Monday, December 28, 2015

Imperial Highway II

One of the prop-making blogs I follow is that of Harrison Krix -- Volpin Props. I have an amazed admiration for the care he takes in the final finish, in smoothing and sharpness of detail and surface treatments. He is also expanding more and more into technologies necessary to achieve the effects he is after.

That's not my model. Given my time and lack of concentration my intent is to leverage technology and every other time-saving, labor-saving shortcut both the long history of theatrical prop-making and the recent Maker Movement have made available.

And, yeah, I bet that laser engraving, possibly combined with some CNC routing, would have breezed through my current prop. Instead I've been hacking it out of raw wood with a primitive and basic selection of tools not too much evolved from obsidian flakes; X-acto blade, razor saw, and Squadron scribing tool.

Which also means a stop-and-start process; at every step I need to wait for glue to set or spot putty or primer paint to dry. Such as the detail being applied in the picture above.

I've looked at a lot of pictures, and even took screen shots from a Let's Play video. And I can definitely say the in-game model is inconsistent. In-game, it is created from several different shapes which are pushed together in a way that 3d rendering allows but physical materials do not. And there are other artifacts of the 3d nature of the original; textures, for instance, are flood-filled and are scaled inconsistently. The stones inside the blind arches, for instance, are of a different scale depending on how the model is being used on a particular game level.

So I'm having to tweak and change and choose to find compromises that look nice, are representative of the bulk of the images, and are mold-able: I'm also having to worry about gaps and seams and undercuts and blind corners that might be a problem when casting the final prop.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reviews, Ridiculous to Sublime

Finally got around to watching the first Tomb Raider movie (saw some of it once, on a transatlantic flight...and fell asleep in the middle of it). Odd. It does a lot right, has a great look, a good energy, and there's a strong sense that everyone involved was enjoying themselves. But despite all of that, it is oddly...boring.

Perhaps it is the lack of strong music. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider had various problems coming up with a composer and the man who finally landed in the hot seat had only two weeks to work. Under similar conditions James Horner came up with Aliens, but Tomb Raider sounds as if made drop-needle from whatever euro-pop was lying around the room. It lacks grandeur, it lacks a linking theme, it lacks development. This is a film that could use the leit-motif treatment (as well as the rest of that Wagnerian grammar).

Jolie is wonderful. And the film does extremely well at translating the feel for the games, especially the kind of gymnastic action, without resorting to wirework and CGI and otherwise breaking (as so many action films do) the suspension of disbelief. Obviously she can't leap about like her game avatar, but although more realistic and plausible the physical stunts are still strong and entertaining.

The plot, on the other hand, also suffers from a lack of clarity. In this case I think it isn't so much a lack of focus as a lack of the concrete. Odd as it may be to say, there is more archaeology and history in the worst of the games than there is in the movie. The Illuminati are named. That's about it. There's not even a name given, much less a culture or history or religious tradition for the big temple set-piece (using some real places in Cambodia as background). Nothing is seen of Venice but the interior of a building. One bit of some script is translated by Lara (or rather, pretty much read outright in situ by the light of a chemlight) but there isn't even enough to define what language it might be.

In astronomy the movie does far worse. A grand conjunction is an important part of the plot, is shown from space, observed via telescope on Earth, and diagrammed by a giant orrery...except in none of these depictions do the film-makers appear to know which planets are involved, how many planets are in the solar system, or even what they look like. In all these depictions, they are a line of nearly identical yellow balls, with the sole exception that one has a ring.

(There is a vague moment in the orrery scene where some character interacts briefly with what might be a group of satellites arrayed at 90 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic, which is oddly suggestive of Uranus... but even that is giving the set design, as wonderful looking as the contraption is, too much credit).

Similar incoherence follows the McGuffin; what does it do, how it works. With the stakes so nebulous, the way to achieve the goal so ill-defined, and the map and clues non-existent, the entire struggle is pretty much, "Stuff happens, then some other stuff, then Lara wins."

Here's hoping the second movie is as much better as word has it is.

On the other side of the First Century silver boar-horse C type, I'm in the middle of the second Samantha Sutton book by James Jordan and they keep getting better and better. Cambridge and its surrounds are the setting for this one, and it is a Cambridge with all the hoary traditions and strange characters and long murky history of Douglas Adams. And a mystery and struggle over an archaeological site being excavated in haste ahead of a construction project; a struggle that pits not just cultural heritage against modern development, archaeologists versus looters (rather, the semi-respectable metal-detectorists of the English scene), and antiquities department against the upstart and more anthropologically-minded barbarians who study home-grown, pre-Roman cultures.

Jacobs does push, of course, allowing access in places his heroes really shouldn't have, bending rules they really should know better than to bend, and throwing in a few narrow scrapes that more should really be made more of (by local law enforcement, among others). But he really, really knows his settings, and he knows his archaeology, and he presents an honest appraisal of how the field works and some of its conflicts and hot topics as well as some of its problems...while keeping the narrative within range of a young reader.

I am all for these books, and hope I can find the third (and fourth, when it comes out).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Guns, Germs, and Naquadah

It should be obvious by now I've been immersing in history (and archaeology). I'm into immersion as a learning method. But this current spate is not exactly methodical, and I'm not even sure how much I'm learning. I'm still having trouble doing much more than work, sleep, eat. It is just that I'm filling the majority of those little gaps in the day with more-or-less the same subject.

Such as by listening to podcasts. Unlike doing sound, running a shop, painting scenery, or any of the other things I've been paid for in the past, enough of my current work is sufficiently mindless so I can listen to podcasts while doing it. I don't, as a matter of fact, believe in multi-tasking. I think it is mostly a poor idea. I think if you have the spare concentration to do a second thing simultaneously, that just means you aren't doing the first one as well as you can.

And indeed, I'm not really focusing on the podcasts most of the time. Instead I'm doing the paying work efficiently, and via the voices in my ear am sort of absorbing names and dates and a general feeling for the concepts; groundwork that I hope will make it easier to grasp those subjects when I actually have time to sit down to study them properly.

Lately I've been following a history of the world in multiple episodes. It jumps around by necessity; getting all the way to Marathon with the Persians before backtracking to cover the Greeks (all the way back to Minoans, actually, then up through the Greek dark ages and the flowering of Athens and through the wacky world of Sparta before rejoining our previous friends under the latest ruler, Xerxes.) And because of the peculiar way my mp3 player sorts files (I believe it is by file creation date; it certainly isn't in alpha-numeric) I'm listening to them out of order anyhow.

So hopping back and forth from 3,000 BC to 394 AD during the day, reading alternatively Bullfinch or Diamond during lunch break, and then leafing through blogs or reading the latest Samantha Sutton mystery over meals and the few shivering hours I spend at home waiting for the heat to start working so I can go to bed.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Military History

I was doing some random searching around for good descriptions on the working of a standard archaeological "unit" (usually a 1 meter by 1 meter pit), and came across a website for the Sand Hill site. Lots of history, good archaeology going on there to uncover the various cultures that passed through. And this dig is where? Fort Bragg.

And it took me several minutes and another web search to recapture memory of my own history. Yes, Fort Bragg. Where I'd spent three years of my life. Odd that I could come that close to forgetting the name.

I've been noticing anew, that even in this age a lot of history still ends up mired in the lists of battles and kings and generals. The coming and going of the Neo-Assyrian Empire is one page of trade routes and early Iron Age technological developments, and nine pages of battles against Nubians and Kushites and their final fall to Babylonians and Medes at Harran.

