(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.

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Week(s) in Geek 6.11.15: Unholy Episode 1 teaser trailer and Steam GreenLight Launch

Not too long ago, i shared some news about indie game developers Enyx Studios. The two man team of Don Hileman and Andrew Pavlick are passionate creators looking to make the world a little more fun, one game at a time. At present, that one game is called Unholy, a storytelling video game of dark horror and desperate survival planned for release episodically.

Concept cover art for Enyx Studios "Unholy" game

Concept cover art for Enyx Studios “Unholy” game

Since initially speaking with Don and Andrew and visiting their studio, they’ve come a long way. Several exciting developments have emerged, three of which we’ll dive right into here. Plus there’s a contest for Long Shot readers to receive a digital copy of Unholy Episode One when it is released later this year.

Teaser Trailer

Last night at midnight (technically it was today, but i subscribe to the belief that the day doesn’t change until you go to sleep and wake up again) Enyx Studios released the first teaser trailer for Unholy. Digital Pimpin hosted the release, and viewers who leave a comment are entered into an Unholy giveaway contest.

The trailer is also available for viewing on Enyx Studios’ YouTube channel as well as their official site.

And right here!

Steam GreenLight Launch

On Friday, June 12 at noon EST, Enyx Studios will go live with Unholy on Steam GreenLight, which allows developers to present their games to the Steam community. Once there, users can vote on titles and after a certain threshold of votes is met Steam works with the developer to bring the game to their digital marketplace.

Through the GreenLight process, developers can upload things like screenshots, different builds of a game and videos like the trailer or whatever else they wish to share with the Steam community.

To keep up to date with this process, make sure to follow Enyx Studios on Facebook and Twitter, and visit their official site for the latest news.

Once the GreenLight Launch goes live, i’ll share more information about that as well so stop back tomorrow, June 12 for an update.

Enyx Studios team

Don and Andrew have accomplished an amazing amount of work on their project, and after meeting and talking with them i was so impressed by their pursuit of their goals as independent autonomous creators. Sharing stories of these sorts of people is one of the cornerstones of The Long Shot, and it’s my great pleasure to do my small part in spreading the word about folks like them and others who have graciously taken the time to speak with me.

Enyx Studios

In an incredibly exciting turn of events, i’d like to share a little something i was astounded to find in my inbox on April 30:

Good Morning Doug,

I have a rather odd question for you. Have you ever considered getting into story design on games?

IIRC i responded in about two seconds flat with an enthusiastic affirmative. As a lifelong gamer and writer, hell yes i’ve considered this!

Great gameplay experiences aside, i’ve always enjoyed the story aspect of games. My favorite genre, role-playing games, are founded on the notion of immersive storytelling. Since childhood days of discovering tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, all the way to today playing Dungeons & Dragons Online and everything in between, my favorite part of games has always been the story unfolding within them. My absolute favorite game of all time – the Mass Effect series – is all about the story, so much so that i can’t even replay the series for enjoyment because my Commander Shepard’s tale is complete and anything else doesn’t seem right.

i’d be lying if i said the task of contributing to Unholy isn’t daunting. What do i know about video game design? But i’m giving it my best shot. So far, Don and Andrew are happy with what i’ve come up with so i’ll continue to forge ahead.

What i’ve enjoyed most about working on this project is recognizing someone else’s vision and helping to achieve that. i’m no stranger to ambitious independent projects build on speculation and a dream, and if i’m honest it’s refreshing to join someone else’s team to help them. My own experiences with similar endeavors have taught me that the best you can do is stay positive at all times and put your strongest foot forth, both for yourself and your team, and that’s exactly what i’ve seen so far.

As for what i’ve been working on, each day for me begins by opening a growing number of Google docs and diving in to whatever part of design needs focus.

At first, there was only a simple list of notes and ideas that i compiled from various emails and resources Don and Andrew had already developed. Next came a script very much like a film screenplay, which was a ton of fun to create since i got to pull those skills out of the bag that i haven’t used pretty much since the days of Bad Service.

After that i started on a script for the game’s backstory using the same screenplay format. This has proved immensely useful to me, planting the seeds for many of the characters, scenes and plots that will emerge through gameplay. Lots of twists and turns to the story evolved through working on the backstory that takes place before gamers hit that Start button, which i truly hope pays off in players’ enjoyment throughout the breadth of the various episodes of Unholy.

Things starting getting technical with the Game Design Document, or GDD, which is a highly descriptive document not unlike a business plan. This is something development teams use within the industry to communicate with not only among each other but to outside business partners. In a lot of ways, it’s like a television series bible, used as a reference to keep continuity and also help any newcomers to the team understand the series.

