to, either. It wasn’t until i’d completed a few short courses that i began to poke around a bit and discover what else Codecademy had to offer, which i’ll get to in a bit. Within just a few minutes of registering i was already plunged into the world of code, the blinking cursor awaiting my input.

The first lessons are straightforward “big picture” stuff: the difference between hypertext markup language (HTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS) with examples of their implementation. Those are both terms i’ve at least seen before, if not understood, so i felt a tad more comfortable. For those who don’t know what they exactly mean, HTML establishes a structure and CSS controls the design and layout inside the structure. HTML is like a house being built – all the elements used to create a skeleton from the blueprints, and CSS describes what all those elements will look like when the project is done – what size beams and nails to use, how wide the door frame should be, what color paint goes on the walls in the master bedroom and so on.

Throughout the course of the initial lesson, you are introduced to a healthy amount of terminology and are given opportunities to implement them in practical ways, seeing the results appear on-screen in real-time as you input various lines of code. The UI is clean and easy to follow, and there are tooltips for hints and a glossary as well for those (like me) who tend to raise questions ahead of time before the lessons reach those points.

Before i knew it, i’d been guided through an introduction to some of the more common building blocks of HTML like heading elements < h1 >…, paragraphs < p >…< / p >, links and href attributes < a href=”url” >…< /a >, images and sources < img src=”url” >, bulleted lists < ul > < li >…< / li > < / ul > and div and class elements < div >…< / div > and div and class elements. [editor’s note: better put extra spaces in when you type this stuff or it’s gets interpreted on-screen as real code!]

The way the UI steers you along through the material, my first thoughts were that it was pretty easy. In terms of pure comprehension, at this point i still feel that way but looking back, what i feel is missing is a deeper sense of understanding how and when to use these elements. For instance, heading elements are described as having six levels (h1 to h6), but there’s no real explanation when and where these could be used. Also, the site doesn’t really give an overview of what to do with all the code you may one day write. Through my experiences speaking with folks like those at the LeanDog meetups, i understand that code can be written in any sort of text-based program later to be used as a source to create a website, but so far Codecademy hasn’t introduced these concepts. Hopefully, it’s just a case of me getting ahead of myself, and the lessons are designed to simply get you familiar with the tools at your disposal first.

Throughout my time working through the lessons though, i am reminded of what Reports for Trello‘s creator Brendan Malloy told me a couple of weeks ago as regards learning to code:

“You may feel like you’re just wandering, seeing things and maybe getting lost, but you’re always moving forward and getting somewhere,” he told me, explaining the code doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it might seem. “If you know English, you’re already halfway there. It’s just logical construction.”

That much i can see is true. Like any language, that of code has a syntax to follow and, as a grammar nerd, i understand how specific it can be. Needs to be, in fact – a misplaced character is not going to translate into a desired output at all. This became more clear to me in later lessons, where opportunities to freely enter code were stymying me before i flipped back through my notes and realized i was neglecting to add a semicolon at the ends of lines. Folks who know me well might find that humourous, as during the course of my job as a copy editor i often castigate their overuse with the caveat that using them requires at least a modicum of cojones.

One other thing i’d like to note, as i go through my notes from the various lessons, is that early on you are taught the term “doctype” which tells a browser what HTML version the code represents to ensure consistent display on different browsers. Although i am not that far into the courses, there has been just this one mention of the concept near the beginning of the lessons and it has not been seen since. i looked it up on my own and i think it is essentially an unclosed tag to simply explain that what follows is HTML, but i’m not 100% sure on that. If so, i wonder what other doctypes there might be.

Do it with style

After earning badges for my first lesson and building a basic HTML website, the next courses deal with CSS – the fun stuff which allows you to customize the look of the site you’re building. This course seemed a bit more straightforward to me, perhaps because the properties that are affected by CSS are more intuitively understood. Things like “color,” “font-size” and “font-family” lend themselves to easier comprehension by virtue of being called exactly what you would think they are.

