Week in Geek 1.9.15

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

CES 2015

The three-day long International Consumer Electronics Show wraps up today, Jan. 9, in Las Vegas. The annual show, which started in 1967, has seen product debuts from VCRs to smart TVs and this year, wearable technology was featured prominently, particularly in the area of smartwatches. Last week i previewed the nine teams of innovative CWRU entrepreneurs exhibiting at the show, and i hope to follow-up with them to find out how it went once they return.

In the meantime, highlights from CES show that yesterday’s science fiction is rapidly becoming everyday consumer technology, with marketplaces for everything from 3D printing to robotics and intelligent vehicles. Keep in mind this is consumer electronics – a trade show for things you can expect to see with increasing frequency in our everyday lives.

Everybody’s been dropping the wearables tag when it comes to the hot items at the show. In the smartwatch arena, to me it looks like a lot of the selections are visually run-of-the-mill analog varieties but with some techno-twists to them. Perhaps these hold more appeal for people not yet prepared to embrace the kind of future where we all wear spaceage jumpsuits, and for my money the ones that stood out most are the sleeker varieties, like this one:

MOTA smartwatch

Designed to function primarily as a cellphone, this Bluetooth 3.0 bracelet pairs with your mobile device and has its own speakers, microphone and OLED display. Incoming calls cause it to vibrate, and if the caller is in your contact list, their name will display on the screen. Both Siri and Google Now voice-activation are supported, and there are currently three models available. The G1 and G2 lite both retail for about $80 and the G2 Pro for $90. According to MOTA’s website, you can expect 180 minutes of talktime and 72 hours of standby.

LookSee is another Bluetooth bracelet that seeks to combine fashion and technology. It has an E ink display that reduces power consumption, and the always-on customizable display can be used for notifications like text, photos, clock faces, maps and more.

The most exciting wearables imo are ones like the i.amPULS which makes a distinct point that it is not a smartwatch – it is a computer on your wrist. Growing up in the 80s, my best friend and i used to pretend we were superspies who had gadgets like this. Now, you don’t have to be part of a secret organization (or Inspector Gadget’s niece Penny) to have an untethered computer device strapped to your wrist.

Between wearable wrist computers and tablets, you're ready to take on Dr. Claw and the forces of M.A.D.

Between wearable wrist computers and tablets, you’re ready to take on Dr. Claw and the forces of M.A.D.

Cluing in to this device’s name, it is the brainchild of musician will.i.am, so naturally the promo video on the product website features him and starts off showing how the music capabilities function. The i.amPULS does much more than just play music though. An independent device, it does not require a separate smartphone to sync with, and in fact is itself a functioning phone. Users can also send Tweets, check Facebook, send SMS and emails, manage photos and has built-in GPS.

Still a relatively new market, smartwatches show no signs of slowing down. A fully-functioning computer strapped to your wrist gives consumers a viable alternative to the already diverse options for mobile computing and one that i believe will be well-received. They offer a relatively hands-free experience and all the functions we typically use throughout the day through voice-activation. It’s possible to conceive they may actually replace the cell phones we’re so used to, and i can definitely envision a paradigm shift from a package of home computer-tablet-cell phone to convertible laptop/tablet combo and smartwatch only. It reduces the total number of devices while increasing mobility. Add to that the variety of peripherals with wireless syncing and the movement towards the Internet of Things, and i envision a definite sea change in how we look at our computing lifestyles.

Outside of offering another option to the slate of mobile devices alongside your laptop, tablet and cellphone, another wearable that caught my attention is TempTraq, an adhesive bandage for infants that acts as a thermometer. Equipped with a Bluetooth-connected sensor, temperature is tracked continuously and alerts are made via smartphone. Admittedly, my first reaction to this was a bit wary, because my mind immediately made the jump to proliferation of this kind of technology that could be used to track us all someday. But like all technology, there is the potential for abuse. Overall though, technological advances in medicine used to improve health care are a plus, and expanding technology like this for patient care is a move in a good direction.

In the realm of computing, there was no of shortage tablets, cell phones and laptops. Some of these went beyond what we’re familiar with already and presented innovative hybrid devices that look like they’d be right at home on the bridge of a starship.

HP Sprout workstation

HP Sprout workstation

The HP Sprout is an all-in-one TouchSmart PC equipped with a scanner and cameras – note the plural. Running up the back of the workstation is the Illuminator Column that bends over the top of the display and projects an image onto the touch-sensitive mat. Documents or objects placed on the mat can be scanned in both 2D and 3D, and can be used for onscreen animations or for printout on a 3D printer. It retails for about $1900.

