Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Way Hot

The delightful image above is from a lightweight but not completely horrible 1993 version of the venerable Journey to the Center of the Earth; another failed series opener released as a stand-alone TV special. It is much, more more Pelucidar than it is anything from Verne, but anyhow.

Weather is starting to cool but I'm walking to work. I'll see how long I can take this. Come the first of October, my boss is going to talk to his bosses about trying to get me a raise to something a wee bit higher than the new minimum wage.

The holocircuit has passed all tests.

Even with a mere 150 mAh lithium polymer cell I got seven and a half hours at the nominal/bright setting. That's plenty long enough. Unfortunately I'm down to scraps of acrylic...and Tap Plastics is inconvenient to public transit.

(No inconvenient to get to, per se. But inconvenient to get back from while holding unwieldy sheets of material that is quite capable of giving you nasty cuts. Bad enough riding BART with the things. Walking a mile in the heat with them is an experience I'm not longing to repeat).

Monday, September 26, 2016

Upson Downs

I have orders (not yet confirmed) for over a thousand bucks worth of holocrons, and a microphone rental in the last stages of negotiation. But on the flip side, I ordered enough electronics parts for the first holocron run all at once, and paid a bunch of bills forward. So of course at the moment my account is at its lowest (barely enough to cover rent) -- the brakes blow out on my car.

I'm still pissed that I haven't gotten full time or a raise after what is now thirteen months. I'm waiting another week before I raise the subject yet again; that's when the new minimum wage goes into effect in this (rather expensive) town.

Well, the upside to not being able to afford the repair for several weeks is that I could use the exercise. Oddly enough, I finally risked my healing hand at the gym today. It seemed to pull through without getting any worse. (On the other hand, I was climbing worse than I have in a decade...could barely haul through V2's)

Yesterday was dangerously hot. I sat around with the lights out drinking Icelandic "Arctic" Pale Ale and writing quick software hacks to test the last components of the Holocron circuit. When I broke for early dinner (take out from the market) I found myself oddly tuned to conversation. Of course. Trying to put my mind in software space, and it wants to be in dialog-writing space. So took a break with...a Laundry-verse book. Dialog and programming!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The light went out!

Alternative title (for those who don't remember Ralph Bashki's Wizards); "Hey! Who turned out the lights!" (One of the freakiest Doctor Who monsters ever!)

I tested the load sharing and charge circuit on my new board. The battery I had been using for testing was pretty badly drained and after waiting two hours it was a relief to see the "charge" light finally go out. Means the schotkey and MOSFET are doing their jobs correctly. Next up is install it in a holocron for a lighting test. Then write some quick-and-dirty code to test the user option buttons.

Taking a step back, this is a big change in how I do electronics. I was just window-shopping at Adafruit and I realized I don't see myself needing any protoboard soon. Or even a lot of hookup wire. I've pretty much moved over to PCBs.

This is actually the previous version, plus my first-ever surface mount PCB

To recap, this is the process of the Holocron circuit I'm testing now;

1) Drew up the schematic in EAGLE

2) Ordered parts, mostly from Digikey

3) Drafted the board in EAGLE

4) Sent the EAGLE files out to OSHpark, a board making company.

5) When all the mail had arrived, stuck the smaller parts on the board with a syringe of paste and then put the board into my T-962 to solder them all at one go.

6) After the board cooled, hand-soldered larger components like the USB jacks.

7) Attached my Adafruit USBtinyISP to the new board's header, and flashed the on-board CPU with the software I'd written in the Arduino IDE.

8) Test and install

The first disjunct from how I did things as a teen is although I still have a big parts box, I don't use it unless I've made a mistake or need to test something or are too impatient. For the most part, I spec out the exact components I need and find them through the parametric sorting system at Digikey.

Digikey is very friendly towards small orders, and has a huge catalog. What makes it navigable is their parametric system; the usual method is to drill down, specifying the most important values first and winnowing down the choices.

The next big change is going to printed circuit boards. There are a number of fab houses now that will do small prototype runs for cheap. So I do a lot less of assembling components on protoboard (although that still has its place). PCBs allow me to make a denser, more compact board, they offer much higher reliability, they are faster, and lastly, they are the only practical way to include surface-mount components.

