Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Future (theater) shock

The Control Booth forum has started emailing notifications again so I logged in to see what they were talking about.

At least two of the projects I'd been tinkering with over the years have been done by others. And done well.

The simpler is the QU-Box, which leverages a Teensy (Arduino compatible with native USB capability) and some arcade buttons to make a dedicated controller box for QLab. Honestly, though, I was an evening of soldering away from doing it for decades -- but my Korg nanokey worked so well for me I never saw the point in completing the project.

Still, kudos to Simon for making a solid, functional device and offering it in kit form for the extra budget-conscious.

The other product I spotted was the RC4 wireless dimmer system. These are quite pricey but I'd still recommend them without reservation. I have nothing against hacks but by the time you come up with a working system you will have spent almost as much, and a lot of time you usually can't afford on a theater tech schedule.

And the guy is smart. He's thought of all the things I thought of, and put most of them in the box. A lot of people would just rig a bunch of PWM outputs and call it done. He's recognized the nonlinearity of output and subsequent color rendering, and put in a much more sophisticated version of the gamut look-up table I have running on my Holocrons.

He's also added what he calls Digital Persistence (another thing I've had to do in many of my projects), which is modifying the output so instead of coming on and going off near-instantly, LEDs will behave more like incandescent bulbs. This is easy for him because he's implemented another thing I was using as a paradigm; although direct multi-channel control is the default, his devices can run a baked-in animation in stand-alone mode instead of having to receive a constant stream of instructions.

Okay, I'd still like to see my prop light thing. But skip the wireless stage -- I'm not doing that much theater anymore and it adds too much complexity. Free-running behavior, preferably set through a full-on GUI running on a host computer and uploaded via USB. Built-in LiPo management, because again, AA batteries make more sense in a theatrical context but LiPo makes more sense for cosplay and other replica prop use.

And, here's the thing. Theatrical props, especially, it makes sense from a budget and time standpoint to take something commercial (usually a toy) and throw it in there. Often it is enough that it lights up. But even something more color-critical like a storm lantern or an old radio it's easy enough for theatrical purposes to wrap some gel around it or otherwise get it "close enough."

For a replica prop, there's more of an onus on getting it to look exactly right, so flexibility and programmability are good. But here it makes sense to leverage the mostly-done-for-you end of the hacker spectrum; Arduinos, various lighting boards, neopixel strips, etc. You pay a little more but given how many hours and bucks went into the prop, that's not a real problem.

The exception I still see is when a specific prop places something at a premium. Cost (because you need dozens of duplicates), space, etc.

For instance, my Wraith Stone. What I want it to do requires a dedicated board. And I'm fine with that -- just as I'm fine with people hacking up a $4 LED charm bracelet if that's what works.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Brother, can you paradigm?

Dracula drained me.

First rehearsal at the actual space and I only went because we were going to use that time to figure out the basics of lighting and sound.

Lighting was software on a Mac. ETC "Eon Family." Which is a Mac port of a stand-alone application of the offline programming software for the Eon board. Which is at least one generation, perhaps two, past the last ETC board I was comfortable with.

So a lot of changed paradigms to deal with. First challenge; this is so much the now-accepted way of doing things, there's no introductory text to the software. There's no overview in the manual, no quick-start guide, no introductory tutorial (at least, none that aren't a three-hour training video). All the resources I was able to quickly Google up on my phone jumped right in. And as this was the latest version of a popular software offshoot of a popular board, pretty much everything I turned up was detailed lists of what had changed since the last version.

I had to figure out the underlying concepts sideways. With a fair amount of trial and error. Mac port of an offline version of a hardware board, remember? So OS GUI standards are absolutely no guide (so much so; when you invoke the "save file as..." command, it pops up a virtual keyboard you navigate with the arrow keys. No, this was not written for the computer. It was ported from hardware.

Thing is, lighting controllers -- all the lighting controllers I grew up with and used through the years -- were at the bottom of it all riffs on the paradigm of the two-scene preset. Think of it this way; for each light/control channel you had a knob. Set each knob to a different value to achieve a particular blend of lights.

Now make an exact copy of that row of knobs and add an A/B switch to switch from one set of knobs to the other. Actually, a pair of knobs, one reversed from the other; turn them one way to turn all the settings from one set of knobs all the way down and all the settings from the other set of knobs all the way up. Reverse for the opposite effect.

