Sunday, January 8, 2017

Blackout : the 4'33" of lighting design

Most plays are presented as if they take place in several different physical settings and over a span of time longer than that which the audience has actually been sitting in their seats. The last line of Act I, scene 3 is said, and the first line of Act I, scene 4 is spoken by a different person, in the following Summer, in a different part of the forest.

The solution too many Directors reach for to cover while the actors change places, the furniture is moved, set pieces are shifted, etc., is to turn off the lights and then turn them back on when everything is ready.

I would swear that some Directors actually believe this is like making a cut in a film. The lights go out, then come back on and magically we are somewhere else.

Reality is that there is no such thing as a blank, a void. You don't present "nothing" by turning out the lights. You present something different. Usually (and especially in the smaller, less professionally-experienced theaters) what you get is several long minutes of shadowy figures visibly fumbling around in the blackness, cursing quietly as they try to find their spike marks.

John Cage's point was that the "silence" of a concert hall was filled with the sounds of rustling paper, air conditioning, coughing, shuffling feet. And to him this was on equal musical footing with a piano concerto. Perhaps. What is certain is that the activity of scene change has a specific character -- and it may not be in keeping with the character of the play.

The more charitable interpretation of what is expected to take place in the minds of the audience during a theatrical blackout is that it is akin to a commercial on radio or television. The audience skips over it, edits it out of the experience of the play in the same way they don't include intermission as part of the world of the play.

I still find it distracting. Watching a scene change, especially a difficult scene change, takes me out of the play. Intermission only happens once, and it happens at a dramatic point that practically demands you sit back and take stock of the situation before heading back into the action. Scene changes break the flow. A slightly better argument is that scene changes, like the velvet seats and the proscenium arch and so forth are part of the total experience of live theater. One watches certain shows (Phantom comes to mind) for the moments of "How did they do that?"

But other shows -- many, many shows -- the Directorial intent is to distract as little as possible. To keep the audience immersed in the story and the world of the play. And I have to say to these Directors -- I have said, and more than once -- that a blackout fails to accomplish this.

Because especially when you've got an awkward set and less-skilled crew people, the actual experience of a blackout is the discomfort of watching dimly-lit people struggling. 

Better, in my opinion, to light it. Put enough light on it -- I like the term "Change Blues" because Directors get what I'm after almost immediately -- so the crew can find their spikes and move with grace and surety instead of fumbling and trying to hide their flashlights. And take the time to work out the changes, to choreograph them a little.

And, depending on the show and the design, you may be able to do the change au vis. When we did Shrek not long ago we pushed the rolling units out in full lights. And more than that; I made sounds for them so a tower would grind on with a sound of stone against stone, and Shrek's house would pop up like a mushroom sprouting with squelching leafy noises.

This is, for some shows, going too far in the other direction. And I have no problem with a blackout if you can make the necessary changes in under thirty seconds and without a lot of noise. But otherwise: it is my strong opinion that you are going to see it anyway, so instead of pretending you are hiding it and achieving nothing but hazard for the crew, discomfort for the audience, and a less-than-stunning visual image, you should light it enough to make it pretty. And make the whole thing go faster and smoother so you can get on with the play.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Zoned Out

An old but unposted-post, from when I found myself watching two different television shows in alternation, separated by a wee bit of Mass Effect and a little of the Anabasis of Xenophon.



Otherworld ran a mere 8 episodes in the mid 80's. When I caught a few episodes a couple of decades ago it didn't do anything for me. Now I find the underlying premise more acceptable. Not the idea of a family trapped in a mysterious other world, that was fine. But the emotional through line; that what is important is staying together as a family, even if that means settling in, finding jobs, otherwise becoming temporary settlers (at least, until Commander Kroll catches up with them again). As a kid I wanted more shooting lasers, less going to PTA meetings.

The plots are clever. It's basically Star Trek on foot, as the family crosses the Forbidden Zone into one isolated community after another. The overall setting is dystopian but the people are basically good. Even the troops of the oppressive regime are humanized (in one episode the elder boy is drafted into the Zone Troopers and experiences first-hand the indoctrination they go through and their essential powerlessness within the system they represent). The gloss is family values and moral choices, but the situations have a Gulliver's Travels twist in their pointed satire on present-day society. The typical starting point with the family comfortably ensconced in the ersatz Anytown, USA de jour means they can be confronted with questions of social responsibility, morality, militarism, mortality, etc. from a close-to-home perspective.