Within those properties, there’s a healthy amount of wiggle room though, and i now have several other bookmarks to use as references for things like hexadecimal numbers that provide color palettes represented by six-digit codes like #9933CC and #585858. You can also use a standard RGB sequence if you prefer, with each of red, green and blue requiring a corresponding number from 0-255 (e.g. “rgb(102,153,0)”). The simplest way to change the color though is to just straight-up type in the name of the color you want to display, like red or orange. Using this method limits your choices to 140, compared to RGB and hex colors which offer an astounding 16,777,216 options!

A small sample of the millions of color options available with hex colors

A small sample of the millions of color options available with hex colors

When it comes to fonts, as i understand it there’s a smattering of “default” choices like Times New Roman, Arial and Lucida Console, with some variations among those. However, there are other sources for fonts like Google Fonts which is a free collection of 600 more to choose from. A visit there showed that each of them could be downloaded, and from there i’m not sure how they are implemented but my guess is that when you get around to uploading your finished code somewhere, the source it is drawing from (presumably, your computer) would need to have those referenced fonts on it somewhere in order to display properly.

In addition to those basic properties, there are secondary visual cues that affect text. Working through these lessons wasn’t too difficult, and by the time they were complete i had a pretty good understanding of “background-color,” “background-image,” “border,” “padding” and “margin.” When it comes to the background-image though, the example given used a URL as the image source and i am unsure how that works. Perhaps you need to upload any images you would like to display on a site like Photobucket in order to use them; that’s what i had to do in order to include The News-Herald logo on this site. In a similar manner, the choices of border types isn’t explicit through Codecademy either – at least not yet. Fortunately, the Internet is resplendent with sources of information and i very easily found several other sites as resources for this sort of information.

More than just lesson after lesson

Okay, so i’ve worked through some courses and started building a healthy knowledge base. But what else is there to find at Codecademy?

On my profile page, it shows that i have zero skills completed, but i am 53% of the way towards making a website which i imagine would give me one skill. So far, i’ve earned five badges which are kind of like video game achievements that mark milestones in your journey, and accumulated 24 points. What points do for you, what they represent and how much or little that is remains a mystery for now.

Until this morning, the “Codebits” area of my profile was blank and i had no idea what it meant. Naturally, i clicked on it to see what it was and it took me to a workspace where i could freely enter whatever code i wanted, with a window alongside to show the result. Neat-o!

Since one of my goals in learning to code is eventually creating my own website for The Long Shot, i took a crack at creating a header for the future new home of this blog. The result was far from fancy, but it did give me a sense of accomplishment that i was able to do something.

i wrote the code for this. No frills, but it was cool to create something from scratch.

i wrote the code for this. No frills, but it was cool to create something from scratch.

Behind the scenes, the code that tells the browser what to display looks like this:

The HTML code for the header.

The HTML code for the header.

Longshot header CSS code

The CSS code for the header.

If you’ll notice, in the top HTML image, the second line has a portion that reads “href=’style.css’/>” What that means is that since HTML and CSS are distinct documents, you have to tell the HTML part where to draw the CSS part from. In the case of Codecademy’s Codebits, both the documents are provided for you in the application. On your own, i may be mistaken but i believe you can call your document whatever you wish. For example, i could name the CSS portion “whatever.css” and as long as i reference it exactly, it ought to work.

One other thing i’d like to draw attention to is the syntax of these lines of code. As you can see, it’s written in English which, as Brendan was quoted above, puts you halfway there already. That is important to remember, as there isn’t much in the way of unrecognizable language involved (at least, not yet!). While things like hex numbers and the use of semicolons and curved brackets – and their vitally important placement – are a bit outside the norm of everyday typing, they’re not wholly unfamiliar and once you get the hang of it, not terribly difficult. Granted, this was just for the creation of a few simple text characters and some color. When it comes to something like a full-blown app or, say, a video game, there’s probably hundreds of thousands of lines of code that would make your head spin.