This was effective enough and fast enough. On the old manual boards (such as at my high school) one "scene" (one set of knob settings) would be on stage while someone quickly twisted the offline set of knobs into the next desired look. Cross-fade (as the process was called) from A to B and now A is offline and can be programmed for the upcoming look.

Boards evolved from direct physical control via rheostats to electronically controlled dimmers with the knobs -- that is, faders -- now operating on a 0-10 volt control voltage, to digital controls; at which point, all the settings could now be stored in RAM and read out with software.

But through all of this, the A/B paradigm, the so-called "Two Scene Preset," was maintained as a useful way to organize the data.

ETC began to change this back at least with the Express and Expression consoles. Since the desired position of the actual dimmers -- the big triac choppers delivering power to the actual lights -- had long since been decoupled from any direct physical control, the first big shift in paradigm is to think of a "scene" not as a collection of absolute values, but as a set of changes to whatever was the current status.

This was already a de-facto way of viewing the data, as even back in ProStar the console went out of its way to indicate which values had changed, with the values being continued from a previous cue being left in the original color.

ETC implicitly (as I read when I eventually found a more useful manual) converted to looking at all commands to the dimmer packs as being changes. Like an engine room telegraph, the dimmers (as indeed so all the new arsenal of digital fixtures, from LED pars to moving-head lights) will in the absence of new commands maintain the last directive.

Well, that's enough on that particular change. Suffice to say there are other old models which have also gone the way of the dial tone (cell phones have no need and no place for that). The only vestige still there is that the Eon series still has the default characteristic of bringing the previous commands OUT simultaneous to bringing the new commands IN.

(Another major uncoupling from the old two-scene preset paradigm is that "analog dimmers" -- aka devices that put out a varying and significant wattage that is generally poured into a variety of incandescent bulbs -- is a smaller and smaller part of what is connected to the console. Most of the light is coming from various digital fixtures, which require only digital information and which almost without exception use multiple channels of information. The analog dimmers still have a one-to-one correspondence -- or, rather, can -- but as a single LED par uses at least three control channels they are organized instead into "fixtures." The latest crop of ETC boards no longer pretend that a channel can be mapped directly to a circuit, with the rare exception of the analog dimmers, which are treated as a special case. Basically, analog dimmers are fixtures that only have one channel each.)

In any case, it wasn't the stress or the mental exercise, both of which I found invigorating. The mystery illness is back again, pretty much on schedule, and I've been barely dragging to work this week. (Work hours are still not helped by having to put in long unpaid lunches to work on my friend's project).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Under Pressure

Actually, according to my new Omron sphygmomanometer (uncalibrated)  I'm running at the high end of the normal range. (My Kaiser doc says bring it in and they'll calibrate it).

Dracula is going into tech next weekend and I'm in rehearsals this weekend. I bowed out of Enemy of the People and Pinocchio but I've offered to advise, train, mentor and loan equipment. So it would be wrong to say there's no strings on me.

The sewing is going...meh.

The first muslin was way off. My friend pinned it up, I transferred the markings to fresh pieces, then laid the Simplicity patterns I'd just purchased on top as a sanity check. Turns out our alterations had brought my original pattern very close to what was on the Simplicity. Did a little further adjustment, stitched up a fresh muslin and that one fit decently. So now I can start cutting the real fabric.

The first fit of the bass case went poorly as well. On the plus side, turns out I don't like the look of piping on this one so would have re-done it anyhow. And now I know how to do piping. In any case, I'm disheartened by how long it is taking for what I thought was a simple build.

I still have hopes of finishing a few things. Priority now is things that are in the way of straightening up my room (there's so many half-built projects I can't even move a broom around). Bass case is one of those. So is repairs on the bass itself.

And, yeah, there's a bit of a stack. And I can't help thinking (especially as I make stabs at organizing and prioritizing) how many other things I've started that are now taking up closet space or, at least, mental space.

Worst offender is Holocrons. The three "final" holos are spread out over my desk waiting for detail paint and final assembly. Cluttering the floor by the desk are Sterilyte bins of Holocron parts, and taking up the shelf over the Behringer is the reflow oven.

Over by the futon are many of my metal-working tools, as well as another bin of metal stock and parts-in-progress for work. Half of those tools used to be in a bin dedicated to M40 builds. I've had a few people ask about them over the years since the last run and it is tempting to log a few more hours on that lathe I spend so much membership money to ensure access to.

Somewhere in there are also the prints for caseless rounds I should really finish up so I can determine how the 3d file needs to be modified.