(A unexpected sharp observation from the first episode. The eldest son has fallen for an android who is an essentially perfect human duplicate. Although he seems to accept her, he dismisses her feelings for the family he is urging her to abandon as not real. She presses him into an admission that he doesn't believe that she, as an android, has a soul. So she leads him to the computer that backs up their memories, and points. "There's my soul," she says, "That light there, third from the left. Can you point to yours?")

One of the most refreshing things about this show is that unlike, say, Sliders, the Sterlings recognize immediately that they don't know the lay of the land and what they don't know can kill them. So instead of asking stupid questions in loud voices until they get unwanted attention, they are careful to charm and dissemble and not get caught out by their ignorance. (Not that it always saves them; Trace gets drafted because he takes getting a "yellow slip" from his school for his poor academic performance to be equivalent of similar-sounding but ultimately toothless warnings on our world.)

Of course it is far from perfect. 80's hair once again makes an unintentional period piece of all the supposed otherworldly communities. The effects are minimal to go along with the budget -- save one oddly effective touch; otherwise seemingly ordinary automobiles and doorknobs are juiced up with subtle-yet-nifty electronic sound effects. And there is (to paraphrase from a term coined by Brian Aldiss) a rather "cozy refugee" aspect to it all. Given my own financial background, I can't help noticing how clean the (many changes of) clothing available to the lost family are, or how often they conveniently find themselves with yet another upscale suburban home, status jobs, and well-funded schooling for the kids. One starts to get the impression that their pursuer Kroll is all and all working harder and having a tougher time of it than his purported victims. 



From a couple decades later, Threshold similarly lasted a mere thirteen episodes. The aspect of this one that is refreshingly different is that the central "team" don't really get along and really, really don't want to be there.

The idea is transparently borrowed. Michael Crichton set up in his novel Sphere the idea of a contingency plan for an unlikely circumstance (essentially, alien contact) complete with a list of experts in various fields who would be drafted into an ad-hoc team if said event were to actually occur. He was borrowing from himself as well, since there was something similar in Andromeda Strain, but Sphere added the clever distinction that the plan -- and the names -- were throwaway choices made by a far-from-conscientious drafter who was just doing it for the money and was sure it would never actually happen.

In Threshold, the plan was well-intentioned and the experts appear effective, if as usual over-tasked (why hire a NASA aeronautics engineer and make them do the soldering themselves?) At least this series has some explanation for the latter; in one episode, when one of the fractious experts complains about all the grunt work he's being given, it is explained to him that with all the data miners and military people they have on call, only eight people are cleared to actually know the full details of their work. A more facile explanation than most for why the "bridge crew" seems to do all the work.

Oh yes, the plot. Apparent alien spacecraft appears near a Navy freighter then vanishes, but not before emitting a "signal" that causes all who hear it -- or even hear a recording of it -- to go through severe psychological and physical changes; chief among them a strong desire to expose as many more people to the alien signal as possible.

So in this show, the "masquerade" (the idea of fighting the threat in secret instead of making it public and enlisting everyone to help) makes more sense. Due to the specific nature of the threat, telling everyone would mostly generate false leads and would rapidly multiply potential vectors. This is literally the kind of problem that just knowing about it puts one at risk (rather H.P. Lovecraft like if one thinks about it; even hearing a recording of the alien signal can change you irrevocably into becoming slave to the alien plan). And implicitly pointed out in the series is that lots of people -- particularly terrorist groups -- are entirely willing to overlook the risks when presented with these terribly easy-to-use potential weapons of mass destruction.

Again the flaws are there. It is very much a piece with conventions of story, character, camera work of 2005 television. The science is once again bogus, although it drifts a little closer than some to reality every now and then. But the acting is solid, the situations amusing, and the constant shifting and escalation of the threat removes it completely from the status quo limbo of so many television series. There is absolutely no assurance that the masquerade will continue successfully; information about the alien signal is spreading despite all they can do. In fact, the team essentially fails; they slow the spread down but for every outbreak they find and stop, three others go unstopped. Through even the few episodes filmed the problem is leaping out of any containment (the writers stated in interviews that indeed, by the next season the threat would be fully public. By the third season, the uninfected would be a vanishingly small resistance).

Oh, but just once I'd like to see a top-secret the-Secretary-will-deny-all-knowledge agency that doesn't have a fortune to spend on chrome, mood lighting, and giant wall screens.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Climb Every Mountain : Skyrim

Wine released another patch, and suddenly the copy of Skyrim I installed a while ago became playable (the joys of gaming on a Mac. Wine works pretty good for older games, though).