Perfboard construction. Even protoboard is neater (and faster) than this!

EAGLE is the key tool here. There are other programs to draft PCBs. EAGLE has a hobby version that is essentially full-function (just restricted in board size and layer count). It also has a schematic editor, and the nifty thing is, board and schematic are automatically linked. So the software will ensure you route your copper traces to make exactly the same connections as are shown in the schematic.

There are software tools out there to simulate the circuit itself. I haven't used those yet. Schematic is helpful enough. The big trick with EAGLE is parts libraries. There are many libraries contributed by users (the big hobby vendors like Spark Fun and Adafruit have libraries for most of the parts they sell) but I'm afraid not all the footprints are trustworthy. So the trick with EAGLE is to slowly build up your own unique library of trusted parts, parts you have personally verified on a PCB you have made. Fortunately, the EAGLE editor is odd, but useable; I've several personally created parts that have now been tested in production.

Again this is the previous version. This is most of the layers turned on in the EAGLE display; top copper, bottom copper, silkscreen...

It is quite possible to hand-solder surface mount (some crazy people even hand-solder the seemingly impossible, like BGA components). Faster, neater, and more electrically sound results come from reflow soldering. Basically you put a specially formulated paste of microspheres of solder in a flux base on the board, plop the components on top, and then carefully bring it to a calculated temperature over a carefully timed interval so the solder melts, flows, and then hardens correctly.

The software-controlled infrared heat lamp of my T-962 reflow oven does this quite nicely (many people have improved their T-962's, many others have made their own out of toaster ovens and microcontrollers).

The hat is not essential to operation. A couple of fire bricks from my brazing days, however, are; it blows some pretty hot air out the bottom when in use.

And then I'm in the Arduino infrastructure. Arduino is basically a wrapper (you could even think of it as training wheels) around the AVR series of microcontrollers. I spent a while learning how to write straight C code and shove it into a "naked" AVR chip using avrdude, but the main thing that experimenting has left me with is an alternative to a working USB connection on my boards.

All I need is a six-pin header and I can plug in a USB adaptor I have. And after that, with some exceptions, I write Arduino-style code. The Arduino IDE is another piece of freeware. It is a bare-bones coding program, with essentially no advanced tools. But for the 8 KB of software I'm putting into a Holocron brain, it is enough. It's rather like the good old days of writing HTML pages in a text editor...

The main window of the Arduino code editor -- showing some very un-Arduino like code; these are direct register calls basically written in bog-standard C.

It took a few years to get all the pieces of this toolchain into place, but now I have it, doing electronics has largely moved for me from squinting at poorly-labeled parts, tacking them in place with random bits of colored wire and hoping, to a largely computer-aided process executed on the laptop.

Which is a lot like much of my props-making now. I'm making still-increasing use of laser cutting, which translates 2D CAD (actually, Illustrator -- and actually, I use the freeware Inkscape despite some ongoing file conversion woes) into precise cuts in the material. And 3d printing, naturellement.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Holocron N

The new boards arrived early; I didn't expect them until Monday.

I did make one mistake with my parts orders; I got some 100 ohm resistors instead of the 100K I needed. Hopefully I can compensate. Just got done placing components one by one on the first assembly and it is in the T-962 right now.

And, so far, so good. Had a bad hour or so when the neopixel didn't respond, but after splicing it into a previous circuit board to test it, realized the problem might be with the fuse setting on the AVR. Which it proved -- and thank you, since version 1.0 of the Arduino IDE you can burn those fuses automagically from the console. But I'll get some sleep before I test the charge circuit.

Yesterday I lasered again, mostly re-designing the internal diffusion cube to work better with the circuit board. If it all works I should be able to finally assemble a complete prototype with proper lighting (diffusion cube test, with an ad-hoc light source propped inside, in the picture below):

The sales thread at the RPF is started now and I've had eight requests for a fully assembled model. I have promised to show how some of the alternates look before I take the orders, though. Last night I also lasered out a partial set of the new "Sentinel" diffusion pattern (that's a Jedi symbol surrounded by a "koan" in Aurabesh). I didn't have a chance to cut circuitry, though, nor have I finished either the "Steampunk" circuitry design or the final of three planned diffusion patterns (which I'm calling the "Guardian" pattern publicly, but it is mostly inspired by Doctor Who.)