And I think I know one reason why. History is written, as they say, by the victors. But I don't mean that here in the sense John Harington meant when he said "Treason doth never prosper."* History is the reconstruction of the past through the writings of the past (as archaeology is the reconstruction of the past through the debris left behind). Oversimplified, sure. But who leaves written record? Why, pretty much the same people who wage wars.

Basically kings. Who have the funds to have stela carved, rock faces painted, troubadours hired, painters paid; and really good reasons to want their successes in wars to be prominently displayed (as well as preserved for posterity.)

Yeah, sure...a lot of the writing we find from the past is grocery bills, but those don't make as ready a story. Pulling a thrilling narrative out of the transition to three-field crop rotation is a lot more work. From the point of view of ruling nobility, who married who, who had a grudge against who, and especially who's chariots were tougher than who's is important. Important to the present (to keep conquered peoples cowed, your own taxpayers happily paying, and potential enemies cautious) and important to the future -- at least, the future of one's own line ("Before you think of invading here, remember what my dad did to your last army!") So we get stories. Big, blockbuster production stories full of blood and action. Which get entwined as well with myth, until you can't tell your Yĕshúʿa from your Joshua.

Heck, a variation of this pattern continues when we make the transition across the Industrial Revolution; when instead of a Clovis Point arising seemingly out of a culture as a whole, someone sticks their name in front of a Cotton Gin and has both the need and the funds to make sure people mention them together. Thus we shift just slightly sideways until the surface gloss of history is as much "And in 1856 Henry Bessemer.." as it is "In 720 BC, Sargon and Marduk-apla-iddina met in battle..."

History is also unwritten by the victors; from American Indian Boarding Schools to outright genocide, dominant cultures have worked to erase other languages, religions, cultures -- basically, to erase the losers from history itself. And more than one ancient ruler went around toppling statuary and defacing monuments to make sure that the only story that stuck in people's minds was their own.

This is why I gravitate more towards archaeology and anthropology. Because if you aren't looking primarily at the writing, you tend to organize more about the spread and evolution of cultural trends, the economics of trade, the science of cultivation...and less about which general won a fight on which day.

* "For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Good Shepard

I'm not excited about the new Star Wars movie. In fact, not even interested enough to challenge the weather and see it in a theater; I can wait for the DVD. But I've noticed an interesting split in impressions of it. Specifically, that many commenters at various of the blogs I follow have enthusiastically adopted it as "their" Star Wars movie -- because it offers a female character they can identify with.

Oddly enough, this character is one of the reasons I was disinclined to race out to see the movie. Or, rather, what I thought I was seeing in the advertising; another of those colorless and interchangeable faux action girls (to use the TVTropes term) that serve as the thin pretense of diversity for so many mass media products. Apparently this character is better than that, though; even much better. Even if this hard-bitten fighter is clearly (from the images I've seen) touching up her make-up between lightsabre duels.

Which is one of those odd details I've included in my own fanfic. My Lara Croft is careful to explain at one juncture just how much work and how many little jars "from the best Parisian suppliers" goes into maintaining that fresh-faced All Natural look.

And, yeah. The concept of identification. Having a female Jedi who doesn't serve as eye candy or hostage de jour or other peripheral role to the default male (white, straight) heroes. Why some game characters never speak, why others can be tailored in appearance, race, gender. Or species, depending on the game; apparently the choice of avatar is rather more complex than simply having one that looks just like you.

My Shep (Mass Effect) was female, and non-white. And when I remember that, I realize that most of my writing has also taken a distaff POV. First character I ever wrote extensively with was Laura Wilkinson. Who actually started as a secondary character in someone else's story, but even fourteen-year-old me couldn't stomach a blatant damsel in distress scenario and ended up recasting the whole thing from her point of view. And of course giving her a whole lot more agency.

My first attempt at a novel starred Kimberly Velaquez (who was a conscious stereotype, the hard-bitten female PI that was appearing with some frequency in detective fiction in I think the 1980's). The second was built around Mie Nakamura (who owed her origin to anime but quickly grew into the only appropriate character to tell a story of trying to do the right thing against increasing social pressure, both external and strongly internalized). And my current cross-over pic started with the intentions of giving Stargate SG1 equal billing but they have been largely overshadowed by the forthright personality of late classic era (aka Tomb Raider: Underworld) Lara Croft.

And, yeah, my attempt to write a new novel around a sound man for the "Elves with Guitars" (also a thing that was going around at least a couple decades ago...Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks probably the Ur-work here) may be foundering on my inability to properly mesh with a male protagonist. Now that's food for thought. (Adding to the problem, I originally cast Brendan Marshall to be as Standard Model Hollywood Hero as possible, aka the "normal guy" who is more average than any real human being is capable of. The more I try to go more interesting with his character, though, the more I can't seem to figure out just where I'm going with it all).

Somewhat like this essay.

Sutton Who?

Sigh. Worked a half-day Saturday, had a much-needed sleep-in on Sunday. Result is only a few hours to work on anything.

I put a coat of primer on the first attempt at an Imperial Highway part and the grooves between the stones look horrible. So I've coated the whole thing in Bondo Spot Putty and will sand and "point" from there. I was thinking about Spot Putty anyhow to add some texture. Hammered finish spray might also provide a little texture, but I've discovered those finishes are a lot more visual than they are textural.

If this works the way I hope I might have the model ready for casting by the weekend. At which point I'm off work and won't be able to do all that smelly pouring of silicone et al at work instead of in my tiny kitchen. Oh, and TechShop managed to fix their vacuum-former, apparently. Well, at the worst-case deliverable I can cast during the week I return to work.

Not enough concentration for electronics, sigh. Or the vastly overdue Holocron project I promised (related, as I still want to work up a custom LED board for that).

Reading the second Samantha Sutton novel now, but I'm a little worried. The third came out just last month, but I've yet to find a single online bookstore that has it in stock, or has any information about when it may be available, or even makes it possible to set a "back in stock" alert or pre-sale or anything. I'm talking every store -- I've hit over a dozen now, and each has the same uninformative blank of "No, don't have it, don't know when we'll have it, can't tell you anything else." Makes me wonder if there's something going on.

While I'm ranting, two annoying "improvements" to the Mac OS I'm using now. The nag box that shows up if you remove a thumb drive doesn't auto-select anymore, forcing you to scroll over to it, highlight it, then hit the very small checkbox to close it. Someone obviously had done their reading on Fitt's Law; the entire operation is carefully tailored for maximum inefficiency in aid of punishing the user for not waiting whatever arbitrary interval the Mac might desire to properly unmount a hot-swappable device. (One thing I have to give Windows; it at least gives you a pop-up for "It is now safe to remove your device." Mac does not give any such clear indication.)

The other is oddly similar but appears in the bundled Mail client; it now is necessary to both select and to fully expose in the window each and every message before the "unread" flag will clear. So if you are sent a typical work-related email with a dozen independent replies and forwards from different people, instead of scrolling swiftly through the stack of replies you have to pretend to read every damn one if you want to be able to use the "unread" flag as a signal that you have new messages waiting.

Mostly, though, I live in fear of when I'll be forced to make the next upgrade. Because from everything I've read the next one breaks practically everything. And Mac OS doesn't exactly have a reputation for giving either enhanced performance or increased efficiency with each upgrade. All they offer, really, is more glossy, the latest fad that they insist you adapt to (which even if it might save a keystroke or two -- which it rarely does -- that saving is easily lost in the time spent re-learning), and some trivial bit of code functionality the lazy designer of some ap it turns out I really need decided was better than writing their own algorithms for, and thus...forces me to upgrade.