Skyrim is an open-world role-playing-game released in 2011. The setting is an iron-age fantasy culture in an epic, stark, chilly mountainous region. Bethesda delivers again on this one; like many of the best games, the setting is not just expansive, not just detailed, but it is flavored. There is a particular kind of harsh, hardy, pseudo-Norse theme going on here that goes well beyond just people wearing furs and horned helmets riding shaggy horses across high plains and tundra.

I found myself getting rather philosophical during it. Which hurt my gameplay a little, actually. If you've just attacked a bandit camp, you then end up walking through the small treasures of their hardscrabble existence. Rough tables and split log chairs and a little rabbit on the camp fire. A wooden flute, some hides tented up to keep the rain off. Not that the villagers have it much better, with simple dwellings and crude utensils.

When you talk to the villagers, you hear stories of their life choices and their philosophical take ending up a farmwife in a small town distant from her home city, or a merchant trying to make ends meet. And the evidence of industry -- the simple blacksmithing setups, the hunting camps, even crude mining operations -- show a similar "getting along at the life you have" attitude among the bandits. Even the giants, although easily spooked, are content to stand peacefully among their herds of mammoth.



One always puts a little of oneself into a game. Even the simplest game still leaves a space for the player to read personality and backstory where perhaps it isn't there. In the case of two runs I made at Skyrim (with two different characters to try out different career paths), what I got out of the game was as much driven by chance and glitch.

It really started with my housecarl, Lydia, who the Jarl sent to me after making me a thane (kill one little dragon, and they just won't shut up about it). Anyhow, the voice acting of this character made her sound very sad and resigned when I told her to stay in the house while I adventured. And I had to sympathize. After all, this is a warrior in a warrior culture. It wasn't exactly that she wanted excitement, it was that in her mind the only proper way to live was to die in battle.

So I brought her along despite misgivings (misgivings because artificial intelligence is not exactly there yet. The AI's tend to run in front of your bow in the thick of combat. (When they aren't standing in the middle of a doorway you are trying to pass through, giving you a blank "can I help you?" stare.)

And I got suckered into helping a goddess clean her temple of an infestation of undead magic-users. A very pushy goddess. With all those spells flying about I really had to work at it to keep Lydia from running herself killed (although to her credit, the enemy AI in Skyrim is very bow-aware and does not make it easy for you to snipe them from cover).

But we won. And a cutscene was forced on me where the goddess "thanks" me (pushy goddess, did I mention?) and then dumps me unceremoniously outside the temple. And Lydia glitched. She was alive last I saw her, but she never left the temple. In my head canon, my warrior woman, servant and friend had found the destiny she was seeking. But that damn goddess better be treating her right!



I'd become intrigued with the crafting system. This is an exceptionally deep game, with almost too many stories to explore and multiple play styles are possible. Within crafting, you can do Alchemy (which is basically herbalism; you gather ingredients from the wild as you travel, then experiment with mixing them together until you find recipes that work). You can do Enchanting, which is intriguingly different and not a little disturbing.

Magical items in the Skyrim world are driven by captured souls. With a bit of training you can do this yourself; absorb the soul of a recently slain wolf, say, then use it to power up a flaming dagger that you can then hand off to anyone (or, more usually, sell). The actual enchantments are, in the game, entirely arrived at by reverse engineering; you find another flaming artifact and rip it apart to see how it was done.

The third crafting system is Smithing, with encompasses basic leather work and jewelry as well. This is nicely if sketchily illustrated with various simple forges and smelters and grindstone and anvils and so on, complete with animations as your character takes an item through the various processes.

You can in fact mine iron ore, smelt iron (or with a slightly different process make steel), hammer it into a sword, and rework the sword to be finer. This being Iron Age tech, you also need to take a hide (which could even be a pelt from the wolf mentioned above) turn it into leather, and cut it into strips to wind about the hilt.

The weird part, though, is that this is not value-added. It is a little hard to see the numbers clearly because in the early game merchants pay 30% book value on goods and mark them up 300% to sell. But basically, a sword is worth less than the processed materials that went into it. And if you are buying the raw ores from a merchant instead of mining them yourself, you basically lose money on the deal.

So basically you need external funds. And you don't learn enchantments (to really value-add the items you are smithing) unless you have magical loot to tear apart. All in all, it is extremely difficult to just sit around learning crafting. You progress vastly faster if you adventure.



So the first character I played was an Argonian. A lizard-man from far away. Who I played as so completely outside he had no idea what anyone was talking about, had no interest in the politics, and in any case couldn't tell the faces of all these humans apart anyhow. Or remember their weirdo names. I eventually ended up playing him as a sort of linebacker/scholar; on the one side, the first weapon he picked up was a two-handed axe and there wasn't a lot he couldn't deal with just by bull-rushing it and swinging away. But on the other side, he really, really loved books (that's why I bought a house; the books were getting too heavy to keep hauling around.)