On a side note, speaking of video games, this did give me a greater understanding of the challenges game developers face. When i read things on game forums from players who complain about something, once in a while they’ll say “how hard can it be to just add” this-or-that. Well, it can probably get very hard. Many readers already know how immersed i am in Dungeons & Dragons Online, a game that’s been around since 2006 and seen many changes both in the product itself as well as the development team. In light of that, there’s likely lines of code that control things which are so old and perhaps simply hard to find that the team behind the game would have a hell of a time just figuring out where the thing to change even is! So, as i learn more about code, i grow to have a greater sympathy for these sorts of folks. Despite that, they and their peers put out a consumer product that people understandably want to work well, and who get frustrated when it doesn’t. But i’m willing to bet the coders working on these things are just as dedicated in their desire to present the best, most polished product they can.

In addition to just giving you a workspace to create codebits, once you’ve done so you can share them with others in the Codecademy environment. Other users can “fork” your codebit, which is a bit like repinning something on Pinterest. Once a codebit is forked, that user can modify what you’ve created on their own (without altering your own version). In this way, the Codecademy community can learn from each other – a very cool feature that lends Codecademy to its own sort of social media network that fosters sharing and collaboration. That is something very important in the coding community in general that i’ve observed, a willingness to help each other out.

The last thing i want to mention about Codecademy (for now), is the plethora of other branches it offers. A little more looking around the site revealed that there is a host of learning opportunities.

For one thing, in addition to the basic HTML and CSS courses, there are courses to learn and improve other languages like Java Script, Python and Ruby to name a few. That last one caught my attention primarily because of my experiences at LeanDog, where the people i’ve spoken with seem to use that quite a bit. Who knows, maybe one of these months during their meetups, i’ll actually be able to keep up with the discussions.

One of the most intriguing areas of the site is a place to learn to use popular APIs to make applications. APIs, or application program interfaces, are the tools used to build software applications which is an enormous industry that continues to grow. Picking up skills in this area, along with learning languages and coding in general, is a huge way to boost your own marketability for jobs in the ever-increasingly technological world we inhabit.

Finally, the last thing i engaged in was in the Goals section, which has quick, 30-minute exercises that allow you to do some pretty cool stuff. The first one on the list, and the one i worked through, was an exercise called Animate your Name. Unfortunately, i’m not skilled enough yet to figure out how to embed the results here, but i think you ought to be able to click on this link and check it out.

So that’s where i’m at so far in my quest to learn how to code. If i’m honest, it’s pretty addicting (at least to me) and i plan to stick with the courses and see how much i can learn, and hopefully build a new home for The Long Shot that looks pretty slick.

If you have any interest in learning more about code, i strongly recommend you check out Codecademy. Not only is it fun and satisfying to learn something new that has such far-reaching practical use, as i mentioned it’s a very marketable skill to acquire. Likewise, if you have kids, it couldn’t hurt to start them down the road either. Children pick things up very quickly, and learning these skills at a young age i believe will have a positive impact on their lives as our technology continues to grow and evolve.

funny-Hobbit-shoes-Bilbo-walking

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

i’m proud to say that The Lord of the Rings, specifically The Fellowship of the Ring, is my favorite film. This is based on the quantifiable science of watching the extended versions of them more than any other movie (except maybe Mystery of Chess Boxing). And every time i view them, i’m simply blown away. Just a few weeks ago i watched the whole saga through again and, as always, it did not disappoint.

It also made me realize what had been nagging me about The Hobbit films, and i felt compelled to text a friend to let him know i “figured out what is wrong with The Hobbit: it’s cuz every other adventure story sucks compared to LOTR.”

Nevertheless, as a dutiful fan of Tolkien’s epic fantasy writing, i went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on opening day. Sure, as i just revealed, in my eyes LOTR is the pinnacle of fantasy adventure, but that doesn’t mean i’m not going to get whisked away to Middle-earth whenever i can. Back when it was announced that The Hobbit would be extended to three films instead of two, i was confounded by naysayers because i felt that any time spent in that world was a good time.

i was wrong.