And that last sentence needs to be burnt to the ground. Good thing I'm also stalled out on writing my fanfic, then!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Never been on the playa. But the playa is on me now. I've been tearing down some speakers that were loaned out to the last Burning Man, and I've gotten more familiar than I want to be with that super-fine, abrasive, and surprisingly desiccant dust. My hands still feel dry after just brushing the stuff out of electronics for a few hours.

Delivery date for Imperial Highway has been moved back. Might even be time to experiment with laser-engraving detail (the basswood model is coming along, but I am concerned about how clean details like the seams between stones are going to be).

I'm still going slow. Three months ago, it was too hot to concentrate after I got off work. Now, it is too cold to want to do anything but wrap up in a quilt and try to get the baseboard heater to do something other than make the air go all dry. But then, last week I worked on the new prop, mixed a show, and built more of my LED stage marker lights for the same guy that talked me into building the first one. However: the last two really cut into my sleeping hours, and catching up during the weekend pretty much nixed me getting anything done then. Got a week off coming up, though. Maybe I'll get something built then.

Followed some random links and discovered an odd relative of Poe's Law. I watched two hilarious parody trailers for a "A Wrinkle in Time" movie (the Madeline L'Engle children's classic), and then a third...which may have been an actual trailer for an actual movie. Because the kind of company that would make a movie of this odd, slightly orthogonal, but also terribly life affirming and blatantly Christian (in a quite non-denominational way) and also Newbery Award winning fantasy is going to pour on the Disneyfictation and emphasize the fantasy adventure and the wish fulfillment "power of love" stuff and make the Christian subtext even more blatant and a lot less sub...which all ends up in an overblown, Hallmark glossy, "In a World" trailer that it is so perfectly a self-parody it becomes impossible to sort from the real thing.

Also on the parody side... I'm 20 Kindle pages in on the first one and I'm already totally hooked on the Samantha Sutton stories. These are far enough on the side of real archaeology that a not-so-veiled reference to the Tomb Raider games is being played by the protagonist's annoying brother. 

Not that Lara Croft nor Daniel Jackson were ever exemplars of the working archaeologist (who is probably doing CRM in any case, there being little funding for full excavations these days). And I've already underlined this in my fanfiction. In fact, I've been tempted to go a little further. It might be an interesting direction to take Daniel Jackson; the universe has been just a little too agreeable, in that every old legend he investigates turns out to be true, and even more, every theory he comes up with turns out to be right.

So I could have him fall too far into woo, falling for all the Pakal's Spaceship nonsense. Or since the plots in the show usually involve the existing back-story he could start seeing Goa'uld and Stargates where there weren't any. 

(Really, this exposes even more how stupid that universe became by the time the series ended. They discover that all the major figures of the Arthurian mythos -- Merlin, Morgan le Fay, et all -- are Ancients. Err, what? What is encountered in the show are practically the modern Cliff Notes versions of the characters of Malory, who descend from Geoffrey of Monmouth's, and we know he was drawing from Welsh and Breton sources -- among others -- but you think that we're going to see Mynyddog Mwynfawr show up during Season Nine? It's not just that there are Ancient Astronauts, it's that the Secret History is also the Theme Park version of history; nobody that you didn't hear about in High School.)

Well, that might be an interesting direction to take Daniel, but I'm in need of something stronger. I made an error over the last couple chapters. I closed off the main internal conflicts. It has been convincingly argued (by who?) that internal conflict is as necessary as external conflict, and powerful writing can ensue when the two support each other. Except I've already brought Lara to a place where she can launch into the events of the third Crystal Dynamics game (Underworld). I don't have a convenient catharsis for her before the conclusion of my story.

And the SG1 crowd -- taken as they are from an open-ended multi-season television show with a stable core cast -- don't have available major emotional arcs I can tap into. Sure, I could break into their characters and take them on journeys the television show didn't. I don't mind going a little OOC, or even a lot OOC (Out Of Character, a frequent phrase in critiques of fan fiction).

But there's nothing obvious right now. So I'm reading up on Gilgamesh and Sargon of Akkad and Geothermal power generation and Decade Volcanos and Lemuria...and hopefully at some point an idea or two about some nice emotional conflicts will occur to go along with the external grapple-line swinging, pit trap escaping, and gun shooting.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Quick Mix

I didn't intend to do any theater for the rest of this year. Told my new job that. Didn't expect to...until yesterday evening, when I got a frantic email.

Fortunately someone else was bringing gear, and there were two people setting up when I got there. I was mentally prepared for it to be anything from "come back at 9 to help us pack up" to A2 to...well, that was a good thing, because I was FOH. Simple show, though. Three-piece combo, lead vocal, guest tabla, a couple of choir bits.

Unfortunately the mains were set up right behind the band. They liked it -- meant they didn't need monitors -- but meant I couldn't do overhead on the drums or as much as I'd like with piano. Baby grand anyhow, which with a few noted exceptions always sound bad and are impossible to mic. No time for sound check, no rehearsal, no idea what the show was going to entail, so I had to stick with whatever I gambled with in setup and hope it worked.

EV on kick and snare (don't remember the precise models at moment). 57 on the bass cab, and I was glad I had it. Shure PX (sigh) on lead vocal. And tried out my Karma silver bullet on piano -- it was on full stick, so under the lid and as far as it could get from the strings. Wolf tones and nasty harmonics, plus incipient low-end feedback, but possibly better results than I would have gotten with any of my other mics (the Karma is like that...weird, almost indescribable mic and sometimes that's the right choice).

And that's the name of the game some times. Take your best guess from experience, stay calm, react to the changes, and deal with it ahead of time that even if the sound doesn't suck you aren't going to be satisfied with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Imperial Highway I

Overcast day today and not in the good way (aka the way that provides for great pictures). So instead you get a few lousy ones taken by artificial light:

Collected all the pictures I could find, and watched Let's Play videos on YouTube as well to get a sense of the structure. Eyeballed the scale in terms of how big the Dragon Age avatars looked next to it and drew out some rough sketches scaled in Smoots. Borrowed a lead miniature and measured that and came up with a compromise scaling factor of Smoot-to-centimeter.

This was actually my second attempt, refining from the first. There are still compromises (mostly imposed from wanting to be in equal mm or cm for simplicity in transferring measurements, but also due to the fact that the in-game model is, well, a bit of a cludge.) This functions both as a scaleable reference, and as a sanity-check; sometimes you just don't know what the thing really looks like until you mock it up. My feeling is, this is slightly large in some dimensions, but it seems to work.

No point in taking drawings or mock-ups further; the rest of the work takes place on the actual masters:

I was afraid balsa would be too soft and come apart or at least get dented when I was trying to work it. So despite it being tougher to work, I'm attempting this in basswood. The grain is creating some issues, but it seems to seal okay with just paint -- I was prepared to have to seal with superglue in order to get a decent surface.

Also from experiments, Krylon spray-stone gives some (but not all) of the necessary texture. Fortunately I've already learned how to dab and scumble Bondo Spot Putty to get a more interesting surface texture.

Still, all these cut-out arch segments and stone joints are a pain, and if I had the concentration I'd work up a way to laser-cut a bunch of it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Apollo, the last "good" hoax

Some of us enter the great Argument Room of the internet looking for something that fits in with our interest in science. The vast majority of professionals stay away from such arguments; they aren't career advancing, there's plenty of conflict closer to hand with people within their own field (few fields are free of ongoing controversy), and the argument itself is perpetual, more a Monty Python sketch then a purposeful debate that will end in a conclusion.

But sometimes the professionals do speak out, and that is to all our benefit, as that means describing their work and its philosophies and some of its challenges in a way people like me can understand.