Of course I'd like to make a new tool roll for those metal working tools. And the sewing machine has a nice big table to itself at my workplace (it is a work mate I'm helping with the costume for his kid). So seems like a logical time to do a little more stitching. In a moment of ludicrous optimism I even purchased three yards of a cute ukulele print and a Hawaiian shirt pattern...

It is amazing how much closet space fabric can take up. Between that and the sewing machine and the box of associated tools (zipper foot, spare bobbins, seam gauge, Fiskers, etc.) I would really like them out of the way. There's no room here for laying and cutting anyhow.

And, yes, before I got my present full-time job I was having some serious cosplay thoughts. Even
purchased a frock coat pattern, although those are a huge pain to stitch up. Not that these thoughts have quite ended, although my main wearable goal at the moment is Bronze Age gear -- sandals at the least -- for research purposes on the new novel.

Every now and then get tempted towards something like the Dragon Priest mask from Skyrim (there's a nice PDO I have right now and that's supposed to be fast....) And of course my next big personal prop project continues to be the Wraith Stone. And of course, one day would love to revise the 3d files and try to make a more "screen accurate" version of Lara's 2013 necklace...*

Fixing the bass reminded me that I have back in the closet (and, yes, taking up space) a fretboard and neck and the start of a body for a solid-body electric ukulele. I've pretty much decided I'm too impatient these days (and too conscious of how much money I get if I actually show up to work instead of doing stuff at home) to do the hand-carved hard wood trilobite I was working on, but there was the simpler Vulcan-Lyre inspired teardrop design...

Fixing the bass and putting it in a case will take care of some clutter. The Pfetchner is getting a new bridge but that doesn't take up any more room (I've got it at work anyhow, where I have a nice quiet space to practice). The Behringer is however currently useless to me because I have no simple way of firing it up to try out musical ideas.

And part of the fill of the various parts boxes taking up floor space at the foot of the overstuffed bookshelves is drivers and amps and other stuff to make "some" sort of keyboard amp/tone box. Very possibly based around a Raspberry Pi -- which also cleans out another Sterilyte bin full of Pi parts and accessories.

Still, a bigger hole in the pile will come from just putting the old mics and mixers and speakers in storage. I gave away the e-drum stuff and sold off many of the rack modules and can dump old cable (especially the to-be-repaired XLR I simply don't have patience to deal with anymore). Not as much fun as building, though.

I am at the moment terribly tempted by a brass casting of what appears to be a Mycenean sword. Would be quite a few hours of shaping and polishing and fitting a hilt, of course. Possibly as time consuming as getting back to my flint-knapping kit (which also could use a cute roll to protect the tools -- but in that case, something quite far from machine-stitched).

My prop weaponry desires also include, however, revisiting the Retro Raygun. Besides revamping the speaker and power supply for more volume, I'd really like a more Diesel Punk; less spray chrome, more well-used metal. And productionize it while I'm at it; fix the 3d files and run off a new circuit board so the thing could be a kit that anyone could assemble in a few hours.

And you know, that's not that scary a list, not right there. I'm still logging off to finish a Red Trolley and play some Skyrim.

* I have a new head canon on that protean prop. Hyperdiffusionism is real in the Tomb Raider universe, and an Ainu jade-carver was exposed to Maori greenstone carvings, thus producing a weird hybrid of at least two different cultures; a little bit Koru, a little bit Magatama. Well, that's what I'll carve. Would be a good preparation for the Wraith Stone; carve this somewhere between 2-up and at scale in clay, then scan it for a new printable 3D file.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


It's been nice and cool, finally -- though not enough to help with all the fires. I sometimes wonder if it is like the experiment with the long-lived rats; if I keep the bedroom a little colder than I'd like, eat less than I'd like, and sleep just slightly less than I'd like, I seem to feel stronger overall.

Monday I was at the peak of the sine wave, 180 degrees out of phase from Aug 27 when I was lying under my desk trying not to pass out. Did a long and busy day at work, did laundry, did errands, and still had enough left over to go out to dinner. Experience says I'll be forced to slow down soon enough but at the moment I'm finally getting things done.

Right, so that's when I volunteered to help a co-worker out with a costume for his kid.

And of course that snowballed. I've made six visits to fabric stores, been researching dyes and re-reading my old costume books and re-learning the tricks of my sturdy Bernina Record 830 (thank you again, Wendy, for such a fantastic gift). I've got a table at work covered with fabric and patterns and all those bits and pieces and scraps and small strange tools of the trade.