Without getting too in-depth and with a mind towards avoiding spoilers (and also towards reader compassion – this post is getting long!) here’s a summary of how i felt after seeing the final story of Peter Jackson’s grand telling of Tolkien’s beloved works.

Direction

Several times while watching this film, i thought that the editing was choppy. Scenes frequently switched between various characters in a disjointed way that was jarring and felt often unnecessary. For a short novel that was spread thin over three films (like butter scraped over too much bread?), this last movie felt like it was rushing along and cramming in too many threads. Perhaps, being the shortest run time of any of the films, dare i say it should have been a bit longer. Since they’d already turned a pair of movies into a trilogy, why not go the full nine?

The Necromancer

i didn’t like this sequence. It was made up for the film, and implemented poorly. My favorite film critic said in one of his many film reviews that book-to-movie adaptations primarily need to capture the theme of their source rather than meticulously translate every detail, and in that i totally agree with him. Here, i think the screenwriters were basically challenged to create material on par with Tolkien, and it doesn’t measure up.

Plus, given the context of the LOTR films, it didn’t make sense to me that the characters involved would be so ignorant of Sauron’s presence in Middle-earth after including this sequence in The Hobbit.

CGI

Like Viggo Mortensen, i believe The Hobbit films rely way too heavily on CGI instead of going with makeup and prosthetics. LOTR made WETA a household name due to their incredible work on those movies, which gave them an extremely realistic quality. Actors were matched face-to-face with the orcs they fought, which looked legitimately frightening and realistically gritty and grimy. In The Hobbit movies, there’s a distinct departure from that immersion, which made the battles seem a lot less dangerous. More than once throughout watching The Hobbit, i was thinking how much it reminded me of the Star Wars prequel films, in a few ways including this one. Practical effects simply give a movie a more realistic quality that was sorely missed here.

Peter Jackson, like George Lucas, is cited as saying how much he likes the CGI and how when LOTR was made, the technology just wasn’t there to achieve this kind of vision. In response, i would counter that i’m sure practical effects and makeup have advanced in the last 13 years as well. Why not utilize the no doubt huge advances in that field, which was a proven megahit?

The Five Armies

In the book, the five armies which converge at the Lonely Mountain are dwarves, elves, humans, goblins and wargs. In the film version, it’s dwarves, elves, humans, orcs and…what? WHAT IS THE FIFTH ARMY? Bats? Trolls? It’s never clear and in fact i don’t think there is a fifth army. Maybe it’s Dain’s faction from the Iron Hills and Thorin’s company? By the time the latter joins the fray, i was wondering how much impact they could have. There’s a huge battle between thousands of combatants – are a dozen warriors really going to turn the tide? For that matter, why did they remove all their heavy-duty dwarven war gear when they decided to pitch in? Maybe it was symbolic of Thorin’s rejection of the greed that was consuming him, but for my money, if i were wading into battle against overwhelming odds, i think i’d stick with the dwarf-forged plate armor instead of a tunic and a chainmail shirt.

Speaking of armies, there’s two scenes not far apart in which a character says some particular faction is bred for a singular purpose: war. Isn’t that line also in LOTR? The first time it was uttered in The Hobbit i thought, geez, can you be any more heavy-handed with the LOTR parallels? The second time, it just sounded cheesy.

Characterizations

The two that stand out in my mind as failures are Kili, and the Lord of Lake-town.

In Kili’s case, i was hugely disappointed in The Desolation of Smaug when Thorin decreed he be left behind due to his injuries. What?! That irked me. The band of dwarves was steadfast and remained together for the entire quest, all of them having forsaken all else to commit to the adventure. Yes, Thorin goes a little wonky with greed and whatnot, but that really got under my skin.