Most of what little I know about engineering and a number of hard sciences comes courtesy of people -- engineers, aerospace professionals, also professionals in broadcast engineering, photography, photogrammatry, astronomy -- who saw the misinterpretations, mind-boggling stupidity, and outright lights being promulgated among the host of Apollo Hoax believers and chose to comment.

Again, correction is never going to happen. Or, rather; the people who write books, sell patent medicines or electrum bracelets, create videos for the "History" Channel, or push YouTube videos are never going to be convinced. Nor are many of their followers; the only thing more suspicious than a lack of response, in their eyes, is any response. Nor does any of this speak to the bulk of the crowd, who aren't aware that they actually have a dog in the race and thus take one view or another (more often than not, the conspiratorial view, as that is considered the least conformist) without any particular passion or even any particular attention.

I do believe, however, that the bad ideas are already out there, and they will taint everyone, the reasonable included, if there aren't counters floating around out there as well. And someone has to make those reasoned rebuttals. So I salute the Phil Plaits and the James Randis even as I (and they) understand how akin their books and blogs and other writings are oddly similar to tilting at windmills.

The hoax promulgators also have it easier in that it takes less words, less time, and a lot less math to express a bad idea than it does a good idea. When you get down to it, a lot of pseudo science (conspiracy beliefs included) replace a complex, difficult to understand, difficult to boil down concept with one that is simpler. (They also replace the random with the anthrogenic, the impersonal with the personal, and of course they prefer emotional statements over mathematical arguments!)

Unfortunately, the Apollo Hoax is dead. Really, the nerds won; unlike conspiracy beliefs involving Bigfoot or Mu, the Apollo Hoax was proximate to subjects the Nerd Horde was already primed to pontificate on; hard sciences, in particular, but also the space program.

But, really, the Apollo Hoax did itself in. It came out swinging with Bill Kaysing's book and from those first moments it had apparently decided its weapons of choice were, well, science. It came to the duel and when given weapons of choice chose the one it's opponent was already master of.

Every die-hard Apollo Hoaxie will eventually retreat to the ramparts of emotional argument and grand conspiracy and "were you there" ism. Discussions with them inevitably descend to attempts to game the discussion, then disruptive behavior, and finally angry exits. But their first entrance and their early work is framed in the form of testable scientific hypothesis.

Which is wonderful. Which is why I miss the Apollo Hoax.

Because not only are these testable hypothesis -- say, "Why weren't stars visible in photographs taken on the lunar surface?" -- they are also, to use the physics joke, questions posed in a frictionless vacuum.

Quite literally, in many cases! The nature of the project -- the alien setting, the specific physics of the situations, and the extreme mis-match between the naive expectations of the questioner and what actually arises in that setting -- conspire to create questions with very clear conditions and very clear answers.

You can argue endless whether someone "looked guilty and uncomfortable" in a press conference, but when you phrase something like "The Saturn V could not contain enough fuel to get to the Moon" you have created a simple and testable case. You've removed the engineering and all the second order factors and made what in reality is, well, rocket science into a first-order approximation. Into something as simple as plugging the weights of the system into the Ideal Rocket Equation and looking up the transfer delta-vee for the Earth-Moon journey.

And the questions weren't always physics. The peculiar conditions of the Moon, the alien look to those scenes, the emotional impact of photographs of men on the Moon, and the consistent impetus among all pseudo-science conspiracy believers to place images, and simplistic interpretation of images, foremost (since everything else takes more work and even -- shudder -- professional-level skills) means there are thousands of wonderful Apollo Hoax hypothesis that can be tested with simple geometry.

Can a flag lack a shadow? Can shadows converge? All of these are presented in specific cases which can be put to geometric analysis. (My favorite one was a Jack White, and a little hard to explain. LM, US flag, and high gain antenna photographed from some distance away, with the LM appearing in the center of the group from one photograph, and to the left of the other two in another photograph. Jack White believed this to be impossible. A quick sketch shows how it can be done -- and I leave that exercise to the reader).

The Apollo Hoax stood alone in having interesting problems you could work out yourself and learn a little science from, and putting this foremost in the argument (sure, you can calculate how large the Ark must have been, but that sort of work is ignored as pointless distraction by the people arguing various flavors of Biblical literalism.) And it offered a chance to think about space, to learn more about this fascinating project and the very real challenges they faced (and very clever solutions they came up with).

9-11 Truthers verge into science with their "melting steel" claims but they are incredibly angry people and no fun to talk to. Holohoaxers are just disgusting and don't deserve time wasted on them (sure, one could imagine a reasoned approach to holocaust denial, but scratch a hundred of them and somehow you come up with a hundred antisemitic white supremacists with fascist leanings). Anti-vaxxers are as angry as Truthers but a lot sadder about it (which I would be too, if I bought into it.) And so on and so forth.

If you wanted an argument, then the Argument Clinic is right next door to Getting Hit on the Head Lessons. But Apollo Hoax was something else, a weird mashup between a debating club and word problems in a maths text, like an impromptu orals for a graduate degree in some oddly interdisciplinary science, and that room is rarely open these days.

Friday, December 4, 2015


Sometimes you have to take success where it comes. I've been feeling better this week (possibly due to change in diet). "Repaired" my comforter cover once again by hemming it short over the tear. Done this so many times I've already had to add a strip of fabric to extend it again. Well, this time it got so short I was "short-sheeted" all night -- and it was a cold night, too. So enough of that. Checked out a few websites and there was a Japanese bedding store convenient from my work with a good deal.

Which as it turned out I'd read wrong, and I spent more than I expected -- combination of having already had the thing brought back to the counter, not wanting to waste the drive (or go through another cold night) and not a little impostor syndrome. And sure I was thinking about sewing my own but to get one this good I'd spend close to a hundred on fabric and at least six hours on sewing. Which if you counted as opportunity cost would be more than what I spent (but you can't really do that -- it isn't as if there's six hours of hourly work at the same base rate just waiting around for me to fit it in).

So when all is said and done...mission accomplished. Just not in the way I set out to do it.

Which is often the way it goes. Take my latest prop project. The vacuum former machine is broke, and won't be fixed this year. Why am I paying membership to this place, again? So a re-think. I'm still flirting with either laser engraving or CNC wood routing, but right now the idea that offers the best in capture of surface detail, lightweight yet sufficiently robust/rigid, and ease of duplication (I might be making as many as twelve bridge segments) is casting in Smooth-Cast 300 plastic. Might cast around some styrene or aluminium stiffeners, or even metal if I chose to go with magnets to hold all the parts together.

I haven't figured out yet how best to interlock the pieces, and how to mold the resultant. I'm okay with slush-cast molds but still inexperienced at block molds (which might make it good reason to do it this way). And one other detail I'm fairly sure of; I'm going to do the actual casting at work instead of smelling up my kitchen with it.

So I've got a pile of basswood and similar now, and once I've solved the dimensional adjustments the foam-core mock-up showed me I needed, it is off with the traditional tools (aka x-acto and sandpaper) and try to put some nice detail into the masters. Need to seal the surface of the wood pretty good -- might just skin everything with Bondo so I can put a basic texture on the surface. And oh, yes -- I'm pretty much out of Apoxie Sculpt as well.

At least as of the moment, the only part TechShop will play in this prop now is potentially 3d-printing some fluted columns.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Where'd my notebook go?

I have a plan for the new prop. And barely enough time. I worked out the schedule, and at least I know what I need to do by when to get it finished. Basic plan now -- this is scenery for a table-top role-playing game -- is create the shapes in (mostly) MDF, then vacuum-form ABS or styrene (which can be glued) and reinforce as necessary -- probably with laser-cut acrylic.