I also have to tweak the programming. That will take a bit. One depressing thing I've discovered is after all that tweaking for best possible fit, the width of the cut (and the resulting tightness of fit) is largely dependent on how the laser is feeling that day.

I also have to fill a promise to a very patient lad in Germany for a couple Pulse Rifle grenades and some rounds to go with them. I have a half-dozen bodies from my last run, just awaiting the buttons to be installed. Which is a full four-hour slot on the lathe and precision work, which is why I haven't felt up to it yet. The rounds I'll make a try at doing on the M3d but I'm worried about the quality.

This is more fully-assembled holocrons than I had hoped to have to build. I need to clean up the work area and assembly-line them. But now that the holocron is mostly a solved problem, I can move on to the next props projects. My feeling is, the priority projects now are two; a Morrow Project laser for my friend;

And a Wraith Stone for me. The former may be a great excuse for traditional prop building -- to get away from the machining and CAD and so forth I've been doing lately, and get back for at least a little to balsa and paint.

The latter combines several technologies. I dived back into the Holocron as a "simpler" project to learn surface-mount electronics and Lithium Polymer charge circuits. The Wraith Stone is going to require both:

My intention is also to carve it in semi-traditional style -- MDF, Apoxie Sculpt, etc. -- but then to scan it, print it, then cast it in order to achieve the kind of detail level and materials qualities I want.

Pity no-one else expressed an interest in the Retro Raygun, though. I still need to take it back and swap out the speaker and LED for more powerful models, but otherwise any concern I may have had about keeping the working files is fast ebbing.

(And when I borrow it back, I'm also going to take some proper pictures!)

It's all about ethics in creative writing

I've reached a place in my fanfic where an ethical issue has become hard to ignore.

It always matters to get the facts right. To do the research. But there are some places -- even in a work of fiction -- where the writer bears a specific responsibility towards the facts.

The first reason is reproducibility. People will learn things from your book. On the negative side, this is why the writers of the television show MacGuyver were very careful; whenever Mac was shown making an explosive (or anything else an impressionable young watcher of the show might chose to duplicate themselves) they'd leave out a crucial step. Or intentionally get something wrong.

There's an almost identical act that gives me the impression of an understood professional obligation among nukees; apparently, if you know how to make an atom bomb, and you describe one in a book, you are required to get some of it wrong.

On the flip side of reproducibility, your book may be the only source of certain information. My star example is a friend who got an eye injury on his first day in town, but knew the name and location of the nearest Emergency Room due to it being mentioned in an urban fantasy novel. He was in pain, he was a penniless student...you can't blame him for not taking the more reasonable course of, say, calling a cab and asking them to find him an Emergency Room. The point is; that it was in a book, the information was detailed and sounded reasonable, and at that moment that was what he reached for.

You can do the same for many trivial things; which train do you take to Harlem, is tap water safe in Bangkok, can you really make a sauce by boiling down tomato juice and beer (yes...I have learned cooking tips from Spencer.)

You can also find yourself the source of information in rather more critical times. If I put CPR in a scene, for instance, I owe it to the safety of the public to make it as accurate to current teaching of the American Red Cross as I can -- and if possible, put in a disclaimer as well (that you really, really need to be properly trained). The same goes for treating snake bite, handling firearms, fall protection gear, etc.

Because fiction has penetration, and fiction has weight. The person who is contemplating applying a tourniquet may not read non-fiction. They may not have studied the first aid they should have. They might, conversely, have been briefed extensively on expedient field medical care, but the dry rote memorization of those lessons flees before the emotional, full-color depiction they encountered in a work of fiction. What the instructor said sounded reasonable, but Spock made it look so right to do this...

And this brings us to facts that don't have a direct, day-to-day impact. History has always been a whipping boy for political movements, right back to the ancient kings who talked up their accomplishments (or outright lied about them) to cow outsiders and to strengthen their hold upon their own people. There are many peoples today who look to history to find justification for their actions in the past or their proposed actions in the future; "The Tutti cruelties upon our people must be avenged!" or "Taiwan has always been part of China!"

A surface impression of the various and sundry hoaxes and outlandish theories of fringe Archaeology is that they are amusing but trivial. Questions about who built the Pyramids, say. But when you dig deeper you quickly discover these are essentially codes for rather darker motivations; motivations of racial and religious antipathies, and excuses for imperialism and genocide.