This is actually common among Skyrim players, I found. A web search for "Bigger bookshelves in Skyrim" turned up easily dozens of threads on the subject.

My second was also outsider to the local politics. I made her as small as the sliders would let me go, and wanted her to be geeky determined to become the greatest smith ever. Except the game throws you into combat in the introductory scene, and pretty much forces you to get involved with a dragon.

Even the mining is complicated by the fact that there are bandits living in the mine you want to use (and wolves on the path). However, unlike many RPGs, Skyrim does not have a stat system. Whether you are a buff lizard or a slender Breton you kick ass exactly the same. And I had learned a little something about the magic system since my Argonian and at Easy settings beginning-character magic is insanely overpowered.

(There is also no class system in Skyrim. Anyone can learn anything. Most characters, NPCs as well, know a little about magic and fighting and crafting and, well, everything else.)

The problem I ran into with Moly the tiny Breton blacksmith, though, was that I'd installed the Hearthfire DLC (additional content for the game). Which allows you to customize the houses you buy. And expands a little on the craft-able items. And, oh yes, adds a few orphans. And I thought Lydia made me feel bad! No, now there was this sweet little child following me about whenever I visited town, and...

Turned out crafting was just too darned slow. I couldn't stand little Breccia (or whatever her name was) being out in the cold even one more night, so I picked up the best sword I'd made so far and struck out towards the most dangerous haunted barrows and troll-infested mountain peaks I knew about this early in the game.

Turns out I couldn't take in the poor kid without owning a house. And I had to have it furnished, too. On the second or third trip back to pay out yet more of the loot I was risking my neck for up on the mountains, and fulfill yet more obligation, I started to feel like I was dealing with Children's Services.

But I finally managed it. Took Lydia (Lydia2 if you are counting -- different me, but same game story, same dragon, and same overly-generous local Jarl) up the side of the mountain* to visit the monks for one last adventure to tell the kids. And closed the game -- at least for this four day weekend -- sitting in contented silence by the fire in my rustic home, watching the little girl play with her new doll.



*Yes, that is literal. Borrowed a couple of horses from the Stormguard. Skyrim horses do not give a fuck. Physics is their plaything. This is pretty much a glitch they kept because all the players loved it, like the fact that one square hit from a Giant's club will send you thousands of feet into the sky. People have been killed by meteorite-mammoths. The horses will ride up anything that isn't vertical. And make a pretty good attempt at that, too.

Thing is, I could never find the damned road up to where the monks were. So the well-honored alternative among Skyrim players is to find Comet the Wonder Horse and point her towards the cliff face.

Friday, December 23, 2016

10,000 Fleece

I've made the first major error on a PCB. The drill holes are too small for the LEDs. I can ream them out easily enough, but I'm using the through plating as a via in several places. With luck I can solder top and bottom and restore connection...but that also emphasizes that I completely forgot I was going to increase the size of the annular ring on several of the pads, too.

Ah, well. It is going to take weeks to laser-cut enough Holocron kits to even use up the first set of PCBs. The lasers are booked nearly solid, and even on top of it being cold and dark and often raining when work ends I've been feeling sickly and not up for the trip to the shop anyhow. And besides, I have enough parts to build one full production model, so I'm doing that first (in case I discover something new that needs to be adjusted).

And as for the boards? The v1.1 revision was just a stop-gap, mostly improving the silkscreen and adding a resistor to the resistor ladder. The next revision I suspect strongly I'm going to go for a "larger" CPU chip (but do it in surface mount instead of DIP). I'm also tempted in the direction of taking off the USB socket and replacing it with a microSD socket. Except the controller chip for above is a thirty-six pin SMD that can't be hand-soldered -- that's a big jump up in my SMD skills.



Made a breakthrough on the fiddle. Apparently the beginner is supposed to play detaché, separating each note. I've been practicing legato since the beginning.

Well, immediately on hearing that I tried putting a slight pause in the bow between notes. Wow. All that struggle to get clean string crossings in a slur has really paid off. With that little pause it is downright simple. Oh, and I can dial the pause down to barely perceptible and still get the benefit.

Similar really to my fun with shoulder rests. It was far too hard to handle the violin at first. Shoulder rest allowed me to progress. A better shoulder rest allowed me to move to the next stage. But now that I'm so much more comfortable moving about the fingerboard and keeping the violin balanced, I can omit the shoulder rest and play nearly as well.