Emerging from the GDD is the document i most work in now – the flowchart. This ever-evolving beast continues to grow new limbs as different puzzles, challenges and obstacles are added for players to overcome. i enjoy this format the most so far, since it offers the opportunity to combine creativity with logical organization. When i first started working on the flow of the game my thinking was more linear, like find a key in room A and it unlocks the adjacent room B. Now, the spidery tendrils of the flowchart give players much more opportunity to explore and progress. The flow is still linear, but only in the sense that lines connect the dots for players to follow. The way those lines maneuver around each other, though, is much more complex.

Win a free digital copy of Unholy

Long Shot readers who leave a comment below will be entered into a giveaway contest to receive a free digital copy of Unholy, so be sure to include contact information. You can also enter by Tweeting a link to this post with the hashtag #LongShotUnholyGiveaway. The game is planned for release in Q4 2015.

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Thanks as always 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.

Please share your thoughts and comments on this topic in the comments section – i’d like to hear yours!

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

As always, i appreciate each and every person that visits The Long Shot. It’s a great joy to share not only my own thoughts but also stories of science, technology and pop culture from my hometown Cleveland and the surrounding area. If you have anything you’d like to write about, please feel free to contact me or Take a Shot yourself and write about topics that interest you.

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!

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

Thanks for reading!

Week in Geek 3.27.15

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

You managed to survive without a Week in Geek on 3.20.15 and you’re back? My hats off to you, readers!

Gaming Helps

For this week, i had an opportunity to speak with Deaths Crowbar. No, it’s not a metal band – it’s an individual.

Joshua Turner is the geeky gamer guy behind the Deaths Crowbar persona on his YouTube channel, Twitch, Twitter and elsewhere, creating and sharing videos and writing gaming news, reviews, podcasts and more. But beneath all of that is a young guy with a lot of heart, who seeks to fuse his love of gaming with a real desire to help people. In fact, if he had one superpower, he was quick to say it would be the power to heal others.

Deaths Crowbar

At the age of 12, Joshua was diagnosed with leukemia, and fought hard for four years to overcome it. He credits gaming for helping him cope with the ordeal, primarily in dealing with the depression and loneliness he experienced while undergoing treatment and all the stresses involved with his battle against cancer. On his YouTube channel, he has a series of videos called Cancer Stories, where he shares his experiences with various aspects of that part of his life.

“Gaming became a very important thing in my life during that time,” he says in one of those videos. “Because it was how I communicated with people.”

Although he’s a lifelong gamer, being in the hospital for weeks at a time meant he didn’t get to interact with friends or other people, and he discovered MMOs were a great way to do that. Speaking with Joshua, with his easy laugh and positive outlook, you wouldn’t think he’d gone through such extremely difficult challenges in his life. You can tell through his videos and the other work that he does how important it is for him to do what he can to bring that hope and optimism to others, too.

In that regard, a video he posted just yesterday is geared towards helping his uncle, an important figure in his life who introduced him to gaming when he was a child. His uncle has some serious health problems, and Joshua is doing what he can to help by reaching out to people through his YouTube channel. There is a GoFundMe venture to raise money for a procedure he needs as soon as possible, and Joshua has also pledged on his own to reward a donor with a Nintendo gaming package worth hundreds of dollars.

i came across this impressive 18 year old from Texarkana, Arkansas while looking for inspirado in creating custom Funko Pop vinyl figures. In his tutorial video for doing that, he created a Nightcrawler figure, which he later told me was his first attempt at doing so as well as being his most viewed video to date. It was also one of his favorite videos to make, because he enjoys actually creating things. As it turns out, there’s very few channels out there with that particular sort of content, and a lot of viewers discover his channel through that video.

As a sidenote, he received some feedback that the video might be too long, clocking in a just over 35 minutes. But he followed up by checking the stats on it which showed that 88 percent of viewers watched the whole thing straight through to the end. <editor’s note: take that, people who think videos – and blogs – shouldn’t be too long!>

Just recently, Deaths Crowbar reached some important milestones in subscribers and partnerships. But i’ll let him tell you all about that:

“I just make videos to have fun and stuff,” he said humbly about his work so far. “It’s nice that people are liking them.”

The origin of the name Deaths Crowbar is first question most people ask Joshua. In one of his earlier videos he talks about how he wanted to come up with a unique name because there’s a lot of Joshua Turners in the world.