I've been meaning to do an MDF sculpt for a while, plus of course intending to use that for my vacuum forming bucks. Not entirely sure some of the steps -- going to try to find time to try laser engraving (tinkered with idea of CNC routing but doesn't look like the best option for this project).

Put up the latest Tomb Raider/SG1 chapter, and probably going to be a while before I actively work on it again. But I think I have some ideas now that would be fun to do, that give me opportunities to mix and match the casts a little and give them new challenges, gives me space to talk about stuff I'm interested...and doesn't abet the cause of pseudo-archaeology.

There are papers being written in mainstream journals now about pseudo-archaeology -- but not about the inane theories themselves: instead, about the history and anthropology of the beliefs and their creators.

And, yeah, I like that stuff too. The story of Mu is a fascinating one. How the Atlantis myth came to be is also interesting, although potentially more interesting is how it plays into various themes of diffusionism, racial superiority, millenialism, etc. And tucked under some of the same waters is Lemuria, a sad case of something that came about from doing actual good science but going too far (basically, inventing biogeography but, not having Continental Drift yet to explain some of the dispersion, inventing an entire new continent). Lemuria rapidly evolved from being a mere land bridge to being a lost civilization, and spawned its own parallel flock of Atlantis-like legends of super-science and hidden civilizations. One of which threads ended up in, of all places...Mount Shasta in California!

And, yeah, that's where I'm going, but it wouldn't be stretching to say I'm going to bring up and talk about these theories but not a single one will actually turn out to be true. I'm basically going full Eco here; they'll back into the real conspiracy while exploring the fake one. I haven't quite divvied up the cast yet. SG1 is a lot more of an ensemble show, when you get right down to it; Tomb Raider has a lot fewer available cast members (especially as I remain constrained mostly to the first two games of the Crystal Dynamics continuity, aka "Anniversary" and Legend.)

So here they are, in current sketch form:

Desert: Looking for alien interference (where none exists) in the brief but colorful reign of Akhenaten, I get to talk about our favorite Pharaoh. But eventually someone does some remote sensing and discovers a Tomb Raider scale buried temple complex out in the middle of nowhere. Possibly connected with Iram of the Pillars (because why wouldn't you?) and possibly containing some high tech other than the whiff of naquadah that first leads them to it, and almost certainly not Egyptian anyhow...Assyrian or Sumerian is leading right now by a Lammasu-length.

Underwater: Because the really good games have underwater sequences, right? All I've got right now is Yonaguni Monument but there are plenty of other places to look for something. And I don't have to stay there; many of these might only be the jumping-off point with the big "tomb" somewhere else.

Volcano Base: Mount Shasta, getting there via Mu and Lemuria naturally, but discovering something very different. Probably several layers; pre-contact indigenous civilizations, of course (perhaps touching on Mound Builders and Copper Culture?) up to something as Elon Musk-and-white-cat-ish as the ridiculously oversized and still oddly semi-functional remains of a gobsmackingly ill-conceived government plan to provide geothermal power to the entire Pacific Coast by monkeying around with a only-barely dormant volcano. And perhaps under all that is something akin to the Ring of Fire machinery Natla tried to start up in TRU?

Tomb Raider in Space! Start with the Antikythera Mechanism (hey, I've already used the Voynich...) and make one change; add a fragmentary and much-disputed extra dial that could be used to track...that variously named and never-goes-away tenth (ninth -- sorry, Pluto) planet between Jupiter and Mars. And where that ends up I don't know -- space is probably out -- but I can have Lara talking to astronomers, learning history of radio astronomy, hanging out at the VLA or, better yet, Jodrell Bank...

So the only game location I'm really missing here is Jungle. Did I mention I got a really, really wonderful gift? It is a hand-inked reproduction on animal skin (goat, I'm betting) of the King Pakal sarcophagus lid. Purchased in Palenque and to the best of my knowledge made there.

But, no, I can't go Pakal's Spaceship. Plato is fine, even Augustus le Plongeon is an interesting character, but I just can't bring myself to go full Von Dannikan.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Up, Down

Got nine hours of sleep and woke naturally instead of by alarm. And I'm cresting on the manic side of my sometimes bipolar disposition. Ideas seem to come easily, I feel energetic. Which founders a little when I realize how little time there is, really, before I have to be back at work, and mentally list all the necessary tasks (laundry, time with family, etc.) that will cut into that time.

Had to put the drawing pad aside because I have a prop that is fast coming due and I need work space to tinker on it. And I really should keep up the prop work -- I'm not going broke while working full time, like I was last time I tried it, but I'm also not making as much above expenses as I'd like. A few bucks here and there from prop making would be welcome, and it is a lot more interesting then what I'm currently doing for work...and I've a paid-up year of membership at TechShop going to waste if I don't.

Ah, but I've been listening to podcasts on history and archaeology (and a little science) almost non-stop over the past several weeks of building cabinets and pulling PC boards from recycled electronics. So yesterday I finally made a break-through on planning that Tomb Raider fanfic I've been using as my sole writing outlet aside from this blog. I know where I am going to go with it now, right out to the coda. I'm just not real sure how to do it.

Through the past fourteen chapters and eighty thousand words I've sent "adventure archaeologist" (and video game character) Lara Croft after a mystery involving the ancient Egyptian god Horus. In the process of tracking the Tears of Horus from Malta and Tripoli, from under Colonel Gaddafi's eyes to the Giza Plateau and right smack in the middle of the Valley of Kings, she's ran into increasing clues about a different mystery of Pre-Dynastic Egypt; the fantastical "Ancient Astronauts" inspired back-story of the movie and television show(s) Stargate.

In true fan fiction cross-over fashion I've now got the major characters of the two properties together, and brought the two plots together to the point where the current incarnation of Horus the Elder has apparently mind-controlled Lara into getting him into Stargate command, where he used the titular Stargate to escape Earth.

And, yeah, I had some vague ideas as to what his big plan was, a climactic scene and some key revelations to come. But I basically started writing from a yacht moored off Comino with no larger intent then to put Lara Croft and the Stargate universes' resident Adventure Archaeologist Daniel Jackson into the same room and watch the sparks fly. So there isn't exactly a tight outline I've been following!

I'm pretty proud of how it has developed and I've got a decent following over at Fanfiction dot net now. My big set piece was a multi-chapter exploration into Prague Castle and environs after the Kunstkammer of Rudolph II, And it's not so much that I got to fold in so much in the way of legends and history from the Teutonic Knights out to discovery of the Galilean Satellites, but that when I was done it all seemed to hold together in a way that looked like it had been carefully planned!

This mystery wrapped in enigma served with a side of red potatoes and cabbage became an exploration through layer after layer into the past; from a brief discussion of the period of communist rule before the Velvet Revolution, to evidence of SS/Ahnenerbe investigation (and their fancy but not entirely practical "security system" for Lara to apply her trademark climbing and gymnastic to), to the dawn of the Age of Reason with the astronomers and naturalists and psychics and charlatans who surrounded one of the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, and back down through the rabbit hole of Christian symbolism and Hermeticism and grail legends and the tenuous link to the imagined glories of Rome until I could last spring Rabbi Lowe's grand creation, the Golem of Prague -- and tie it all finally back to the Tears of Horus I'd started with!

That was almost three months ago, though. I've been trying to figure out whether I am at the Act II/III turn-around now with 40% or less of the story still to go, or whether to let it expand further. I've been trying to work out what Lara's personal arc is; there's a great space here to really push on her guilt and fear and bring her to her worst crisis before she starts on her way back up and towards eventual victory but I don't know if that fits within the larger story arc. And of course I needed to figure out the set-pieces and major building blocks of the rest of the story.