When it comes to the Lord of Lake-town, i suppose my only gripe is that casting Stephen Fry was a real waste of talent. The character is hardly in either film very much and is written rather silly. Why cast a great actor like Fry and only give him a few scenes, with practically none in the Five Armies?

Biggest problem

Emotional resonance: this movie had none of it for me. In LOTR, i truly cared about all of the characters. We watched them face incredible dangers physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and by the end of Return of the King their heroism is simply inspiring. i’m not ashamed to admit that i get a little misty by the end of that film still.

The Hobbit films are missing that crucial quality to me. If i’m honest, i couldn’t even identify each of the dwarves’ names aside from Kili and Thorin, and that’s only because they’re the only ones who have any sort of subplot going on.

On that note, i suppose some other characters had notable stories taking place, like Legolas and Tauriel…who aren’t even in the book this movie was based on. Speaking of the former, a noticeably older (and thicker-faced) Legolas was given ample time to try and one-up his athletic exploits from LOTR, which came off as corny and spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

The titular character on the other hand, was remarkably likable. Martin Freeman does a wonderful job portraying Bilbo Baggins, with the kind of pathos i wanted to see in all of the principal characters. Too bad he was barely in the film!

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Thanks for reading the eighth 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!

If you would like some further reading, about some science and technology stuff that happened this week, here’s a few links i hope you find as interesting as i did:

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

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Dec. 26 and i’d love to see you here!

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!

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!

Prophets of Science Fiction, part three – H.G. Wells

Prophets of Science Fiction is a documentary television program that aired on the Science Channel for a single, eight-episode season between 2011-12.  Produced and hosted by Ridley Scott, each episode focused on a different writer of sci-fi, exploring their life and work and attempting to correlate the fictional science of their stories with the factual applications in the real world.  Thanks to Netflix, i discovered this terrific program (which is also streaming on the Science Channel’s website).  Frankly, i was pleasantly surprised to find the program suggested by Netflix, as their algorithm’s analysis of my viewing habits – Dexter, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, The Writer’s Room and the like – somehow comes up with picks like Benchwarmers and The Croods.  As a fan of the genre, i’ve often been amazed at how concepts and constructs from works of the past have so clearly come to fruition in the present.  Ideas like the flip-open communicators from Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future to Daniel F. Galouye’s total environment simulator, presented as works of fiction some 50 years ago, are not only real parts of the world we live in today but in many cases even more mind-bending than their speculative counterparts.

Unlike the hyperserialized programs that are the usual culprits of the binge-watching phenomenonProphets of Science Fiction does not take viewers on an emotionally-invested roller coaster ride with a cathartic ending that compels the audience to watch successive episodes.  My experience with the show found me frequently nodding off before completing a single installment, but this was due more to queuing it up when i should have been going to sleep.  Nevertheless, the complete 5-plus hour series did keep me coming back night after night for its blending of re-enactments, expert interviews and animated recreations centered on the worlds these imaginative writers created.

Prophets of Science Fictino

Sporting the first true scientist in the series, Episode 3 of this terrific series spotlights H.G. Wells. Often referred to as the father of science fiction, Wells produced several cornerstone works in the genre including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. The latter held the most intrigue for me, as i’d read somewhere years ago that originally Wells attempted to publish a scientific paper on the real-world possibility of time travel, but having it rejected he adapted it to a work of science fiction. This is covered in the episode, which describes Wells’ attempt to get a paper on his theory of a four-dimensional universe published in a prestigious journal. The editor, however, found it to be too confusing and convoluted. Disheartened, Wells took his essay and turned it into the story we all know, making popular the very idea of time travel that had been preceded only by the 1881 story The Clock That Went Backward.