So now I throw in a "naked" practice session at intervals. No shoulder rest, no Snark tuner; just ears and meat (and a thick shirt...yes, it can hurt without that padded rest!) So I can get through Hava Nagila without stumbling...but I still have squeaks and some other finger noise to clean up (and my intonation will continue to need work. Especially as the string crossings are just horrible in the C part and I've been playing that in third position as an alternative).




Trying my first audiobook now; listening to a free reading of the Anabasis I found online. Which means I'm avoiding spoilers for a work that came out 2,300 years ago.

Also read a couple more Kindle books. Both were oddly alike in having a very breezy tone; short sentences, short paragraphs, simple construction. Also both alike in having fairly poor description. One is (more or less) in first person and eschews scene breaks or other real organization, letting changes of space or time roll right past, moving in and out of dialog or action without pause or even change of pace.

The other at least has some of that helpful organization, but uses the increasingly rare third-person omniscient. Which I think is a horrendously poor choice, but could perhaps be excused or at least explained as a larger choice that may not be that of the authors.

To explain; this is a Tomb Raider book -- a proper printed book for all that I read it on Kindle -- and it features the 2013 "reboot" Lara Croft and is explicitly set immediately following the events of the 2013 game.

This game is basically subtitled "Birth of a Survivor." It takes Lara as a young, inexperienced student on her first serious expedition, and drops her into a hellscape where she is beaten down to her essence; becoming both dogged survivor and (as necessary) brutal killer.

Which means any work featuring her, and particularly one that pretends to follow the events of the game, should be about her struggle to return to the normal world and come to terms with what she was forced to do. And indeed, the book -- The Ten Thousand Immortals -- shows her having panic attacks and flashbacks and struggling to re-define her belief system after being confronted with the reality of nigh-immortal weather-controlling undead queens on the haunted island of Yamatai.

This can be done in third person omniscient. It is just in my opinion much harder to do it right. Because what matters to the reader is not the clinical dissection of Lara's inner life. It is not the unwrapping of the complexities of a psyche in the way of Joyce's Ulysses. What the reader wants is to feel along with Lara. To be invited in, to even experience this vicariously -- the way the game allows you to do. Third person limited, or first person, are better narrative choices.

(Something which even one of the game development team seems to have misunderstood. But never mind about that now!)

And this is even a good point from a mechanistic story-telling direction. Much of the story has Lara possibly being followed, not sure who to trust, wondering if she is surrounded by enemies or if she is merely letting her post-traumatic stress drive her to unwarranted paranoia. This confusion on her part is completely undercut by an omniscient point of view that at any moment can and does cut to the very person who actually is following her, and listen to their interior monologue about exactly why they are following her and who they work for and what the whole mystery is about.

A more limited perspective is perfect here. Seeing only what Lara sees is a better mechanical way to present the mystery and suspense of who to trust and when to be wary (as well as being a vastly superior way to let you empathize with her situation emotionally). This shades all the way down to the small tricks; a detached omniscient observer makes Lara look foolish in those rare moments when she lets her guard down. Seeing the scene through her POV, the narrative can subtly guide both where you are allowed to look and how you feel about what you see; presenting open, clear vistas or presenting menacing shadows, and make her reactions feel justified and rational to the reader.

So the escape hatch I alluded to earlier is this; perhaps the authors were asked to provide an adventure, told not to actually develop her character any because all that would be in the games, and basically were led into presenting the bones of a story without most of what allows for proper emotional involvement. It is Saturday Morning Cartoon stuff; lots of running around and shooting and that all sounds exciting on paper but there is so little tangible about any of it -- especially the inner life of the people involved -- it is not terribly thrilling.

But there is more here. One of the two authors involved has a more recent book featuring the "Classic" Lara Croft. And three paragraphs in he threw me right out of the story by featuring a "20mm steel-kern climbing rope."

Okay, sure, the movies (and many books) will always get the details wrong of that thing you yourself are expert in. And maybe the non-expert will never even notice, although to someone who knows anything about climbing, that description is ridiculous as specifying a "Diesel powered laptop computer with a 74" screen."

But no. It takes less than a minute to do better than that. This story was written within the last few years and yes Google and Wikipedia were available. Heck; Lara Croft is using both constantly within the story itself! If the author did enough research to find out what kernmantle construction is, then he damned well would have learned the difference between static and dynamic, and as well been presented with examples of appropriate diameters.

Even going from first principles, a basic understanding of the physical universe would clue you in that something was off. As my friend put it, Lara Croft must be tough stuff if she nonchalantly ties a knot in a half-inch steel cable.