“When I played the original Halo game, instead of just wanting to go with ‘Joshua’ or whatever, I was trying to go for something that was interesting and unique,” he recalled of coming up with his moniker. “My dad works with tools a lot, so I went with Crowbar. When I got XBox 360 and Xbox Live, Crowbar was taken. So I thought, let’s add a possessive or an adjective here, and figure out what we can do to make this interesting.

“It actually goes well with the ‘You were killed by…Deaths Crowbar’,” he said with a laugh. “Not a regular crowbar. Deaths Crowbar.”

Joshua has been making YouTube videos for a few years now, and in earlier days he had a different channel that he said was more sporadic in terms of both content and frequency. He decided to get more focused though, and keep the content centered on primarily gaming, so he launched the Deaths Crowbar channel about two years ago to do just that.

The response from friends and family to Joshua’s work has been a mixed bag. There’s some skepticism, but he notes that his dad in particular has been supportive especially since he’s started traveling to conventions and speaking on panels and with people in the gaming industry. A few people have some reservations, until he starts making money from his efforts. For other friends, they look to him for inspiration and advice on starting their own YouTube channels.

“What I’ve noticed when looking at other people’s success is that ‘so-and-so noticed them, and then…’,” he said of other YouTube success stories, noting that it takes perseverance and hard work.

In that regard, Joshua has already experienced some steps forward through a recent partnership with Fullscreen Inc.

“Fullscreen is a multichannel network,” he said of his newest venture. “They offer tools and tips, and help with things like copyright issues. They help you work with other people more easily. You get a manager who helps you with tips on how to improve.

“They try and help you grow your channel, and so far it’s pretty much just been me, so something to help me along will be nice.”

For the nuts-and-bolts of his videos, Joshua studied other YouTubers and what he noticed is that a lot of videos are highly edited and/or scripted. For his videos, which often feature continuous footage, he wanted them to feel like he’s engaging directly with the viewer, talking “through heart and head.” Going forward, he might utilize some editing techniques based on advice he’s gotten. In particular, adding custom images and similar content can help videos show up in the sidebars for related videos, for example.

“You need to interact with the people a good amount,” he said, in terms of building a community around his YouTube channel, outside of the content creation itself. “It’s also good to have people who will interact with each other, who are in a way loyal to your fanbase.

“Networking is a big, big deal,” he said.

In addition to maintaining his YouTube channel and posting regular content, Joshua is also a straight-A college student currently taking care of the general requirements at the local branch of the University of Arkansas. He’s also one of the top writers and does public relations for Christian Gamer, where he is often a voice advocating for more open-mindedness from the community there.

“There’s issues with a lot of games, yes,” he said of the perspective of approaching gaming from a christian viewpoint. “There’s some I really don’t agree with…but I’m one of the people who’s different than a lot of the people who come in, in such that I advocate for certain games, whereas a lot of them will gripe about it.”

As an interviewer himself, he’s had several opportunities to speak with gaming industry professionals. Most memorably, he was able to speak with a developer of Neverwinter Online when that came out. That came about by simply sending a message to Cryptic Studios’ COO Craig Zinkievich and asking if he could send someone for a podcast Joshua was involved with, and at the time there’s wasn’t much press from bigger sites like IGN so it was a great opportunity.

For others interested in becoming a YouTuber, who might be hesitant for whatever reason, Joshua has some advice to share:

“Just grab a camera and try,” he said. “Really, it’s not as much about whether you can or can’t do it, or you’re shy or uncomfortable. I am not always the best with cameras and things like that…but eventually you get used to it. You get comfortable with it, and once you get that comfort zone, I think is where people start noticing and really want to watch you for your personality.”

Going forward, opportunities continue to open up for Joshua stemming from his YouTube channel and the work he does developing a concept called Gaming Helps. Although still in the planning stage, he hopes to grow this idea into a charitable organization that combines his love of gaming with a strong desire to help others. He also has some potential opportunities to become involved with game development as well, something he’s really excited about but can’t reveal details on just yet – so keep an eye on his channel for more news of that.

Almost all of Joshua’s videos feature his custom signoff, which is something he put thought into after noticing that other popular YouTubers typically have a signature intro or signoff themselves. In keeping with the spirit of speaking off the cuff, he went with whatever came off the top of his head which a friend told him was awesome and that he needed to keep.

And what better way to wrap up a talk with Deaths Crowbar than his signoff message, a statement i can fully stand behind myself:

“To all you nerds out there, and to all you gamers and all you geeks – keep doing what you do.”

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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!