Well, I know what I want to try now. And it is complicated. I was tempted for a while to go right through the Stargate and put one last "tomb" (aka the central mechanic of any of the games Lara Croft had featured in) with a climax involving a difficult climb, and then go to a not particularly conclusive conclusion.

Instead I'm taking a slightly longer path. I'm stealing a trick I first saw in a Travis McGee mystery. Basically, they try to warn others (specifically the Asgard, the "good guy" aliens of the Stargate universe) about Horus, but are told the ex-god had gained their trust through various good works.

So I'm going to split the party, and send small teams made up from combinations of both casts (Tomb Raider's and Stargate's) to explore three or more archaeological mysteries, attempting to discover what Horus had been up to in the misty past and if he indeed was being as nice a god as the Asgard think.

And then bringing everyone back together and wrapping up with a Boss Fight and (on the falling action) a crazy free-for-all between Asgard and allies against the renegade "Frost Giant" faction and their pal Horus the Elder.

But my problem now is a bit worse than finding three interesting mysteries of the past to explore. And more than the constraints that these activities of Horus need to fall somewhere between 3,000 BC and (preferably) on or before the 18th Dynasty (which is actually really convenient, as it falls right in the right zone to play around with the Boy King Tut, Nefertiti, and of course the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten,)

No, the big problem is that with all these archaeology podcasts and all I'm awakening to the emotional realization that this material (and the way the schema of the Stargate universe exemplifies the conflict) is exactly the same as the anti-science conspiracy theories -- Creationism and Apollo Hoax and anti-vaxxers -- that I've been arguing against for a good decade now.

I'm having more and more trouble twisting real history and science here; the excuse of "it's just for a story" is no longer working for me. So, yeah, although it would be trivially easy to reach into that wide-lipped candy jar of existing psuedo-archaeology; Pakal's Spaceship and the Copper Culture and Giant Nephilim with "double rows of teeth" I feel obligated to be scholarly, to stay closer to the bounds of real history and archaeology, to debunk some of the demon-haunted detritus of cable-channel misinformation, and to bring out some of the fascinating material that is out there in the real world.

And so with all that, my net is pretty wide at the moment. I'd like to send Lara Croft and her current companions to North America (because that, and pretty much everything from Turkey through Pakistan and down the length of the Arabian Peninsula has yet, to my knowledge, to be featured in a Tomb Raider game)*, England (because there's no better way to show off Croft Manor and to convince her stay-at-home team to come out and play a little), and Malta (both for general interest and as a book-end to how I started the story).

I'm also thinking of  Iram of the Pillars, because not only is a lost city cool, but it's in one of my zones of "a game hasn't done this yet" -- and I've already mentioned a previous search for it in my narrative. White Island is mildly tempting, as is something properly polar (possibly even Mountains of Madness). And I have a hankering to bring some Assyrian lammassu out to play -- Tomb Raider games have done sea serpents and centaurs already, and they'd fit right in. I also see I (albiet unintentionally) laid the groundwork for satellite discovery of some entirely unknown (and suitably massive) architecture to be discovered somewhere (perhaps in that handy rub al' khali).

But whatever I go with, there's a bit of work yet before I can write any of it. That's the thing about comic book science and's a lot faster.

* I believe "Rise of the Tomb Raider corrects that omission.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sequential Art: Composition and Perspective

Every panel is a little picture (or, in the case of a splash page, a not-so-little-picture). Every panel, however, does not need to be a complete picture.

Within the framework of a page, a comic, background and atmosphere are established, characters and their positions are shown, dialog happens. But it doesn't have to be in every panel; there's carry-over.

Detail is also an element of pacing. A more detailed panel invites the eye to stay longer. A panel without background detail suggests that you should move through it quickly. So both action shots and big dialog sections can actually benefit from reducing the detail and the extraneous information.

Each panel also needs to be harmonious on the page. The composition, the direction of thrust, the eye leading, the weight of shading; none of these can be chosen entirely by the needs of that specific piece of art, but need be modulated by the needs of the page around them.

That said, all the compositional elements and tricks are available.

Rule of Thirds: the focal point is rarely center. But this is a little more complex in sequential art, when there is activity taking place in the space between panels. The space of air in an individual panel is also a potential focus. To go back to the fist-swinging hero, the true focus of the panel is where his fist is going to be when that blow connects; the air between him and his target.

As a general rule, any panel should only have one prime focus. It can have multiple foci, but the others are subordinate. This gives a better balance in most cases.

Depth Planes: every panel is a window into space. It helps to shape that space by having elements that are foreground, mid-ground, and background. Obviously there may be more levels than that in a practical sense, but thinking in terms of three major, contrasting, planes makes for a clearer design. And when working within the constraints of inked borders and color fills, this division opens up possibilities such as making one of the planes a neutral silhouette.

Related to this, many of the masters recommend using three distinct values, and placing them so the largest contrast occurs between two of them; a dark foreground, a light mid-ground, a middle background, for instance.

Shot: every panel is a shot, and part of your overall shot scheme (including pushing in for emphasis, respecting the Line of Action, etc). Camera distance from subject and camera angle to subject nuances the emotional reaction to the subject, the more so when contrasted with the shots used in surrounding panels.

Perspective: although real perspective is complex, each panel should have a single overarching perspective scheme that frames the contents. A room is presented with specific, strong lines that help to define the deep space of the panel for the reader, even if there are elements in the room (chairs, say), that are angled to that scheme and required their own perspective plotting.

Perspective works hand in hand with the camera shot and the thrust of the panel; a long look down a foreboding corridor that leads the eye, points towards the goal, frames the focus, and is presented in strong 1-point-perspective, as one for-instance.

And it is worth repeating that many panels can be thought of as a "talking head" or an "insert" shot, where almost none of the above is used, or used minimally. But check out Wally Wood's "22 Panels that Work" for a masterful demonstration of multiple ways to break up the "talking head" shots and give interest to the conversation.

I have, or have read, over a dozen books on perspective, plus various tutorials. Above everything else I have ever seen, I recommend -- I strongly recommend -- "Vanishing Point" by Jason Cheeseman-Meyer.

It explains perspective. It explains it for a working artist (who doesn't have time to geometrically solve every loose card strewn on a poker table), and it gives things you simply don't see anywhere else. Curvilinear perspective, for instance. But even more than any of the above, it has stuff on how to figure out where to put the vanishing points. How to place them so you don't get that disturbing distortion. Tools that are simple, easy to understand and apply.

My preferred procedure is to rough out the page in thumbnail. I really should be making full thumbnails of each panel, or a cleaner rough, but right now I'm trying to draw faster, not neater. The next step is roughing in the panel plan, with lightly penciled contents, on the full sized sheet of paper.

Once I've seen the contents of a panel will fit and work, the lightly penciled freehand of the panel will form a guideline as to the perspective tools.

These fall into several rough classes. Some panels are essentially without perspective; either flat, or in planes. This doesn't mean the contents don't have individual perspective, but a talking head can be drafted as a head without having to construct horizon lines for the scene around it.

I always put a horizon line in, even if it is just a reminder of eye height in the scene.

Certain panels lend themselves to single-point perspective. I find this can be cleaner and make for a sharper focus. Even a complex city-scape may be nothing more than single-point.

Panels with boxes in them usually fall into 2-point. Here we get into traditional perspective; draw the horizon line at observer's eye height, plot two arbitrary points on it. I find -- again referring to Rule of Thirds -- it seems to work best to have one point in frame, and the other out of the frame. This latter point is usually realized by taping a ruler or other extension to the drawing board.