Let me be very specific; in the American Southeast, there are incredible earthen mounds (some still survive and are worth a look.) There are, as there are of many spectacular ancient constructions, lots of amusing theories as to who built them. There is also the documented archaeological evidence of who built them.

The point is, all of the pseudo-archaeology boils down to, "Anyone but the (actual) Indians." Because that is how they were framed when the existing peoples of those lands were violently thrown off them. In fact, the "Vikings, Egyptians, Lost Tribe of Israelites" were specifically portrayed as, after having constructed the mounds as part of a high, complex culture, being massacred by the primitive savages. Whom the white races discovered squatting on those bloodstained ruins when they arrived; thus justifying their massacre in turn.

Don't trust me on this. Look at early sources. There are Founding Fathers who said almost exactly what I said above.

Now, this isn't as bold and direct today. But we still live in an era of marked inequities, and there are strong intersections between the people who spend effort on showing the Mound Builders have no relationship with modern Native Americans, and people who wish to throw a giant wall up along the Mexican border.

For another example, Great Zimbabwe was for decades described as the construction of, again, "Anyone but Africans." This was not fringe literature; this was the official word taught in Rhodesian schools. And since it was government policy, it was easy to get permission to dig, often destructively, in search of the desired evidence. Destroying much of the real archaeological record in the process. Fortunately, that has been reversed since 1980; the new regime even named itself in recognition of the past greatness of its peoples.

Not all pseudo-archaeological ideas are such trip-mines. But there is one particularly troubling problem I have yet to mention. And that is that there is a grab bucket of specific ideas that get reached for over and over by others -- including those with nakedly polemic aims.

Take one specific instance; the Khufu cartouche in the resting chamber of the Great Pyramid (or, rather, the idea that this is a 19th-century forgery). I'm writing a story in which this is offered as one of the pieces of evidence that the Giza group was built under the direction of aliens. Thing is, this is being brought up today (well, as of this blog post, two days ago in the comments of an archaeology-related blog I follow) as proof that the Pyramids were constructed by....well, you know the refrain by now. And this is of course an insult to the Egyptian people. And it is a muddying of the real work being done in understanding early Egypt.

So if I place this same piece of contentious "evidence" in my story, I am not just supporting my own plot, I am lending that one more brick of citation to this "fact" that will be used in arguments I am morally opposed to (among the people who pull this plum from the grab-bag are Creationists...and I really don't feel the need to list the rest.)

There are many of these bits, and they are well known; some, known enough that your reader will have heard of them already, lending an extra verisimilitude to your story, in the same way H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth referenced each other's made-up reference works of occult literature (and Robert E. Howard borrowed at least one of their mythological entities). That makes them dangerously attractive to the writer.

I suppose I should sort this list a little. There are the non-mysteries; Who built the Easter Island heads? (The locals) Then there are the non-facts; are the Tolima figurines ancient fighter jets? (No.) And there are the non-artifacts; Is the Yonaguni Monument a sunken city? (No.) You can reach for any of these as a writer and there is a good chance your reader will have encountered them before (or will encounter them later), and that gives the imaginary world you are creating an extra weight of citation. But at the same time, you are aiding in the spread of misinformation, and some of this misinformation is applied towards specific and dangerous social goals.

I can easily throw out references to the Bone Wars, the mysterious disappearance of the best specimens of "Peking Man," the recent homo floresiensis and of course eoanthropus dawsoni (aka the Piltdown Hoax) to establish a fictional world where modern humanity is actually a recent interloper who migrated here from the land of the Fae (and have ancestral memories of magic and wee folk and all that). But when I do so, I am adding emphasis to citations of the same by Creationists who have successfully thrown barriers in the way of teaching science in my local schools!

To more specifics. Within the 119,000 words of my current fanfic I've already talked about several well-known archaeological mysteries (or "non-mysteries"). Whatever the line it is that I'm trying hard not to cross, I don't feel as if I crossed it yet.