Since my interview with Deaths Crowbar ran longer than I anticipated, i’ll be creating another post this weekend for some other geeky news, so be sure to check back for that.

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 enjoy what you read at The Long Shot, please click follow at the top of the page and sign up for email subscriptions so you never miss a post.

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 week, and i’d love to see you here! In the mean time, check out what there is to know about Yuri’s Night World Space Party and how you can contribute to this global celebration of space exploration.

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 3.13.15 extra

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

i mentioned the other day some NE Ohio tech community news as a follow-up, and thanks to CWRU computer science student Stephanie Hippo graciously taking some time to speak with me over the weekend i have that to share with you here.

Women in technology

Stephanie is in her final semester at CWRU, graduating in just seven weeks. As a staunch advocate for women in technology and the computer science field, she recently presented her article “You Gotta Want It” that addresses the issue.

CWRU computer science student Stephanie Hippo works hard to help make computer accessible to women

CWRU computer science student Stephanie Hippo works hard to help make computer accessible to women

According to Bob Sopko from CWRU’s Blackstone Launchpad, “Stephanie has a massive impact on bringing the tech environment into reach of young ladies on campus.” The article showcases not only that impact, but also speaks to the broader issue of women in the technology field from her personal experience.

For Grace Hopper’s sake, how did I not know the other women in my classes? – From the article “You Gotta Want It.” (Grace Hopper was a pioneering American computer scientist and rear admiral in the Navy who made vital contributions to the field)

i particularly enjoyed the thread of humility that runs through Stephanie’s article. Woven into the story is her search for role models that young women can look to for guidance and inspiration, and through her efforts she becomes one herself, donating her time and assistance to help young women overcome some of the barriers or obstacles to a career in computer science.

Originally, Stephanie entered CWRU as a biomedical engineering student, with a desire to  advance the medical field. Although she’d done some computing in high school, the idea of pursuing it as a career isn’t something she’d considered or even known much about until getting to college. A introductory freshman course on the subject with a follow-up internship at a software company changed her mind though, and she changed her major to computer science.

“I had the support of my friends and the support of the department,” she said of her initial steps in the field, despite the small number of other women to look to for guidance. “But, it’s a big university, so it’s difficult to affect change at an institutional level.”

Her work in advocating for other women in computing, including her article, emerged after she was given advice to engage in projects to expand her portfolio beyond her degree and practical work in the industry.

“I just wanted to let other people know about the issue and realize some of the work that goes in to making it a reality – how much time goes into it, and why people choose to put their time into it,” she said. “I was hoping this article would articulate why I care about it. It’s made a lot of noise on campus, and gotten the support of some really great alumni.”

The response to her article, and the work she’s done, so far has gotten a great response. Hundreds of people have read and shared the article, and she said the response has been nothing but positive. Just this past weekend, she was asked to speak at a high school about women in technology, a last-minute request that presented her with 12 hours to come up with an hour-long speech – a challenge she was happy to accept.

In the article, she mentions her involvement with CWRU’s Hacker Society, a student organization for those “who are interested in digging into the innards of things; for those who use, produce, or support open-source software (or hardware); and for those who would like to learn more about open-source development,” according to their website.

hacker-society-small

A large part of the impetus for her advocacy was her position as the one of the only female members of the group, and the article’s title refers to her want to change that. For those not familiar with computer science, the term “hacker” can carry a negative connotation, like what you hear in the news about groups who break into secure networks or steal people’s identities. To programmers and coders though, those sorts of activities are far from the truth.

“A hack is more of when you open something up to see and learn more about how it works on the inside,” Stephanie explained. “To learn more about how computers work, or hacking something together quickly. We try to encourage people to throw together small projects so they can better understand how programming language works, or how some protocol works. It’s more hack, as in explore, than illegally break into something.”

Hack events, also called hackathons, like the recent HackCWRU, are held in cities all over the world, giving technologists the opportunity to engage in collaborative computer programming. If you’re interested in hackathons, finding one near you is as simple as doing an Internet search for “hackaton <insert city name>” and you’ll find all sorts of resources about them in your area.

“There’s just so much you can do with it,” Stephanie said of computing. “I think it’s hard to know exactly what you want to do at 18, and you’re thrown into college and told to pick a major. There’s so much you haven’t been exposed to yet. It’s hard to even know what you haven’t been exposed to yet. Computer science is just a huge field that’s really everywhere now. If you’re interested in one industry or another, there’s probably some way to apply computer science to it.