(And, no, you can't get out of this one by assuming a typo on the number. Because pretty much every single other detail about this rope and how it is used is wrong.)

In any case, 10,000 Immortals (the previous book and the one under discussion) doesn't make quite such obvious errors. The archaeology is terribly simplistic, and I think that too is a mistake. The games may not give that much detail, but there's good indication there's a contingent of the audience that does want to see more. What bugs me, though, is the ways the book looks like it is getting wrong things that people with even a smattering of a classical education will already see are wrong.

The title is one. It is referring to the Persian Immortals. Sort of. It is about half-way through the book that it becomes clear there is a group that calls themselves "the ten thousand immortals" and has based the name on the so-called "Immortals" of Persepolis et al. And the book correctly at that point explains the legend that there were 10,000 of these elite soldiers, exactly; as one died, another would be sworn in to take his place.

Except that this is another one of those many, many places where Herodotus...well, you know the drill. And even the name is quite possibly a mistaken translation. So the book jars once in that Lara doesn't seem to know who the Immortals are (despite apparently having that good Classics education) and that makes her look like an idiot. And the book doesn't correct her at first, making it look like an idiot. Only eventually does the truth out, finally making the title seem less awkward -- but it does this a few chapters in and never moves past that "revelation" that is probably within the first hour on Persia in your History of the Ancient World 101 class. (And what is especially ridiculous is that at some point the writer provides the name "Anûšiya." So he almost certainly knew and was choosing to either ignore or withhold the more complex real story.)

The Golden Fleece is an even better case, reeling out the bit about gold-panning with sheep wool about five chapters in, but never moving a step beyond that not particularly obscure revelation. This book has either a frightfully low opinion of its audience, or is written by someone a lot less educated than he thinks he is. One keeps hoping there will be something about the Argonauts that goes beyond what appeared in the Harryhausen film. In vain. The story actually moves the Aegean and an archaeological expedition and a rock-cut cliff dwelling and reveals -- damn-all. Again, what little is revealed on the subject happens less than half of the way in. The rest of the book spins out chases and shootout with nary a new bit of historical information or archaeological clue from then on out.

I am tempted to blame the usual process of "Decide on the plot first, then pick and chose the historic and/or scientific details that support it." There is also some hair-thin evidence that the bad-guy group are the ones who are making the stupid errors; that they are essentially Foucalt's Pendulum-ing themselves. There's a bit of business, for instance, with a derringer that is claimed to be but is as likely not to be the one used by John Wilkes Booth. (A derringer which is never fired, despite being on that damned mantlepiece at least twice). So one can half believe the bad guys were meant to be idiots who didn't understand who the Persian Immortals really were, or know anything more than a teenager (and from the evidence, a poor student at that) does about Jason and the Golden Fleece.

There's another oddity there. The reviews on Amazon fall into two categories; long, carefully written reviews that lay out in detail the literary offenses, or one-word reviews with five stars. The suspicious take here is the latter are spammed to drive the rating up. A different view, though, is potentially illuminating. Maybe the breezy, error-filled, childishly simplistic writing is all these particular reviewers needed or even wanted. The ones that have a word or two other than "Amazing!" talk only about how cool it is to have the character from the games be in a book. It would be informative to introduce these reviewers to something like the deeply psychological fanfic "Easier to Run" and see if that opens their eyes to how much more a story can offer.



A few words now on the other Kindle find. I've now read the first and second books of the "Athena Lee" chronicles and I doubt I will read any others. The premise is promising; a young woman is marooned amid the wreckage of a space battle that went well for nobody. Her thing, however, is engineering. Survive until rescue? Deal with the changes in politics back home, threats on her life, pirate attacks, treason..? Whatever it is, she's got a spanner and a slide rule and she's going to engineer the heck out of it.

The character has an engaging voice and what can be seen of her personality is amusing. There are some cute touches elsewhere (although a little 1990's pop culture goes a long way). The problem is, the author doesn't seem to know how to describe engineering. Actually, the author doesn't seem to know how to describe anything. Well, actually -- the author doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of how to write. I read a free excerpt from Book 8 and he seems to be just starting to learn how to handle POV changes and exposition.

These books, too, have many short (as few as one or two word) reviews praising them highly. Again I have to wonder if someone is gaming Amazon's rating systems. But the unsettling and more likely answer is that there are people who have read so few books they have yet to discover that they get a hell of a lot better than this.