I mention the Voynich Manuscript. In fact, I provide my own "explanation" for it. This doesn't bother me because the facts about the manuscript (its date of creation, what is known of its provenience) are not disputed in my story. And although I offer a theory, there are many, many theories out there, all with approximately equal support. So I am not throwing weight on a single disputed point. Lastly, my theory is rooted in the specific mythology of a certain television show. Saying the equivalent of "The sphinx's nose was shot off by vacationing Klingons" adds nothing to any existing disputes.

I make a similar throw-away on the Phaistos Disc. My explanation of the Golem of Prague is slightly more troubling, but just in one aspect. The Golem is firmly understood as mythology in the first place; it isn't an established or even contentious bit of history. And there are similarly many, many golem stories. And also similarly to the example above, my spoof explanation is entirely dependent on the mythology of a specific television show.

I do, however, make remarks about the reality of various and sundry copies of the Spear of Longinus. But I am not sure this is particularly in contention. I do no, in manuscript, specifically attack any singular example and say that this one is not acceptable as a relic.

What bothers me more in this sequence is I do a POV scene from an actual historical character. However; there are many tales already told about High Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and I hope I was somewhat successful in framing that excerpt so it can be understood to be another fictional exploit by the High Rabbi in the style of the Jewish fables and tales.

(I also have a manuscript discovered in Prague that details the death of Grand Duke Vytautas during the Battle of Grunwald. But once again, my embellishment does not add or subtract to any contentious history.)

The minefield I am walking into now, however, is this; in the universe of the Stargate franchise, not only were early humans visited by aliens, some of these aliens interbred with humans, passed themselves off as gods and inspired worship, and may have gifted insights into technologies such as agriculture and writing.

This is insulting to humanity and counter-factual to everything known from the archaeological and paleontological record. It supports an anti-science bias. And there is worse. There are several specific threads of pseudo-archaeological and supernatural belief that demon-like creatures -- fallen angels, evil aliens -- actively interbred with humanity and are working through their progeny to destroy modern humanity. That these variously-named "Nephilim" control the media, suppress science, push dangerous "vaccines" (which are of course poisons), even "encourage homosexuality" (somehow) to further degrade, enslave, and destroy all good right-thinking people.

(This is not an American peculiarity but it is particularly strong here).

For reasons of my plot I would like to have a character theorize that Monks Mound in Illinois was constructed with the aid of some of the "Ancient" race -- survivors of Atlantis, in fact -- and that some modern people carry a genetic signature (as given in the Stargate franchise, the "ATA Gene") as a result of interbreeding. But in doing so, I am playing directly into the abhorrent belief set above. What I haven't decided, however, is that whether, as bad as these ideas are by themselves, tying them into specific pseudo-archeological or counterfactual claims makes it worse.

I feel as if it does. Let me go to a completely different example. Say I want to establish some sort of mental powers (psychokinesis, say) in the world of some story I'm writing. As tempting as it might be, I'd never roll out the old "we only use 70% of our brains" canard. Because this is bad science, but more specifically than that, this is a well-entrenched bit of falsehood that should be confronted wherever it is found. It may not mean anything beyond itself (except for supporting a credulous and at least slightly anti-science viewpoint). If I mentioned it at all, it would be to point out that it is wrong. And not simply to naysay, but to use it as a teaching moment as to how actual science is done and give some glimpse into the state of the art of neurology (that we've moved a wee bit beyond phrenology, and we do in fact have some idea how our brains work).

Saying "A certain hawk-nosed centurion commanded his men to destroy the nose of The Great Sphinx as it was insulting to him" does little harm because it isn't a well-established counter-factual. Saying "Klingons on shore leave shot it off" is even less damaging (except to the Sphinx) because Klingons are clearly fictional. Saying "Caesar accidentally damaged the Sphinx when attempting to transport it back to Rome" is more dangerous as the specificity of detail gives it a surface plausibility -- claiming the same of Napoleon is worse as it would be within keeping of his documented behavior and is more likely to be believed without supporting citation. Saying, however, "The original broad, flat nose of the Sphinx was destroyed in the 18th century in order to cover up the actual racial identity of the rulers of the Old Kingdom" plays into an existing dialog and is, of the above, the worst of all (regardless of what radial characteristics you wish to establish as being "proven" by the nose in question).