Lenovo LaVie

Lenovo LaVie

The convertible Lenovo LaVie is one of the lightest 13-inch PCs shown at CES, with tough but lightweight magnesium-lithium alloy construction around two pounds. The hinge allows this laptop to function as a tablet, and the Intel Core i5 processor can handle most everyday jobs with high speeds. It retails for about $1300.

XYZprinting's da Vinci Junior 3D printer

XYZprinting’s da Vinci Junior 3D printer

Aimed at the consumer market, this 3D printer lists for about $350 and is designed for ease of use. The device’s SD card slot means users can print directly from an SD card without needing a computer interface, a feature that gives it more appeal as a shared device in places like schools and libraries. Every day, there are more uses and advances in 3D printing that means sooner or later these will be as common and ubiquitous in our homes as any other household appliance. It would not surprise me if, a few years down the road, we’re replacing protein cartridges in these things and 3D printing our dinners.

4K Inspire 1 drone from DJI

4K Inspire 1 drone from DJI

What would a consumer technology show be without drones? That’s right, for just $2900 you can have your very own flying drone with 24fps video capability through its 20mm wide-angle camera lens. For an extra $400 you can get the dual-remote version so one person can fly it while another operates the detachable camera. All paranoia aside, drones are an rapidly-emerging niche for hobbyists who in years past made due with RC planes and those annoying helicopter things that shopping mall demonstrators buzz past your head while you’re walking past. Independent filmmakers will also find these sorts of gadgets useful for getting the kinds of shots they could only have dreamed of without at least a moderate budget.

By the end of the show today, there were more than 3200 exhibitors showing their stuff at CES 2015. If you would like to find out more about the show, Flipboard has a handy CES 2015 aggregate filled with coverage from the show floor. Check back here in 2016 and maybe i’ll be a part of that coverage, too. Visiting CES would be an amazing and a fantastic opportunity to discover and cover great new technology making its way into our lives.

Cleveland – Innovation Hub and all around great place

Back in November, i mentioned how Cleveland is becoming known as a hub of innovation. Just the other day, that idea was again presented by Popular Mechanics in an article called Medicine, Manufacturers, and Furniture-makers turned Cleveland into an Innovation Hub.

Thanks in part to both the city’s resurgence in manufacturing, and the investment in medical technology and research, Cleveland is re-inventing itself and its image from a grey Midwestern steel town into a center where new methods, ideas and processes are being developed on the cutting-edge.

In addition to the great strides Cleveland has made to foster this growth, it’s also one of the top 50 places to visit, according to Travel + Leisure, alongside places like Fez, Morocco; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Milan, Italy.

The repurposing of historic buildings and return of young professionals to downtown are cited as major reasons for the revival, as well as the selection of luxury hotels for out-of-town visitors.

The Cleveland Convention Center has also made an impact on the city’s success, as it prepares to host the 2015 Republican National Convention. In the meantime, the center has attracted other big-ticket shows like Wizard World – one of the biggest comic book and pop culture conventions in North America…and one that i’ll be covering both here at The Long Shot and, along with entertainment editor Mark Meszoros, for The News-Herald.

Cleveland is also known quite well for the food scene, boasting as the hometown of celebrity chef Michael Symon as well as a host of great restaurants in the downtown area and scattered throughout Northeast Ohio. There’s also established institutions like the famous West Side Market.

On top of all that, Cleveland has an amazing cultural scene, too. The Museum of Contemporary Art is a world-renowned place that underwent an amazing reconstruction in 2012, and the nearby Cleveland Institute of Art’s $75 million expansion is nearly complete. Downtown, Playhouse Square in the Theater District is the largest performing arts center in the U.S. outside of New York.

And, i’m not a sports guy by any stretch, but we got LeBron James back so that’s got to count for something right?

If you happened to watch the video on the Popular Mechanics website, you may have caught the segment where Matt Beyer, director of business development at LeanDog, talked about their role in complimenting established manufacturing companies in Cleveland as a strategic partner and helping them keep pace with the demands of the global economy.

LeanDog has been a great friend to me, too. By visiting their monthly meetups, i’ve not only been introduced to the fascinating world of code, but i’ve made several connections with other Cleveland innovators. This Sunday, Jan. 11, i’ll be on the Software Boat again for Coderetreat, a day-long practice event focused on the fundamentals of software development and design. So be sure to visit here next Friday and read about how that goes.