“It’s a lot more creative than people give it credit for. I’ve talked to some women that might be a little hesitant to jump into it at first because it’s very technical, but there’s a lot of creativity that goes into it as well, with problem-solving and individually with things like app design or web design. There’s an unlimitedness of what you can do, combined with the creativity that goes along with it as well.”

For any non-students who are interested in learning more about computer science, Stephanie said there has been an explosion of resources out there. Online, things like code.org and codecademy can start people on the path to learning code, but Stephanie said building a community is an important factor. Having other people to connect with and work with in person helps not only novice coders, but even for those with degrees in computer science or who already work in the field collaborating with peers is incredibly useful.

“Cleveland’s pretty lucky to have a larger community around the intro to programming – not just for women but for anyone that really wants to get involved,” Stephanie said. Groups like HER Ideas in Motion, for example, offer hands-on workshops for girls to learn from career professionals. And TECH CORPS is a society for K-12 students that gives access to technology skills, programs and resources.

“Eventually, you have to make the jump and the time to do projects, and it’s so much easier when you have an actual real person there,” she said of online self-instruction. “That’s why groups like those are so important.”

Later in the day after speaking with me, Stephanie was involved with an event through Tigress, an organization that offers entrepreneurship and creative arts programs to young women. In addition to groups like that, there are plenty of other resources in the Cleveland area to assist young people and women gain a stronger foundation in technology.

Coming up in April for example, Blackstone’s 2015 Future Women Leaders Program presents seminars, networking and skill-building sessions with professionals that provides early exposure to the finance and business sides of technology.

There’s also a Women’s Leadership Symposium at my alma mater Cleveland State University on April 15.

Thanks to Stephanie Hippo for her time, not just in speaking with me but her efforts to open the field of computer science for women. Her tireless work connecting with young women in high schools and at CWRU has expanded the Hacker Society, and she’s helped open the door for others to careers in computer science.

Women in comics

Perhaps serendipitously, the rush to finish up Week in Geek last Friday meant i couldn’t get to the last two comics on my digital pull list for the week, both of which star female superheroes.

Thor #6 cover by Russell Dauterman

Thor #6 cover by Russell Dauterman

First up, Thor #6 was another terrific installment in the series that in some ways is divisive for comics fans. This issue, we didn’t see much of the thunder god, instead getting some backstory on Dario Agger aka the Minotaur, so far the series’ primary antagonist.

We also follow the Odinson’s continuing quest to find out the identity of the woman wielding Mjolnir, and a conversation he has with Heimdall reveals that, far from being omniscient, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge sees only that which threatens the realm of Asgard. And since he cannot spy Thor from his post on the pathway to the seven realms, we know she truly is a hero.

Most of the book follows a glum Odinson around, and his melancholy musings reveal that his desire to learn more about Thor stem more from his wish to discover why he is no longer worthy to wield the hammer. A visit with cancer-stricken Jane Foster, being cared for by Asgardian doctors although refusing their magical healing, does little to alleviate Thor’s down-in-the-dumps mood, but he does cross her name off his list of potential suspects of the mighty Thor. The scene with Jane Foster i found particularly interesting though, because we see her looking frail from her illness and chemo treatments but standing beside the musclebound Odinson in his “I’m not worthy” depression actually makes him look all the weaker.

From there, he makes a visit to SHIELD agent Phil Coulson, perhaps showing off a bit of his un-worthiness by violently lashing out to get his way in a tantrum, and then we’re back to Agger in a meeting with Malekith the Accursed, dark elf and ruler of Svartelfheim. The two of them strike a bargain that allows Agger’s Roxxon Corporation exclusive mineral rights in Malekith’s realm until the end of time in exchange for a magical artifact.

Finally, four pages from the end, Thor shows up. We only get to see her for one page, but the full-page panel is well worth it to watch the Roxxon security team’s hail of bullets bounce off of her.

thor tickles

Then we’re whisked back to Asgard, where Odin the All-Father continues to be a chauvanistic a-hole to his wife, who thankfully smacks him upside the head and hints that his desire to get Mjolnir back might give him more than he bargained for.

Unfortunately, he’s already dispatched the Destroyer to take care of Thor and bring the hammer back to Asgard, leaving us with the animated armor’s arrival on the scene, turning its energy-blasting face towards the downed superheroine.

i’m really looking forward to the next issue of this book to see how Thor handles this threat.

A lot of the debate surrounding this development of the longstanding Thor character centers on whether or not Marvel should have just created a brand new character and left the traditional Thor alone.

i think it’s just wonderful, and to be honest i don’t really care who’s under the helmet. It could be just a random earthling and i’d be fine with that. In fact, if that were the case it would speak even more to the traditional Marvel model that anyone can be a hero that the readers can identify with.