This is why for most perspective methods it works best to set up the vanishing points, and run reference lines to them (free-hand for a looser or organic scene, gridded equidistant for more technical/architectural scenes), and then put away those tools and proceed to draw the rest of the panel free-hand on those references.

Drama really comes with 3PP. In plotting these, the first advice I can give comes from Stan "The Man" himself; draw the first two points as you normally would, then drop the third "at some arbitrary distance" above or below the horizon line. A word here; bricks and buildings and so forth look decent only when they fall within the triangle (or between the two vanishing points of 2-point). Take a corner too close to a VP and it starts to look weird.

This is because, of course, artistic perspective is a cheat. It is an unreal tool that plots three-dimensional reality on to two-dimensional paper in a way that agrees with how our brains typically process the three-dimensional reality around us as captured through point sources (aka our pupils). The real world may have straight edges but we don't actually see them that way as projected through our eye, any more than they photograph that way (no matter which particular scheme the camera lens maker has used to try to distort the projection to better suit our preconceived perceptions).

And, yes, there are people who plot out parquet floors in exquisite detail. If you want to draw like M.C. Escher, then go right ahead. I want to draw a comic book before I turn grey. So I draw rough guidelines and fake the rest.

Yes, I will rule major lines back to the vanishing points when it seems required. But for the most part, the most elaborate I get is to construct a grid. Here's simple geometry; make tick-marks an equal distance apart and draw lines from them to the vanishing point. Draw a diagonal line through them. Now lines drawn perpendicular to the edge you measured will be equidistant in perspective -- as long as you make sure to draw them where the diagonal intersects the first lines.

Ah, but how deep is the shape? For that, unfortunately, one needs to plot a couple additional points. These are basically the lens width; putting these closer together flattens the image like a telephoto, putting them further apart makes the depth stretch Vertigo-style. (That's in one-point -- two-point is slightly different).

As I said above, in my own particular art style many panels don't need elaborate perspective. I can fake up a figure with nothing but a horizon line, and maybe some arbitrary scribbles on the figure itself to remind myself where the vanishing points are.

The last thing I want to mention is how helpful it was to load up a second mechanical pencil with red leads. This lets me put down perspective guidelines that won't confuse me later during development or inking. Even if it is just one horizon line...or a dot helpfully labeled "V.P."

Need a Vacation

Fourteen weeks now, finishing up my third full month, and I really need a short vacation to recharge. I'm still hourly, though, meaning no days off (other than official holidays). It was quite a change; going from freelance work (which averaged the same or more hours per week but tended to space them differently) to being up at 5 AM every weekday morning for what is often tough physical work. And I'm not that young anymore, either.

I still can't figure why I'm dragging so much after work. I used to do 10-14 hour days all the time. Is it just that my freelance schedule was more like three or four twelve-hour days in a row followed by several days off? Or does it have something to do with the specific clock I'm on -- a wake-up hours before dawn, and corresponding (attempt) to sleep while my neighbors are still (noisily) up?

I have the option to play with my start time. They are a little less eager to try shorter days -- even though I'm getting so much done in 40/week I'm catching up on a wish-list that's been around for months if not years. Otherwise, I'm pretty much playing Alaska Fisheries Summer; the rest of my life on hold while I earn some money. I've got a few $K of credit card debt to pay off, and even at just barely over minimum wage I'm still looking at cleaning that out within a year.

Well, this weekend I stayed in Friday eve and most of Saturday, barely stirring for a quick dinner out. Today I'm doing better; cleaned in the kitchen, mostly (which also functions as my shop, so is a bigger project than it sounds.) Cleaned up my hard disk a little (including shifting more files to DropBox so I won't lose them if someone steals this machine). And cleaned out some of the random electronics and tossed more stuff in a box of "to be recycled or dumped." I'm not a hoarder: when I was making less than six hundred a month the only way I could produce props and other arts and crafts projects was by using a ton of recycled material.

Now I'm no longer doing things theater style. Theater is an industry about being ludicrously short of time and money -- ludicrously, because on this budget they are expected to produce spectacular vistas and effects and reproduce scenes of opulence. I'm still shy of money but I'm even more crunched for time, so it makes sense to continue moving in a CAD-based, small-scale fabrication pipeline rather than spend time sorting through piles of odds and ends hoping to find something that can be modified without too much work.

And speaking of which: I've got a prop coming due, which I need to start pushing on and hence will be blogging about within the week.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sequential Art: Story and Panels

Over the next few posts I'm going to walk through some of the steps of drawing a comic book page. Why? There are already good books out there and I'm a lousy artist anyhow. The reason is entirely selfish; explaining it out helps me sort things out in my own mind.

That also means these posts are not going to cover everything. They aren't even going to try to be complete. They are going to be more like a list of notes, of things I've found useful to get around the specific weaknesses of my own skills and the particular goals I currently have.

So, before I say anything else, those books I mentioned:

Making Comics by Scott McCloud. Filled with stuff, fun to read, inspiring. This is the desert island book for comic book art; if you only get one, get this. Both practical and very deep.

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema. It is thin, brushes over important details, but is not just a fast and entertaining read but is also the most concise and to-the-point review of the entire process you will see anywhere.

And you are pretty much good here. You can get a few of the ever-growing How to Draw Manga series if you like -- even when you aren't interested in the specific subject listed on the cover, they tend to be fairly interchangeable boxes of interesting and potentially useful tidbits and, of course, general inspiration. But once you have Scott McCloud, your next purchases should really be anatomy and perspective and rendering books. Which I'll go into in later posts.

But if you really must keep collecting general texts...

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner. This book goes deep (deeper I suspect than Scott, but also more difficult to follow). It is also more narrowly focused on specific aspects of translating story to sequential art. There is almost nothing here on how to art, or even how to story; it is all about how to handle that specific narrative form. It is also, honestly, mostly a showcase for Will's work -- but unlike the lamentable Cris Hart books, at least the art is worth it.

The Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel by Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber. Gets a nod here mostly because no other book even touches on how to cut a page into panels. This book is wordy; thin on graphics, and often too abstract, but it does provide an overview (and a more detailed one than the Stan Lee perennial.)

That will do for now. For the specifics of today's post, however, I am also going to mention one other book:

The Five C's of Cinamatography by Joseph Mascelli. The reason this book gets recommended will become clear shortly...I hope.

Not actually going to talk about story here. Story is story, whatever the medium. Sequential Art has specific needs that have to be solved in developing story. There are specifics also in genre expectations, and restrictions imposed by the format. The pacing, length, kinds of beats, the strengths of the medium are also specific.

Be that as it may.

I develop in Scrivener now. I find it is useful to establish a Scrivener text page for each comic page, and try to write out the dialog before hand. I use Scrivener to document my plans for page and panel layout and similar, but the actual planning of the graphical end of things is on a sketchpad.

Scrivener is also useful, of course, for keeping research notes, reference images (you can import, scale, and crop), and text samples both for spacing and as a reference for special effects fonts (which I have been hand-drawing).

Once the story exists, the next problem is how to tell it graphically. Pages take time to read, panels take time to read; roughly, the perceived narrative pacing is changed by increasing or decreasing the number of pages used, and the size of panels used. A series of small panels reads quickly and tends to feel like a lot is happening. A large panel feels more contemplative -- given a static scene it can read as a great deal of time passing, but given a moment of action can also read as a slow-motion shot for dramatic emphasis.

Before you get too crazy on figuring how decompressed you want to be, however, figure out how much space your dialog is going to take up. A lot of talk means a lot of pages, period. There's only so small you can make the lettering. And panels that are 70% filled with text "read" a lot differently than panels which are mostly art. The former can't help be perceived as "talky" and somewhat static, like a "Thin Man" movie.