Like the Tomb Raider story above, it should not be enough that a character you like is on the page. Or that people are shooting at stuff and so it must be exciting. Those can be, should, usually are a given in a piece of genre fiction, but said piece is also generally expected to bring a minimum standard of craftsmanship with it. To leave one with a sense of place, to portray characters well enough one can speak of them as if you had met them in person, to immerse the reader in the experience and smoothly and seamlessly carry them through transitions and exposition and all the other necessary stage machinery of an unfolding plot.

Ten Thousand Immortals is a madeleine offered in excuse of a full meal. The Forgotten Engineer is a handful of granulated sugar offered in excuse of actual food.




Sunday, December 18, 2016

Game Levels

Just reviewed the chapters to date of my Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic. Funny how much it looks like it was planned, even though I know I'm pretty much writing it as I go along.

I started with a McGuffin; a small jar in the shape of a falcon. About all I knew was that it was connected to the ancient Egyptian god Horus. Next I needed a setting for the opening scene. The yacht from the third game, of course. Put it in some nice waters for skin-diving; where? How about near Malta.

I literally had not made the connection until I was writing the first scene set in Valetta and thought of tying the Tribute of the Falcon -- yes, the Black Bird itself, the Maltese Falcon -- to the story. Similarly, I had already passed through Libya before silphium became an important plot point. It wasn't until doing research eight chapters later I realized silphium, that wonder drug of the ancient world, had only grown in a narrow strip of coast near Tripoli. And these were not the only bits of serendipity (it helps, of course, that I cast my net very wide in the first place, including putting lots of random trivia in each passing chapter that I might later profitably mine).

The main place where the lack of planning shows up is that the evil scheme the protagonists eventually discover isn't that interesting, and doesn't lend itself to a satisfying resolution. But, then, similar could be said of the plots underlying many of the games. Where things worked out in a surprising way is how close I came to the game framework of go to an exotic locale, pick up a clue amid the archaeology and/or history there, and have a bit of action (a fight, some climbing) before moving on.

The first "Level" is essentially Malta. Surprising this location hasn't been used in Tomb Raider before. It is close to the center of a number of the historical events around the Mediterranean and is littered with the archaeology of Romans, Byzantines, Turks, etc., etc. For my story I concentrated mostly on the period when the Knights of Malta were in conflict with the Ottoman Empire in a multi-nation struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean that came to a climax at the Battle of Lepanto (not coincidentally the last major naval battle conducted between rowed galleys).

The "action" for this level, however, takes place in a flashback, in which a teenaged Lara climbs up and BASE jumps off the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building in downtown San Francisco.

The next level is Cairo, and this one is almost complete; for archaeological puzzles there is the mysterious object dug up in Giza in 1928 and spirited away to America before the Second World War, and mysteries surrounding a newly-discovered Amarna-period tomb in the Valley of Kings (the real-world KV63). There's a brief tomb crawl with a bit of life-or-death gymnastics, and a knife fight with some thugs on the outskirts of "Garbage City," the grass-roots recycling center in the heart of Cairo's slums.

Outside of fulfilling the basic game objectives (the sprawling, semi-abandoned munitions plant in the desert would of course have made a great map in an actual game) this sequence also fulfilled some more literary requirements. I got to talk a little about the long history of Egypt and current sociopolitics, and as well explore a little more of Lara's psychology and her ongoing inner struggles. (It also took me much deeper into the rabbit hole of research, including staring at old sales brochures trying to identify exactly which guitar donated by the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung on the wall of Hard Rock Cafe Cairo).

The following level is on the face of it less exotic; Colorado Springs. I touched a little on the gilded age and silver barons, and the natural history of the area, but this is largely about NORAD. There are excursions to another bit of Cold War history, the Strangelovian "Project Pluto," and to the tiny idiosyncratic would-be island nation of Sealand, as well as passing mention of Semipalatinsk, Tsar Bomba, Bluegill Prime et al, but the star is NORAD, that underground city behind giant blast doors. The action in this level is a long climb in very much the style of the games.

As for literary purposes, I am most happy with a little scene that came out of thin air. I wanted a little excitement before Lara went into the mountain, and I threw some local punks at her. And then in the middle of writing the scene discovered the unexpected and comedic resolution.

The level I'm most proud of is Prague. I feel like I almost had a good grip on the whole mix here; the mystery and McGuffin, the historical background, the scene-setting, the Tomb Raider style action. It also accomplishes the "layers" which is part of my favorite levels in the various games. In this case the team visits modern-day Prague (with some short side conversations about occupations of World War II and the following Communist take-over), goes into the Gormenghastian Prague Castle, then has to struggle past booby-trapped passages left by the SS to get to where secrets of alchemists and seers were hidden, at last solving a 17th-century puzzle...and encountering the Golem of Prague in a neolithic cave.