So what is the conclusion? Obviously, be aware and respectful, and do the research. It is one thing to propagate an error due to a necessary dramatic choice, and another to do so out of ignorance that it is an error. Somehow it is worse. Don't ask me to defend why -- well, most likely because knowing the truth gives you more tools; to use the thing but to clue in the reader what you are doing, or to find a better option.

This is akin to my argument about realism in Science Fiction -- which overlaps into realism in doing Historical Fiction. The reaction in far too many writers (and certainly the defense resorted to by counter-critics) is that it is necessary to stretch the truth in order to make the story work.

Balderdash. Yes, it may be, but the actual error being made is starting with story and then trying to fit the facts to it. And this is an error of creativity. When you start with the thing you are going to reach for facts to support (and if you fail to find facts, then falsehoods) is that the bucket you are reaching into for that original idea is shallow. You are aping whatever was done in fiction already. Often what's been done to death. I hear this cry about the nasty old facts stifling ones creativity, but what I see being done is tired retread.

If you start with the research, you discover the real world is vastly more complex and interesting than whatever you might have imagined. I could easily create a fictional Pharaoh out of hazy memories of all the fictional ones I'd seen before (Ten Commandments et al). Or I could read up; the heretic Akhenaten, the cross-dressing Hatshepsut, the boy king Tutankhamen -- would I have dreamed up anyone as interesting as them?

The time to go sideways is after you've researched the real thing and tried to work with it. Trying to write Space Opera these days puts one up against the light-speed limit and forces you to either bend some physics or get really creative.

And that I guess is my best advice. Do the work. Don't reach for the easy "Bermuda Triangle" or "Nazca Lines" -- unless you can say something new and original about them and in that way refuse to simply pass on and add to the echo chamber reinforcement of the existing anti-science claims.

And I am glad that, even though he is living in a fictional world in which Ancient Aliens are a thing, my Dr. Zahi Hawass was able to use the words of his real-life counterpart and educate the reader; "My people did not need help to make a pile of rocks."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Burke and Heir

Okay, that was bad. Really, really bad. "Heir" because my plan for Chapter 22 is road trip across America, with Lara doing some soul-searching and recapping about her life, including the nasty little inheritance battle she got involved in after Lord Croft vanished while on expedition.

And "Burke" for James Burke, of the Connections television show, because I'm following every trail off in whatever random direction they go.

There's three good reasons to close out this fanfic within the next few chapters. One is that it was shaped as a three-act structure and we've passed that critical Act II-III break (also, it's up over 100,000 words now and that's plenty for a one-joke story).

Another is that I should put this down and free up time to do other things. To do work that pays (even if the prop work doesn't pay much). Or if I'm to write, to go back to attempting to write for publication. Any lingering traces of the writer's block I had after sending out Shirato is gone now.

Lastly, it is that I didn't plan and it doesn't really come together properly. I could blame the sources for that; the Stargate universe is internally inconsistent, and it doesn't mesh as smoothly as it might with the Tomb Raider universe. My intent in starting out was just to have fun with the clash of characters. Unfortunately I realized shortly in that I cared about making the history right, and it became an increasingly onerous exercise in trying to reconcile these two ridiculous canons with something resembling our own world.

And even putting that aside; I have dangling plot lines that could be properly treated, but to really do justice to the history of the Ancients on Earth -- and especially to harmonize with Natla and the Atlantean Triumvirate -- I'd need a lot more pages. Enough perhaps to justify an entire sequel, especially if I simultaneously send Daniel Jackson to Syria to track down a Sumerian artifact that's passed through the hands of multiple conquerers through the tangled history of the ancient world.

But that's too much good money to throw into the bad of the ridiculous and bloated mess the source material already provides (not to mention my own confusing contributions).

And, yes; if I think of the current story in terms of Try-Fail structures, it looks right that the current arc is going to result in another failure for our heroes, another increasing of the stakes, and another full act of material as they go on for the big final try.

Except I don't really see it that way any more. Although I originally wrote this as "Tomb Raider and SG1 join forces to stop a villain" it actually reads more -- and I think will work better as -- "Tomb Raider and SG1 join forces." Full stop.

That is to say, the dramatic thrust is all about Lara finding out about SG1, losing their trust, then earning it back/becoming part of the team. It's the plot to every time a new character joins an existing cast, or two comic book titles meet (in the words of The Tick, "First we fight, then we are friends.") The template looks a lot like that of a Rom-Com.