So far in the book, i’ve really enjoyed the character’s inner dialogue, which sounds not at all Asgardian, contrasted with her spoken words sprinkled with the “thee’s” and “thou’s” we expect from Thor. Internally, too, we learn that she is sometimes uncertain of herself and her capabilities, but what she’s displayed so far is not only prowess that makes her worthy to wield the hammer but in many ways showed innovation that surprises even those familiar with Thor’s abilities – something Frigga alludes to when admonishing Odin’s obsession with getting the hammer back.

Giving this new person the mantle of an established character gives her instant credibility, not only with her peers in the superhero community but also with the audience. It is extremely difficult for creators to present brand new characters who stick around, so i think it was a fantastic idea to take Thor in this direction. Eventually, she may break away from it and establish her own heroic identity…but if this is the Thor we have for years to come i’ve got no problem with that.

From a marketing standpoint, Marvel has generated a ton of buzz for the character, and story-wise they’ve given a ton of potential for Thor as an individual as well as within the larger contextual universe. At a time when the most recognizable female superhero – Wonder Woman – still struggles to find a foothold in the medium after 73 years, i think it’s awesome that this change to the Thor has already given greater prominence to the character as a top tier superhero who is also drawing in new readers.

In all my life, i don’t think i’ve ever bought a Thor comic until this new series, and it’s become one of my favorite books, so i hope it continues indefinitely and i can’t wait to see what happens next.

Spider-Gwen #2 cover by Robbi Rodriguez

Spider-Gwen #2 cover by Robbi Rodriguez

After a brief recap of her debut issue, Spider-Gwen #2 picks up with the arachnoid hero coming to on a garbage scow after her battle with the Vulture. Some old-school Spidey ingenuity kept her from going splat.

An imaginary Spider-Ham helps her make her way back to the city, where she wakes up on the couch of her bandmates place, still with Peter Porker providing running commentary. Including this unusual character is a treat, since i actually kept up with his series in the 80’s and always considered it to be one of the more colorful oddities in Marvel’s library.

Some police drama followed, with a hard-nosed Detective Castle questioning an incarcerated Kingpin about his involvement with Spider-Woman. Since i only started following this character with issue #1, i’m not sure about some of its alternate-reality characters and i wonder if Det. Castle will eventually become this reality’s version of Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher. His threat to off Kingpin right there in the prison interrogation room leads me to believe he will. It was also surprising when Kingpin’s lawyer got on the phone and it turned out to be Matt Murdock, who in the regular Marvel Universe is his arch-enemy Daredevil.

On the next page, we see Murdock beating information out of the Vulture, and at this point i’m not sure what his position is – a hero or a criminal mastermind, or maybe something in between.

To be completely honest, this book hasn’t captured my imagination beyond the character’s slick visuals and the shake-up of familiar names, so i’m still on the fence about it. i’ve always enjoyed the Spider-Man character even though i haven’t collected much in the past. The ultimate version didn’t really interest me, so i thought this series would be a good jumping on point. Spider-Gwen has the same vibe that Spider-Man does at his core, a young hero with personal problems, and i dig the street-level crime world she’s involved with, so those are pluses. i’ll come back to this one for at least issue #3 and go from there. It’s not a terrible book by any stretch…but there’s something missing i can’t quite put my finger on just yet.

*     *     *     *     *

Thanks for reading this special extra 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!

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. Since i’m pressed for time today, and based on the site’s stats i don’t see anyone really clicks on these links, i’ll just provide them without my usual commentary this week:

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

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, March 20 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 as always for reading!

Week in Geek 3.6.15

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

Talkin’ ‘Bout Comics

One of the best developments that came out of Wizard World Cleveland was a chance meeting with Valentino Zullo, who introduced himself before a panel discussion. We hit it off, both sharing an appreciation for similar sorts of comic books and the deeper contextual substance they present as literature.

Valentino currently studies at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at CWRU. Mentored and taught by Dr. Vera Camden at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, he credits her for inspiring his emerging work. Dr. Camden herself is part of a speaker series at the Cleveland Public Library, and will be part of a lecture there on March 14. Get Graphic! A Graphic Novel Speaker Series features scholars and comics industry professionals exploring the world of comic books. The lecture series is free to attend, and other guest speakers like Tony Isabella, Marc Sumerak and Brad Ricca are involved – definitely worth checking out.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal was the topic of discussion for the March 5 meeting

Ms. Marvel: No Normal was the topic of discussion for the March 5 meeting

In addition to the lecture series, Valentino hosts a bi-monthly discussion group at the Cleveland Public Library which uses comic book graphic novels as a springboard for conversations about social issues. On Thursday, March 5 a new series began called Women Warriors, which asks the question “what does it mean to be a female superhero?” As a big fan of female heroes myself, i was really looking forward to this meeting and was not disappointed by the experience.