Producer’s Letter

This morning, i awoke to find that there was a new Producer’s Letter posted on the DDO forums. Executive Producer Robert Ciccolini – or Severlin as he’s known on the forums – gave players a rundown of some of the things we can expect this year for Dungeons & Dragons Online. It would have been cool if they had dropped some of this on me back in September when i interviewed members of the development team, but alas.

ddo_logo

The biggest news in the letter is an update on what we can expect from the adaptation of the Temple of Elemental Evil, a classic D&D adventure making its way to DDO much like the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar did in 2014. Severlin says the temple grounds will be quite large, with lots of danger and treasures to find inside the halls and chambers.

Monster Champions, which so far have caused a huge amount of debate on the forums, will be getting their own collectible system in the form of Mysterious Fragments resonating with magical power. Various agents scattered about the public areas will be interested in these fragments, which players can redeem for scrolls, potions, cosmetic items and even rare pets.

A new class is on the horizon, too. The Warlock is making its way to DDO, bringing their eldritch blasts to the battlefront. New classes are always an exciting time for players to discover new playstyles and multiclass combinations. Personally, i’m most interested to see how (or if) they will implement the various pacts warlock’s make in order to gain their powers. In the tabletop version of D&D, warlocks have pact options with the fey realm, demons and otherworldly entities akin to Lovecraftian elder gods. Colloquially, these resulted in names like feylock and starlock (i don’t remember the slang for the demon pact one – darklock?). When 4th edition D&D came out i made a starlock and had quite a bit of fun with that so we’ll see how it translates to DDO. To be honest, i would have loved to read that they were adding psionics to the mix first, and maybe someday we’ll see them in-game but for now, news of any new class is good news.

The Vale of Twilight and Shavarath are getting updates and new adventure packs in line with the level cap raise to 30. The more powerful and dangerous Vale will also introduce an update to the classic, beloved Greensteel equipment system. i say beloved because the items are very powerful and useful, but i can’t speak from experience because despite playing DDO since 2006 i have yet to acquire a single piece of Greensteel equipment. One day i hope to at least get that Trap-the-Soul heavy repeating crossbow made, but for now i just have the blank sitting in my vault.

Speaking of the level cap raise, players who reach the new cap of 30 can expect additional feats and power, as well as construct new weapons and treasures. That last part intrigues me the most, as i hope this means they will update the Cannith Crafting system to include all the prefixes and suffixes available on random lootgen, and maybe even allow us to craft clickies…? Here’s hoping.

Finally, there are some new festivals planned for 2015 including a mimic-themed event where players hunt down the diabolically disguised creatures, and a new seasonal festival hinted to be Halloween-themed. A later forum response from Severlin confirmed that “the mimic hunt is actually one of the fun things we have planned for our anniversary,” Severlin wrote. “I believe the Mabar items are still planned as rewards for the mimic hunt. We want to have an entirely new festival around the Halloween time, and that would also include appropriately themed items.”

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Thanks for reading the 11th 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, Jan. 16 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).

Thanks for reading!

Week in Geek 1.2.15

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

2014 Annual report

The closeout of the year brought along many changes in the world at large and for me personally. Several of those changes occurred right here. The Long Shot got a brand-new look, and WordPress added new formats for creating posts and viewing stats. They also provided an artfully-done 2014 Year in Blogging Report that you can check out yourself if you’re so inclined.

Highlights of the report, for me anyway, included an analogy between The Long Shot and a New York City subway train that holds 1200 people and would need to make six trips in order to carry all the people who visited the site this past year.

Not surprising at all was the fact that my busiest day by a huge margin was just a few weeks ago on Dec. 13 when Week in Geek got Stuckmannized – also the most viewed post of the year. i’d like to think it was due to my sublime writing skills, but really it’s because the fella i interviewed has an enormous following and graciously helped promote the article. That being said, writing narrative interviews is my favorite kind of post to work on and going into 2015 i hope to do more of those. i’ve got a few of those in the pipe, including one that the TOS fan in me is geeking out about already.

Worth mentioning though are some other notable posts from the year. One of them is a prime example of how important SEO is to generating traffic, and the other is exciting because it comes from a contributing writer, something i hope to see a lot more of in 2015 and beyond.

CWRU at CES 2015

It seems that i’m starting to make at least a little bit of a name for myself in the Cleveland technology scene, as a press release came to my desk a few weeks ago from Bob Sopko, director of Blackstone LaunchPad at Case Western Reserve University.