On a side note, the re-enactment of the scene between Wells and the editor is actually played quite well, with the actor portraying Wells doing an excellent job of showing both his enthusiasm for the concept and his disappointment at the rejection. The re-enactments on Prophets are typically well done, with good use of period costumes and limited sets to put the sci-fi authors into a real context. Tangentially, i wonder if school curriculum these days make use of all the great historical re-enactments out there? Thinking about my own elementary school days, i recall more than once wondering what it was really like at the times we were reading about in our text books, which tend to gloss over a lot of details and go for the big picture stuff. i remember thinking about how the text would say something about an event in, say, 1905 then the next paragraph in about 1920 – that’s a lot of time in between!

But i digress, the term “time machine” itself – today a common sci-fi trope – had it’s origin in Wells’ story. And, in keeping with the theme of the program that yesterday’s sci-fi writers visionary tales often become today’s amazing breakthroughs, it was just reported that a team of researchers in Australia effectively simulated the behavior of time-traveling photons. As fellow blogger Erdrique commented in a recent post about commercial space travel, we are seeing things today that many people – myself included – never thought we would in our lifetime. Now, we regularly hear things about 3D printing advancements, huge leaps in communication technologies, suborbital transportation, the Internet of Things…and now even time travel itself!

In his debut novel, Wells’ The Time Machine presents the quintessential science fiction story that blends technology’s possibilities with social commentary and man’s desire to change the course of his own past to make a better tomorrow. In this novel, Wells’ protagonist primarily travels forward in time, avoiding many of the time travel paradoxes we are familiar with today like the grandfather paradox. The end of the novel does see him return to his own time though. Interestingly enough, as Wells’ theory in based on the four-dimensional universe concept, his time traveller literally only travels through time and not space – arriving at each of his destinations in the same location. To this day, many of the notions of time travel both scientific and speculative are drawn from the same well, or in this case, Wells. i wonder if perhaps a breakthrough will occur when researchers begin to think outside of this conceptual model.

For Wells, his literary contributions are primarily motivated by a common question, one that all too often occupies my thoughts too: will mankind annihilate itself? Personally, i think we’ll simply make ourselves obsolete at some point through the exponential advancement of technology and artificial intelligence, but that’s the subject for another post at another time. Wells, whose writing took place during the Victorian era, took the technologies of the time to what he thought might be the logical outcome. He pondered not only how scientific knowledge would affect the future, but what humankind would do with that science.

Herbert George Wells and his Martian walking machines - illustration by Richard Morden

Herbert George Wells and his Martian walking machines – illustration by Richard Morden

Poet Robert Browning’s famous line “ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s a heaven for?” is meant to inspire people to bigger and better things than they believe possible, but Wells’ stories offer a caveat to this by asking is perhaps mankind sometimes reaches too far.

Like the previous two writers highlighted on the program, Wells blends his own creative imagination with the science of his time to speculate on possibilities. Naturally, fiction requires drama to drive a story forward so this results in often dangerous scenarios, a perfect example of which is The War of the Worlds. Sparked by a conversation with his brother about the British Empire’s violent colonizations, wherein military forces descend on native people as if they are nothing more than primitive pests, Wells imagines what might happen if visitors from another planet arrived on Earth. At the time, Mars was particularly close to Earth and astronomers first noticed the channels on the surface of the red planet. Mistranslated as “canals,” this led many – Wells included – to wonder if perhaps there were civilizations there which might one day come to Earth with not-so-friendly intentions in the same manner that earthbound nations act upon each other. That is to say, their arrival and reaction to the primitive people they find here might not be so peaceful.

One of the underlying terrors of the story, which in the decades that followed would become an all-too-real situation, is the idea of large scale warfare that involves not just soldiers, but civilian populations. Unfortunately, this is a trend that has only continued to escalate and one need look no further than the headlines of this very day in fact, where the Gaza conflict is seeing both sides – Israel and Palestine – causing scores of casualties within each others’ urban populations. And this conflict, awful as it continues to be, is itself dwarfed by other Middle East aggressions like in Syria, where the death toll is estimated at 170,000 – one-third of which is civilians. Wells, who was intensely interested in sociology, would likely be as shocked and horrified by modern man’s violent struggles as we are when we read the news and wonder “how do we let these things happen?” Chemical warfare, tanks, laser weapons – all hallmarks of Wells’ work that are terrifyingly existent in the real world. Just a mere 19 years after WotW is published, Einstein develops a theory of laser technology that is eerily reminiscent of the Martians’ heat-ray weapons that use rotating lenses. Now, i can impulse-buy laser at the drug store to amuse my cats with or opt to have them shot into my eyes to correct my vision. Fortunately, we’re not disintegrating each other out there. Not yet, anyway.