Maybe I'll actually finish my bass case -- after my friend's costume is done -- if I haven't gone back into fatigue before then. Of course I also need to build two rolling carts and write up two sets of assembly instructions for work. At least I finished the parts I needed to machine.

(Yes, the lathe at TechShop is looking pretty scummy by now. It also needs some maintenance. I've written them one nasty email already.)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Holy Cow

Learning more and more useful stuff about Egypt.

Previously I mentioned The Book of the Heavenly Cow. Basic idea is Ra gets pissed at humanity and sends one of his "eyes" (in this case Hathor, a fertility goddess, operating as a sort of cosmic enforcer of Ra's will). Hathor starts the slaughter, driving humanity out into the desert, and in the process of giving into her blood lust becomes essentially Sekhet (a chaos god). In any case, Ra rethinks the whole "kill all humans" bit and this is when we have the thousands of gallons of beer dyed red to look like blood. And fortunately for humanity Hathor isn't a mean drunk.

(I'm reading the Budge translation right now, and there's real blood in the beer, along with mandrake roots for an extra-special sleepy-time potion. Two thirds of the story is basically about Ra's retirement and a re-organization of heaven. It opens with a description of the aged Ra whose bones have become like silver and hair like lapis lazuli...what strange sea change indeed!)

So after this (and on Ra's urging) it becomes an annual festival, part of the ever-moving cycle of seasonal festivals. This is one where the Egyptians both celebrate and re-enact by getting blind stinking drunk then (apparently) having group sex. Very typical solstice sort of thing here. (The bit about moveable feasts is that the Egyptian calendar had 360 days, plus five "don't really exist" spooky days, but no leap year; so over a thousand years or so the calendar would rotate through a whole cycle until the harvest festival was actually at harvest time again, instead of in some entirely other month. Anyhow).

So I also caught a program on Exodus from an Egyptian History perspective. Which is pretty much a "what Egyptian history?" perspective; there's no Hebrew slaves, no massacre of chariots, Pharaoh and all in the Red Sea, and of course the Pyramids were built a thousand years earlier and by paid labor to boot (we have copies of their pay stubs). But there are some tantalizing glimpses into what the writers of Exodus may have been inspired by. Including the Hyksos, a somewhat mysterious and seemingly Semitic people who controlled Egypt during the Second Interregnum. 

And the plagues struck me at this time as a strange echo of the Hathor story. There's all sorts of weird little not-really-parallels, like the role of the ureas and the staffs of Pharaoh's court magicians turning into snakes. And, you know, the whole driven-into-the-desert thing. But then, if you are going to be a bronze age people in that corner of the world sand, snakes, floods, fertility, locusts, and blood are pretty much to be expected.

And, yes, the way the court magicians act is not unlike how court magicians act in stories like Teta the Magician.

It still makes me think that some sort of red tide, a scarlet sign much like the weed that mysteriously sprung up around London in the H.G. Wells novel, fits for my story. There's stuff in Heavenly Cow about Nu as well, a goddess of, well, call it the primordial soup; a god of the outer chaos/water but also the fecundity that water brings (annual flooding of the Nile, after all). And of course a primary duty of Rameses III is maintaining maat, order; which makes the appropriate thematic climax of the story the Battle of the Delta.

(And if I ever opened a small restaurant Primordial Soup would definitely be on the menu. What's in it? I dunno...all the essential amino acids, I suppose...)

And I'm realizing more and more that so much of the fun here is the interaction between cultures. Between people from a Mycenaean Greek and a New Kingdom Egyptian viewpoint, at the very least. It would be so much fun to write with. It will also be a heck of a lot of work to get there. 

Images are all from Nina Paley's series of short animations from Exodus, collected with other stories under the general heading "Seder-Masochism."

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stepping in the River

Monday was a diagnostic procedure. Non-zero chance of negative outcomes (6% chance of injury up to and including death). I wasn't scared, per se, but I spent the weekend in a sort of existential ennui, unable to think about future plans.

I got there and it was the full routine; surgical prep, shaving and sterile draping, IV and drugs. One of those threshold experiences. Like travel, like going off to school. Continuity of identity is an illusion, after all. We change constantly, our behavior altered and our very thoughts running in different patterns when we are in different environments.

And I'm still not back. Over this week I just haven't emotionally re-connected with the life I was living last Friday. I'm left floundering as the things that held enough meaning to be my motivators just aren't there right now.