Bob was excited to let me know that he, along with students and alumni from CWRU, would be showcasing their inventions and entrepreneurship at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jan. 6-9.

Nine teams will travel to the exhibition that draws over 150,000 visitors from around the world, with two of the teams making a return visit after introducing their concepts at last year’s show.

One of the returning teams is Everykey, the brainchild of CWRU students that is a Bluetooth-enabled wristband which stores the ever-increasing number of passwords we use throughout the day with our smartphones, tablets and computers. Further developments will enable the stylish accessory to grant access to physically locked items like doors, cars and bike locks as well as plans to integrate other systems like home lighting.

everykey

Everykey wristband in one of seven available colors

“Everykey removes the stress and hassle of losing keys and forgetting passwords, while providing even better security than what consumers currently have in place,” Christopher Wentz, CEO of Everykey and 2013 CWRU grad, said. “Our product uses military grade encryption, allowing only you access to your personal property and accounts. Like a credit card, you can instantly disable your Everykey if it ever gets lost or stolen.”

On their website right now, you can preorder your own Everykey for $25 less than the retail price, which is only a modest $100 to begin with. The device works with Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Android and iOS as well as Chrome, Firefox and Safari. The rechargeable battery life holds an impressive 30 day charge, and the device itself is water-resistant, with Bluetooth Low Energy and a customizable range up to three meters.

Everykey originated in an entrepreneurship class taught by Walt Sokira at CWRU in 2012. Sokira was so impressed by the idea that he invested capital in the project. Since then, Everykey has been well-regarded in publications like The Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch and Digital Trends.

The Kickstarter for Everykey shows that they surpassed their $100,000 goal and funding is now closed. The tiered rewards for pledging included some impressive stuff from regular access to all updates, an Everykey developer circuit board and early access to Everykey SDK all the way up to an exclusive visit to their office to have their chief designer create a custom Everykey wristband for you. Most backers pledged in the $50 range, which netted them an Everykey at half price, with planned shipping in March 2015.

This to me is another example of some of the fantastic technology innovations coming out of my hometown. Everykey is definitely something i’m putting on my wishlist, especially since more and more, accounts prompt you to change your password so often – i can’t remember them all!

The other returning team is Carbon Origins, a CWRU student technology think-tank focused on solving hard technical problems in electronics and aerospace. Their first product – Apollo – is a tiny embedded sensor development board capable of measuring and recording temperature, pressure, humidity, ultraviolet, infrared and visible light, audio intensity, three-axis accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer and GPS.

Data gleaned through Apollo was originally used after a rocket crashed, and scientists strove to learn the reason why. Like most innovations, this singular use was expanded upon and has found a home in applications ranging from robotics and drones to wearable computing devices.

Apollo is about as big as your thumb, with a trackball control and 128 x 64 pixel 0.96″ OLED screen and is equipped with an onboard microphone for audio recording and streaming.

The Apollo device from Carbon Origins

The Apollo device from Carbon Origins

The remaining teams traveling to CES 2015 have varying goals for their presentations, like high-tech home maintenance, health monitoring, aviation and rocketeering, or to use the latest manufacturing technology to make high quality toys less expensive.

All of the projects are supported by think[box] – CWRU’s center for innovation that provides space, equipment and training. Anyone is invited to use their resources to tinker and creatively invent, but especially CWRU students, faculty and alumni. Right now, think[box] is housed in 4500 square foot space but $35 million in renovations are in the works for a 7-story, 50,000 square foot facility to make one of the largest university-based innovation centers in the world.

“Think[box] is where our students and faculty can, on their own, take those ideas in their heads and get them in their hands – that is, to actually go from concept to prototype,” Jeffrey Duerk, dean of the Case School of Engineering, said.

Blackstone LaunchPad also helped teams through mentorship of their startups and development, assisting in securing funding and taking ideas to market.

“We look forward to our expanded involvement in the world’s largest display of innovation and discovery,” Bob Sopko said. “As a major research institution, we will be involved for our second year in a row, expanding from two to six booths (between 75427 and 75437 Tech West, Sands Expo, Level 2). Our students and alumni are excited to be demonstrating, selling and actively looking for partnerships.”

Last year, the Case School of Engineering was the only university organization exclusively showcasing student startups at CES, and now in their second year attending the expo, CWRU is tripling its presence.