In almost all of the games Lara's home is an optional level. So I sent some of my cast there to explore the Abingdon Estate, wrapping that sequence up with a big fight. The archaeological revelations, if you could call it that, is expressed in a long bull session concentrating mostly on the period of transition between Egyptian pre-history and the first recorded dynasties. Side lines included various and sundry artifacts on display in the manor, with passing mention of events as varied as Gallipoli and the Siege of the Legations.

The next "level" is essentially the American Southwest, focusing on pre-Columbian archaeology, but with a secondary emphasis on particular bits of 1950's ephemera; Roswell and the "Gray" aliens, Route 66 with the usual roadside attractions of giant lumberjack statues, and Trinity with the first atomic bomb. So far the big discovery has been a paleolithic site in New Mexico, and the action has been a little run-in with a heavily jimmied solar power facility.

And from the looks of it, I'm going to conclude at Mount Shasta, bringing in as archaeology mostly clearly false nonsense about Atlantis and Mu and the Shaver Mysteries, but also tying in an ancient alien engineering project that had been the background threat of a stand-alone sequence I did on Thera during the height of the Minoan civilization.



Sunday, December 11, 2016

Through the Night with the Light from a Holocron

Power was out for most of a rainy saturday. I turned on every holocron-under-construction I had for a little bit of light and practiced fiddle, recorder and ukulele in the dark.

(A blinking holocon not exactly a good reading lamp. Funny. I had all these parts lying around, but no power for my soldering iron, and -- once my laptop battery died -- I couldn't reprogram any of the things I had, either.)

A weird feeling, really. Power was out over a fifty mile radius, and it was raining hard to boot; so not much use going outside to find somewhere with more light. My heat is also electric, but...gas still worked, water still worked, so I could still drink fresh water or make tea or even run a shower.

In the evening went to a low-key dinner, watched a short play, and danced the hovah (another first for me). So all in all a weird day, but a nice one.

For some reason really needed the weekend this time. Worked as long as I could on the holocron software and the new animation is mostly solved. Enough is still left to do it seems to make sense to prioritize software over cutting new kits, assembling new shells, or soldering up the last of the version 1.0 boards (the v. 1.1's should be showing up by next weekend).

At least work has changed plans again. I can take a string of days off around Christmas. Pity, though; I'd love to ship holocrons before that date.




Thursday, December 8, 2016

Two out of three?

Felt great today. Meant to finish up early, get to the gym, do laundry and finish the new talk animation.

Work took longer than I'd hoped. Gym was crowded and I didn't stay long. Laundry happened. Made a stab at the software. Practiced fiddle for nearly an hour instead.

I'd say I'd passed another milestone. I'm still mostly in first position and my intonation still sucks, but I'm now comfortable with just swinging it onto my shoulder and trying out a tune. String crossings are no longer a nightmare, nor is shifting. Not saying they are easy, or smooth, but I can do them.

As a perhaps measure of my growing comfort with the instrument, the evening part of today's practice was without tuner, shoulder rest, or light (that is, I wasn't spending the time looking at my fingers or the bow.) I am still more comfortable with the shoulder rest, but I can do pretty much everything without it. Even work on getting to a proper vibrato.



On the software, less obvious progress. There's about three things left before I can ship Holocrons, and making a better animation that plays when the user triggers the sensor is one of them. What I'm trying is the particular look of a light that is being driven by an actor's voice.

My first approach was just a sequence of up and down fades, with spaces between them. The fades are at different speeds to simulate hard and soft consonants. This fails because we speak in words; in groups of syllables. The next attempt organized the fades into one to five "syllable" groups, with short "word" gaps between them. Better, but still not right. See, most speakers have a cadence. The cadence however follows the phonemes (exceptions include long vowels). So regardless of whether the leading sound is "soft" or "hard" (rises quickly or slowly to the peak energy) the total dwell time of the vowel should be similar.

Oh, and I thought of another wrinkle I want to add. The default "pulse" animation ignores the fact that the four LEDs are individually addressable. But if I randomize the peak levels between the LEDs during the "talk" animation, the lighting will seem to flicker or dance from side to side.

That only requires writing a whole new function to display the final result of all the other calculations. Minor stuff. (The pulse animation is now redone with variables for color center and overall brightness; these are read from EEPROM on boot time so, eventually, I can write some routines to let the end-user modify those values and have them stored in non-volatile memory.)