“The whole group came about last March,” Valentino said of the Get Graphic! series. “I went to a book club at the library, when I was working in a domestic violence unit for my field placement when I was in social work school. One of the social workers was going to the library, and I said I’d go along. I asked if they ever do anything on comics. They said no, but they have this huge collection but they don’t have anyone who’s a specialist or who knows a lot about comics. So I jokingly said I could do it if they want. They said ‘do you really want to?’ So that’s how it happened. It was a joke at first; I wanted to do it, but I was kind of kidding. But they said if I wanted to, I totally could. That’s how it happened.”

The library does indeed have an impressive collection of comics and graphic novels in the 2nd floor literature section, and after the group i learned that they make every effort to stock enough of whatever book is the focus of the discussion, so there are plenty of copies to check out.

Valentino, who believes in literature, social justice and the superhero way, hopes to continue growing the group and bringing in more speakers. It’s really about creating a space for people to come and talk about comics, and more than that, to promote literacy in the community – a goal that comes from his efforts as a social worker.

Valentino Zullo hosts the Get Graphic! series at Cleveland Public Library. The March 5 meeting focused on the graphic novel Ms. Marvel: No Normal

Valentino Zullo hosts the Get Graphic! series at Cleveland Public Library. The March 5 meeting focused on the graphic novel Ms. Marvel: No Normal

“Even when people don’t show up (to the discussion group), all the books get checked out,” he said. “So it seems that people are reading the books, even if they’re not showing up to the discussion series.”

Organizing the discussions around social issues is important to Valentino, who said he’s interested in comics for lots of reasons simply as a fan of the genre as well. But his professional training led him to center the topics within a real-world context to explore things like feminism, racial diversity and equality, and the nature of evil.

He is happy to note that the groups have grown in attendance since the program started, with the lecture series typically seeing a larger number of people.

“I think it’s going well,” he said. “Yesterday during the introductions, a few people were very nice and thanked me. It seems like they’re learning a lot.”

The group of 12 on March 5 comprised men and women of all ages and cultural backgrounds, who gathered for the first installment of the Women Warriors series to discuss Marvel Comics Ms. Marvel: No Normal graphic novel. Valentino started the discussion with some research he did into the character. He went back to the well-established character’s roots in her original 1977 incarnation, noting that in the letters columns of those books, readers made the same sorts of comments we hear today about a lack of strong female heroes.

“Now, we’re seeing lots of female heroes emerging,” he told the group, pointing out the trend in comics of offering more than the typical white male superheroes. “Let’s see if they stick.”

What drives Valentino’s exploration of these issues in his interest in intersections. He explained that by looking at characters through intersections of characteristics like gender, class, race and sexuality, we can find solidarity in our differences. Using himself as an example, identifying as an Iranian gay man, he segued into the focused discussion on Ms. Marvel and the importance of this sort of book.

“Kamala is the perfect example of the new sort of comic that can teach us a lot about the world we live in,” he said of Kamala Khan, the Pakistani teenager who takes on the superhero identity of Ms. Marvel.

Although the discussion strayed organically from talking about No Normal specifically into a broader talk, the input from the group offered insightful perspectives on comics in general and the impact they’ve had for everyone gathered.

“A superhero is just a symbol for what we can wrought in our own lives,” said one of the women in the group.

When the conversation drifted away from the focus, Valentino was very good at bringing it back to the book, bringing the group’s attention to particular panels and story beats that he felt are important to the issue. He particularly liked how, early in the story, Kamala masterfully deconstructs the typical female superhero costume and how long hair, high heels and skin-tight spandex don’t really make for ideal crimefighting attire.

“It is sometimes difficult, because people really get inspired to talk about different things – which is a good thing in some ways,” he said of discussions come about. “But we don’t get that far into the book sometimes.

“In some ways it’s really good, that they’re finding ways to connect this to their every day lives, which is excellent. I do find sometimes that it’s difficult to keep on topic, but we’re usually within the scene.”