Rob Gregory, director of laser systems at Textron Defense Systems, read WotW as a kid, and while he thought the concept was scary, it was also a compelling one that he now works to develop as just one of many DoD contractors. Once again, the sci-fi of youth leads young people to grow up and become engineers and scientists themselves, taking the concepts that fascinated them and asking if it can really be done. It is interesting to me that the larger context of the dangerous knife-edge these breakthroughs caution us about seem often ignored, but i guess for some the old saying about breaking eggs to make an omelette holds water?

Replace the death machines with colonial soldiers and the running, screaming people with natives from any number of places - could we expect any different from extraterrestrial visitors?

Replace the death machines with colonial soldiers and the running, screaming people with natives from any number of places – could we expect any different from extraterrestrial visitors?

“The terminology you’ll hear is ‘speed of light engagement’,” said Gregory in an interview segment on the program. “If you can engage an object of interest or a target with the speed of light, then there’s essentially no delay between when you decide to fire and when you start to engage that target.”

Here, he’s talking about defense systems like those used to intercept airborne rockets and the like. In this sense, the use of lasers if for defensive purposes. As of the air time, lasers are already capable of disabling immobile targets by directing massive amounts of energy at them. But Textron researchers estimate within the next few years (so, like…now) fast-moving objects can also be targeted by lasers. In fact, there’s already some capability to take down mortars and drones using vehicle-mounted lasers.

Ultimately, WotW ends with humanity’s survival – but not through our own ingenuity. The Martians, despite their highly advanced technology, succumb to illness and biological vulnerabilities and show that superior technology does not equate to invincibility. Quite the opposite in fact, as several of Wells’ other works show that it’s our own dark nature – often enhanced by technology – that leads to our downfall.

The best examples of this in Wells’ work are the classic novels The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Both of these stories have at their heart the same basic question, an examination of what mankind will do when freed from societal constraints. Left to his own will, without restrictions on his morality – are we good, or evil?

In The Invisible Man Wells examines what people would do when no one is watching. And if you’ve read the story you know, they get into quite a bit of trouble.

With The Invisible Man, Wells really hits his stride with a story that skillfully combines his interest in science and human nature. But despite the violence and terror that follows the stories eponymous character, scientists today work to unlock the secrets of invisibility. The program elaborates on then-current research involving metamaterials, which affect how light reaches and is refracted by objects. As recently as a couple of months ago, work in this area has continued to blossom and thanks to 3D printing, the nanofiber “cloak” is becoming closer to practical reality than ever before.

“The only concern would be the use that may go with this, and that’s something that scientists need to prevent,” said Majid Gharghi, one of the researchers developing the invisibility technology. “It’s going to change a lot of things in our lives.”

“We just have to be vigilant of what we are doing,” added professor Xiang Zhang, whose nanoscience research lab at UC Berkeley is working on the project.

Like Wells, these scientists understand that there is a possible dark side to man’s achievements in science and technology. For his part, Wells often explored the path that suggested mankind would abuse whatever scientific might it acquired – something history has proven all too true. But we also have the capacity for great good, and that’s the line we’ll always walk.

Perhaps his most disturbing story, The Island of Dr. Moreau looks at the perversion of medical science without restriction. In Wells’ time, experimenting on animals is a new and controversial aspect of medical science, known at the time as vivisection – surgical experiments on living creatures. In the story, the disgraced titular doctor retreats to an isolated island where he creates chimeric creatures, human-animal hybrids using scientific methods.