So I don't actually have to save the world. I don't even have to stop the villain I introduced during the story. All I have to do is have Lara do something useful that will mend the temporarily broken fences between her and Stargate Command.

(She was brainwashed by a Goa'uld into letting him onto the base. That doesn't go down real well. Then the NID asked for her custody and she broke out. Also doesn't look that good. But the worst problem is she really doesn't know who she is now or where she is heading. She's having a mid-tomb crisis here.)

So only question now is, can I set Mount Shasta to ticking, get everyone else assembled there in time for a big showdown, and introduce some nice extra complications.....without going all Umberto Eco on Chief Victorio, the Silver Purchase Act, Solar Power, the Solutrean Hypothesis.........

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Microphone Chart

A lot of people have been hitting this blog with the above title as a search term.

For me, the tough part is doing the breakdown. I have several posts on that already, but I will recap briefly:

Use French Scenes if you've got them. A costume chart is a good alternative if not. Failing that, find out from the Music Director who she is asking to sing certain numbers; this way you get the key people in the ensemble. You see; figuring out when principles sing is easy. Figuring out which ensemble members need to be on mic at any one moment is more difficult!

And you will almost never have as many mics as you have cast members. My preference is the fewest microphone switches the better. When you change actors, there is a chance for the microphone to be damaged, as well as a chance the change will be missed or forgotten -- meaning instead of the chorus member you wanted, you get dressing room chatter. Not fun. Also, multiple assignments means you can't trim the mic as tightly to each voice (well, depending on what options your sound board gives you.)*

A French Scene, if you don't know of it, is a breakdown with the scene number along the top and the actor name along the left side, with the character they are playing written in for each scene in which they appear. So for principals this may be the same name across the sheet, or perhaps "Mr Darling/Captain Hook/Mr. Darling." For ensemble it will be more like "Maid, Pirate, Indian, Pirate, Jenny, Mermaid, Pirate..."

You can actually write over this with blocks for each microphone. Otherwise you make a flipped version of this; a chart with the scene number on top, the microphone number on the left side, and the person assigned to it by actor name in the blocks. Spreadsheet programs are great for this, and I've never been disappointed by the freeware OpenOffice.

For handing out to actors and mic wranglers I've found this is more detailed than is needed; just list the mic number and the actor(s) assigned to it, with a notation as to when the switch needs to happen, aka;

#9 Brad G.
#10 Suzy B/Karen M (switch during actI scene 3)
#11 Marsha B/Marsha M/Marsha B (switch at intermission, get back to Marsha M before ActII scn3)

There's one additional wrinkle. What if you are double cast? In almost all cases it makes most sense to keep the mics with the character, not with the actor.  So Mic #2 will always go with the character SARAH and will be marked that way on your sound board, even if two different actresses are swapping out. This seems to work most smoothly even if you have a single cast swapping roles on alternate days; the downside is of course that you have to tune the mics to the appropriate voice each performance.

Of course, double casts are not always identically arrayed. One cast may include more ensemble members, one cast may split a role that was handled by a single person in the other. So these are the times you really need to keep individual paperwork for each performance.

The thing to remember is that things will go wrong. A mic will die. Someone will get the wrong mic. Someone will take sick and there will be a last-minute substitution of understudies and merging of ensemble parts to cover the gaps. So the guiding principle in any scheme of charting and mic assignment should be that the person mixing the show will always know what role will be under each finger when the next song comes up. So that's why I default to character labels, even when it would seem neater to have the same actor keeping the same microphone even when they are singing a different role that night.

* A word on this. Voices change from night to night. And I'm a tweaker anyhow. So although it is easy to memorize trim and EQ with every scene on a digital sound board, it works better to adjust to that actor's performance on that night through the first couple of songs, then keep those settings through the show. And retain them until the next one, assuming you liked them and think they will make a good starting point for the next performance.

So what's the alternative? On something like the Yamaha LS9, you can assign a single input to multiple input channels. So Mic #1 can also show up on the board as Mic#14 with different trim, EQ, and digital effects. I've found this extremely helpful for those times when you want special processing for a scene or a moment, but there just isn't the board space to assign all the mic swaps to individual channels (not and see the live band which I'm also trying to mix...)