Not helped by recovery. Under instruction to avoid straining my right wrist, which included driving, practicing violin, lifting heavy objects or really doing much of what I normally do. I made up for it with long walks, walking to work through the rest of the week.

And the news is good. My heart is healthy. So at this point heart, lungs both normal, blood chemistry seems normal, vitals are all in a nice healthy range (surprisingly healthy for my age and lifestyle). So the engine is good. Still no clue why every couple of months it just stops answering the engine room telegraph.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Magic Elephant

I don't have a plot yet. But I'm making progress on the engine that drives it.

First conceit is that magic and gods are real, but human understanding of them is incomplete. This sounds like a reversal of my previous "no out of context problems" but it really isn't. The elephant is part of the of the world but each culture has hold of different parts of it.

And this is culturally appropriate. Ecumenical is the wrong word to use of early cultures but in the ancient world it isn't uncommon for pantheists to be entirely open to the idea of other gods. Just...less powerful gods than their own. And I have yet to research how the Mycenae look at magic, but I've been reading a collection of stories from Ancient Egypt and there is a strong theme that human understanding of the ways of the gods is incomplete.

So it will work to have a supernatural force/entity/whatever that each of my characters...and the various cultures encountered...describe in different ways that even they realize are incomplete. Even as they try to find a fit within their own mythologies.

The key is probably to avoid having the "thing" be recognizable to modern eyes. That is, it isn't a dinosaur or a crashed space ship that the locals are spinning their own take on. It is something that is best described in the terms used in the story.

Personified Chaos* is where I'm going right now. Possibly a natural force as well; something that directly causes the mass migration of peoples (aka drought, frost, plague, whatever)**. Whatever personification there is, is entirely there so it can be sought, chased, and fought. Because yes, in both Egyptian and Greek mythologies the gods can be challenged (even if they tend to win in the end.) Gods were driven from the field in the Trojan War. Nefrekeptah stole the Book of Thoth (but Thoth quickly had his revenge). The child mage Se-Osiris visited Duat with his father, and returned safely.

But remember this is the fading of an age. The gods are losing power; soon enough (give or take eight hundred years) Roman poets are going to be spinning tales of hen-pecked Jupiter and otherwise turning the gods into (still erratic and dangerous) figures of fun. Just as the Witch-King of Angemar could fall to a human woman with a sword, it remains thematic that the Big Bad of this story could be taken down by a self-doubting mercenary with a weapon of meteoric iron.

(Yeah -- I don't know yet if I can justify it or how well it works but I can't help thinking of the funerary dagger of Tutankhamen -- which is by the way a really gorgeous piece -- and the actual documentation of iron smelting as early as 800 BCE. And, yeah, Sokka's Space Sword. Not that the latter achieved anything magical, unless you count the armband of the same material he gave to Toph...)

(It is also interesting to look at the local take on meteoric iron. It isn't seen as a gift from the gods, or rather, no more so than springs or seed grains or the annual flooding of the Nile. The available writing is pretty much; yeah, some iron fell from the sky, and we used it to make jewelry.)

Thing is...when I look at the idea of personified chaos, coming out of the Carpathians, possessing people, causing plagues of rats, I keep getting resonances of Vampire lore. Which is as I said exactly what I don't want to do. Or, that is, it is a helpful subtext only in that it works within the local mythologies and doesn't allow the readers a superior distance of, "Oh, those foolish ancient people, it's really a vampire."

A similar problem is facing me for myth-making. I very much want the idea that hundreds of years later the poets will be telling stories based on what happened. The Trojan War is available as an example of a real incident of the not-so-distant past that is being mythologized as they watch. But it seems a similar class of mistake to tie anything the characters do too directly to a single myth known in our time.

Pity, because the idea of Pandora and her jar is exactly that sort of candle to light the darkness I want to end with.

*Actually, to be more specific, it is the current idea that the Bronze Age Collapse is best understood in terms of system theory. It is an emergent effect from existing forces. Even if my planned usage veers parlously close to the popular misconception of Chaos Theory, as exemplified in Jeff Goldblum's mutterings in the Jurrasic Park movies.

**I'm very tempted to do a riff on a genocidal god story told of several different figures; in the Amarna period it was told of Hathor. The key bit being blood mixed with beer spilled on the ground; in the myth, a trap for a god, but in this story, some sort of scarlet blight on the staple crops....