Moreau

Once again, Wells explores the dark side of scientific research, which has his Dr. Moreau operating without ethics to literally transform animals into an approximation of humans. Little reason is given for his efforts other than the pursuit of knowledge and the ability to do so – basically he is doing it only because he can.

In contract, scientists like the University of Nevada at Reno’s professor Esmail Zanjani work towards medical breakthroughs that can be of benefit to humans. In his case, he works to use sheep as essentially organ farms, growing organs suitable for use in human bodies.

The sheep in question are kept in what is shown to be a humanitarian environment, and live their lives as happily as a sheep may. But in listening to the work being done, especially describing how in some cases a sheep’s brain has shown partially human qualities, i can’t help but think of Moreau’s beast-folk or even characters like Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the just-released Dawn of the Planet of the ApesOnce we start messing with nature like that…i’m not sure which is scarier – that animals become more humanlike or that we humans can have such a bestial or savage side.

When posed the question whether or not the sheep’s behavior becomes any more humanlike, Zanjani says no, although he admits his work is ethically complex. Whether or not a scientist should do something is an issue he believes in the hands of society as a whole – not the individual scientist, as Dr. Moreau has decided. In this regard, the message in Wells’ stories becomes clearer. He offers his speculative tales not as warnings, but rather as challenges to society that we always have a choice in what we will accept or reject, and therein i think is the message we should all take away – that when we see or hear things that we feel are unjust in the world, we need to realize that we are a part of that world and have some obligation to it.

The final segment of this episode deals with Wells’ darkest story, one whose shadow has haunted humankind ever since. In The World Set Free, he envisions mankind’s devastation at our own hands when this novel accurately predicted the development of the atomic bomb – years before it would actually come about. Even with his scientific background, it is astonishing that Wells would conceptualize such a weapon just shortly after the discovery of the decay of radium.

world set free

Because so many of his ideas about mechanized warfare and man’s violent use of technology has already come to pass, Wells became a leader in the pacifist movement. In a scary twist of life imitating art, The World Set Free actually changed the course of human history when Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was so fascinated by Wells’ story that he set about to find out if such a thing as the fictional “atomic bomb” were truly possible. And we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps it was his horrifically accurate assumptions about the dangers of atomic power that led Wells in his later years to produce Things to Come, using the new medium of cinema to present his ideas to the public. In the film, a global war involving chemical weapons wipes out most of humanity and leads to a drawn-out conflict that, in time, people forget the reasons why it began in the first place.

Much later in the movie’s timeline, the same forces of science and technology that caused Earth’s devastation lead to it’s ultimate salvation. A technocracy emerges to lead the world into a prosperous age, a sentiment whose descendants can be seen in other visions of the future like the Star Trek universe.

Throughout all of Wells’ work, he deftly blends his true scientific background with wildly imaginative creativity to weave tales that, while dark and disturbing, portray science as humanity’s most powerful tool. But they also carry a warning to us that we must use our tools responsibly, else we’ll face dire consequences.

As the episode wraps up, futurist David Brin describes his admiration for Wells by explaining his often contrary attitude.

“If he was around optimists, he’d point out the devastating flaws in human nature. And when he was around cynics, he would talk about the possibilities that we would overcome our racism, and overcome our sexism and all of these things.”

i like this description the best, because to me it says he was a person who really sought the push humanity to be their best by challenging our own ideas about the direction we’re headed and participate together to move forward towards the future.

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Have you watched Prophets of Science Fiction yet?  If not, i highly recommend heading to Netflix or sciencechannel.com and checking it out.  Episode 4 focuses on Arthur C. Clarke, and a conversation with my favorite space lawyer provided some up-to-date info on some of this legendary sci-fi writer’s speculations that are now a reality.  If you do hopefully check out Prophets of Science Fiction, i hope you also take the time to enjoy these writers’ stories as well!