Remaining teams that will be at CES 2015 are:

  • SpiroSano, which helps patients with respiratory conditions, such as asthma, COPD or cystic fibrosis, track their activities and episodes around the clock and share that data with their doctor to improve treatment. Doctor and patient create and control a personalized disease management toolkit using SpiroSpano’s platform.
  • Doppler Yoyo, one of several competition-grade and collectors-grade yo-yos Spartan Yoyo Works creates using 3-D printing at a fraction of the standard production price. The yo-yo is made of a single material and achieves a high moment of inertia by changing the geometry in ways that would be impossible without 3-D printing.
  • Event 38 Unmanned Systems, which designs and builds mission-specific, unmanned fixed-wing and multirotor aircraft systems and optical sensors as well as drone data post-processing solutions. Event 38 systems are used primarily in agriculture and surveying.
  • 360×360 Selfie Stick, patented in 2012 by CWRU alumnus Joshua Wang, of Taiwan. With a telescoping handle and a camera bracket that can swivel in any direction, the stick provides the distance to take “selfies” of large groups or to provide different angles or more background in photographs. The stick can also be used to take photos over walls, around corners and in hard-to-reach places.
  • Hema Imaging LLC, which helps homeowners and professionals use thermal, or “heat map,” imaging to uncover unexpected temperatures associated with common household problems, such as faulty circuit breakers, sealing losses or ductwork and water leakage. The HemaVision helps homeowners identify and diagnose problems by automatically highlighting abnormal temperatures, locking onto scenes, calculating power dissipation and cost, and making statistical maps of significant temperature changes.
  • And last but not least, you may remember this Cleveland tech innovator from Week in Geek a few weeks ago – BoxCast, a company that has developed a plug-and-play broadcast box, within the display of Osmisys, an electrical engineering technology firm. The Boxcast product allows anyone with a camera to conveniently stream standard and high-definition live video to the company’s cloud-based service for retrieval at any time and from any location.

To stay up-to-date with these creative innovators and their presentations at CES 2015, like CWRU’s Blackstone LaunchPad on Facebook, follow @LaunchPadCWRU on Twitter and keep an eye on #CES2015.

You can be sure i’ll follow up with as many of these folks as I can after CES wraps.

Code Retreat

Beginning coders and experienced alike are invited to sign up for the Post CodeMash v2.0.1.5 Coderetreat on Jan. 11 from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the LeanDog Software Boat in Cleveland. LeanDog is the sponsor for the event.

Coderetreat is an intensive practice event focused on software development and design fundamentals. Co-facilitators Charlotte Chang and Carl Shotwell bill the event as an opportunity to get away from the pressures of ‘getting things done,’ noting that the format has shown to be an effective way to improve skills. Developers can improve their ability to write code that minimized the cost of change over time, by practicing basic principles of modular and object-oriented design according to the event’s description.

There’s no specific coding language required, so attendees can work in their preferred language setup. Event organizers do ask for open-mindedness though, with the possibility of experimenting with other languages.

In addition to sharpening your coding skills, Coderetreat is a great place to hone your social skills too, and get introduced to peers.

Expertise as a coder, developer or programmer is also not a requirement. Beginning programmers are welcome, but are asked to have a basic understanding and skill – the event is about coding after all. It is an opportunity to learn lessons and values for everyone including experts. If you’re an experienced coder or thinking about getting into it, this Coderetreat is an excellent opportunity to expand your skills and pick up new ones, so check it out!

Thankfully i’ve been plugging away at Codecademy so i think i qualify for the “basic understanding” part of it. If you attend, stop and say hello – i’d love to hear from you! i’ll be the guy who barely knows what he’s doing.

Learning to code

Speaking of Codecademy, i’ve earned 8 badges and 41 points so far, although i have yet to fully complete a skillset (i’m 85% done with the first one though).

My recent experiences there are worthy of their own post, which i’ll work on during the next couple of days. Imagine that – more than one post in a week! In the meantime, check out a couple of the 30-minute exercises i worked on. Still haven’t discovered a way to embed the work directly into a post, so you’ll have to just follow the links:

  • Sun, Earth and Code – simple animation work (although you wouldn’t think so from the amount of lines of code!
  • Earth and Moon – variation on the above using cooler images

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Thanks for reading the tenth (!!) 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. Naturally, there’s several year-in-review and looking-ahead sorts of articles to start the list, and beyond that some useful tips, intriguing experiments and…drama from the world of hi-technology?!

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

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Jan. 9 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).

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!