One of the things Valentino most enjoys about the discussions is what he learns from them, too. For example, the Evil and Empathy series evolved from an earlier discussion. After reading a comic about The Joker, one of the participants said that he kind of felt bad for the character, experiencing a bit of empathy in understanding what happened to him.

“They (group participants) make me think about these things in ways I haven’t before, which is really great,” Valentino said. “I just like the fact that these people are connecting after the discussion. People don’t want to just go, and they’ll sit around talking with other people from the group.

“I’ve learned that all these people have an investment in comics, and in social welfare, that I didn’t know about.”

Perhaps the overarching theme of the March 5 discussion centered on the diversity of comic book readers, who generally want to identify with the characters in the books. Several of the group’s female participants noted that they’d faced situations where people told them comics weren’t for girls. One of them, a black woman, in particular told about how when she was younger, she was drawn to Spider-Man. She enjoyed reading about not only his personal struggles, but the action in the book. She liked that, despite all his problems, he was still strong enough to do what was right and fight the bad guys.

This led the group into a broader talk about identifying with heroes, and most agreed that Marvel Comics does a great job of offering a wide range of characters that readers can relate to. In that regard, i think the Ms. Marvel book itself is a great example of this. Bearing the name of the publisher, i wonder if this is a subtle move on Marvel’s part to play into the idea that their characters have always represented the idea that the audience can put themselves in the heroes place.

Marvel has a long-standing tradition of humanizing their characters, giving them real-world problems outside of facing supervillainous threats. What i found very exciting through the discussion group was that the road goes both ways. What i mean is that, the same as how an adult black woman can relate to a teenaged white male hero like Spider-Man, it’s not a character’s race, gender, sexuality or other characteristic that draws readers in. Comic fans identify with the intangible qualities that superheroes represent, like selflessness and the strength to persevere against incredible adversity. That’s what allows for people like me, a middle-aged white man, to relate to a teenaged Pakistani girl like Ms. Marvel.

While doing my own research into the character, i came across the “I am Ms. Marvel” trend where readers take photos of themselves holding issue #1 up to their faces to show how they identify with the character. There’s a Twitter hashtag #iammsmarvel where a bunch of people shared their photos that’s definitely worth checking out.

Anyone can be Ms. Marvel

Anyone can be Ms. Marvel

If you enjoy superhero comics and want to meet up with others who share your passion, Cleveland Public Library’s Get Graphic! series is certainly worth a visit. The Women Warriors series will continue every other Thursday through May. Here’s the schedule and the books each meeting will focus on:

  • March 19: Katana: Soultaker by Ann Nocenti & Alex Sanchez
  • April 2: Batwoman: Hydrology by J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman
  • April 16: Storm: Make it Rain by Greg Pak, Victor Ibanez & Matteo Buffagni
  • May 7: Huntress: Crossbow at the Crossroads by Paul Levitz & Guillem March
  • May 21: Ms. Marvel: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt & Adrian Alphona

Thanks to Valentino Zullo for introducing himself at Wizard World, and for hosting this great discussion series. It was great to meet new comics fans and talk about real issues through the context of superheroes. If you’re at any of the discussion groups, please feel free to say hi – i’d love to meet you!

While at the library…

Admittedly, i haven’t been to Cleveland Public Library in years, and that was only when i crept in so i could spy on the Captain America: Winter Soldier set from the stairwell while covering it for The Cleveland Stater. Prior to that, i couldn’t even guess when i was there last.

The building itself is phenomenal, an edifice to knowledge with wonderful architecture. While wandering the halls, i came across TechCentral in the Louis Stokes Wing so you know i had to check that out. This technology and learning center has a computer lab, cloud computing resources, 3D printing and a Tech Toybox for lending out iPads and laptops.

In addition to those resources, TechCentral offers many courses (for free i think) on all sorts of tech-related stuff like digital photography, 3D maker labs and coding, as well as various computer courses. They also have job search resources like workshops on improving your search, and resume and cover letter assistance.

TechCentral in Cleveland Public Library's Louis Stokes wing

TechCentral in Cleveland Public Library’s Louis Stokes wing

Most assuredly i will be exploring more about this place for a future Week in Geek.

Another thing i passed in the hallway was this large display called “Before I Die.” It’s a global public art project that invites people to share their aspirations. According to the display at Cleveland Public Library, there are over 100 of these walls in more than 10 languages located in over 30 countries.

Cleveland Public Library's "Before I Die" global art installation

Cleveland Public Library’s “Before I Die” global art installation

All in all, a great geeky week and it all took place at Cleveland Public Library.

*     *     *     *     *

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!

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 13 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!