I'm using computer lettering, and it is only a little measuring to figure out how big it will be on the original un-reduced artwork. I know for instance that a single-line balloon needs to be 3/4" of an inch high in the pencil art. For the length, however, I'm just typing up the dialog on the computer in the same font and roughly eyeballing it for proportion. I think I used to measure; it isn't much labor to simply set the text to display at exactly "print" size and hold a ruler up to the monitor.

For a while there I was leaving a space for the balloon and constructing it to size in PhotoShop after typing out the dialog there. But doing the balloons in ink makes them more organic and fit closer with the drawing. And is faster, overall. I'm all about faster. (Which is the primary reason I no longer hand-letter).

For me, at the current time, the strongest tool for figuring out what is going to fall on what page is understanding the rhythm. The pace, the division of meter (aka how often do panels fall), and the beats. I'm drawing a four-panel strip currently as well as a monitor-proportions web comic for instance, and for each I'm working to hit a "beat" at the end of the each page.

The four-panel format basically ends on a joke or a "take." It is a well-established form. For a master, look no further than Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary; long multi-arc stories, yet every single weekday strip hits that comic beat before closing.

With the larger page, I'm able to use the page break in other ways; as a convenient "chapter" divider, as a cliff-hanger, as a punchline. And that gives me a lot of options to consider while planning the pages. Right now I've got a party of adventurers approaching a dragon's cave. Is it best to finish a page with a hero shot of the cave, or will it work better to hold that reveal across the break by having the adventurer's say "Here we are..." and then have the cave itself shown after a page turn? (And, actually, due to other story beats I'm having to consider, I'm taking a third option).

And, yeah, there's a lot more to say, but I'm going to move on to something I both find personally difficult, and something that is annoyingly almost never discussed in any of the "How to Draw..." books. And that is panels.

How to panelize a page. Even the four-panel "newspaper" strip has choices. And, yeah, you can (and many have) go through an entire book on the same equal divisions, but it gives you potentially useful artistic choices to break up the panel size. And more. Odd-shaped panels, open space between panels, overlapping panels, panel breaks, full bleeds, even material that exists outside of the panel.

(The latter I think of as a Shoujo Manga technique. They particularly like doing a full-length figure outside the panel arrangement, the better to show off details of an outfit. Of course many manga fill inter-panel space and gutters with flowers, snowflakes, whatever.)

Panel size and shape and arrangement can nuance the pacing and flow. There are also certain arrangements that tap into the shared language; a series of small overlapping panels, for instance, can be easily interpreted as snapshots of a single contiguous action.

But parallel to the needs to shape panels to speed or slow the eye and break or jump appropriately to emphasize moments or to create pauses, there is the need of panels to, well, hold their contents.

Which brings us to blocking. Because before you can finish cutting out the panels you really need to figure out the way the story is being told visually. Close-up shots versus establishing shots, for instance. High angles versus dutch angles. Two-shots versus talking heads.

And, yeah, I've found one of the things that it really helps to keep track of when blocking your cast and planning your shots is the Line of Action. This is the subject of the 180-degree rule; if Sally is on the left of the frame and Richard on the right, you confuse the viewer by having them switch places. This doesn't mean you can't go over-the-shoulder for Sally and for Richard, though; you just have to visualize that imaginary line running between them and keep the camera on the same side of it.

This is where cinematography sources are so helpful. For a masterful dissection of a, well, masterful sequence making creative use of the Line of Action and Match Cuts and other tools, look no further than the analysis at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels (a storyboard artist's blog) of the truck chase sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And, yeah, I shouldn't have to say it, but if you are doing multiple panels of the same scene or even in the same setting, then draw a map. Work out where the people are. Heck; Gerhard (the background artist for Dave Sim's Cerebus) spent so much time in the same city he made a scale model of it to keep his backgrounds consistent.

A couple other helpful notes. Scott McCloud talks about the space between the panels. Often, things are understood to be happening between panels. You rarely see a punch land in a superhero comic book, for instance; the usual shot is right after the punch, with the hittee reacting to it.

A panel is a thin slice of time. You can't have multiple actions that each require a beat; you can't have in a single panel someone entering a room, seeing someone they didn't expect, then backing out again. can cheat a little. Since we read left to right and top to bottom, you can in some cases have more than one thing happening in order through the panel in that reading direction. (Remember, however, that the reader's eye will also grab towards the large or contrasty or otherwise focal points, and may chose to perceive those as happening first in the narrow slice of time concerned).

Oh, yeah. And as tempting as it may be to use odd-sized panels in whatever arrangement fits the material best, you can't force the reader to follow them in order. You can only make it so the instinctive direction the eye goes is indeed the panel you want read next.

There's a lot more to consider about what should be in the panel, from focus to eye leading to rule of thirds...but this bleeds into material I intend to cover in following posts. Suffice to say that the process of breaking up a story into the actual pages, the process you will undertake using rough page layouts and thumbnail sketches, is one that straddles and borrows from story telling and the actual "art" art; light and shadow and perspective and so on.

And, yeah. My big weaknesses here are still thinking in form, thinking in deep space, and thinking in color (or even in lighting and shade) when I am planning panels.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

It Never Fails

I'm interested in just too many things. I seem to work at a skill until I get relatively facile at it, use it for a relatively short while, then move on to something different.

Partly I can blame future shock. Software, in particular, moves so quickly, by the time you learn how to use something and work around the flaws and have finally set up everything so you can actually do productive work with it...the software changes. I can't name how many times I re-organized patch libraries on my many generations of synthesizers, but I'd guess it is comparable to the number of songs I actually wrote over the same interval!

As usual, Randall said it better:

So every now and then, I gather up all the tools and supplies and parts, and as much of the mental baggage as I can manage, for one specific field and put it away in the back of a closet. "I just don't see having time to do electronics again," I said -- just before the Arduino and the AVR made it possible for me to start doing things I'd only dreamed were possible.

This week, a random question by a friend in another forum got me thinking about drawing again. Drawing, which I said last post I was going to put away in the back of the closet and try not to begrudge the hours I spent trying to learn it.

And, yes; I dusted off my drafting machine, found my pencil leads, and indeed have been drawing this week. Or at least trying to. I struggled to get beyond scribbles for the whole week and most of the weekend, and only really on Sunday afternoon did it break and I started to pencil.

I draw lousy. Basically, I'm a plodder. I can construct a drawing using all the technical tools, but I can't capture a gesture or do a caricature or otherwise do a sketch. Not one that has any life to it. I pretty much fell into pen-and-ink through a love of fantasy book interior illustrations and similar, and developed this in the direction of comic book art of a particular era; the kind of clean lines and vigor and simplicity of Herge and John Byrne and Alex Raymond and so forth.

I was never terribly attracted by the broken-felt-tip look of many underground comics (and currently, many web comics), and as I said I totally lack the kind of brain that can do true cartooning in the Schultz or Mort Walker mode.

But this kind of careful anatomy and drapery and detailed machinery and above all strong emphasis on line is horrible for my particular faults. I get lost in the line, I draw and erase and draw and erase chasing the line, and I lose all track of the actual form that line is supposed to be describing.

So for quite a while every drawing I've made has been one more plodding step with my shoulder behind it, trying to work with forms and shadows and what Hogarth (an otherwise useless teacher) calls "Deep Space."

Not helped by the fact that I have a not-so-sneaking love for the constructionist methods, and that these are necessary tools for the experts I'm trying to emulate...and these are of course the tools I wanted to talk about to my friend.

Constructing perspective, gridding it out even, working up figures with action lines and proportion tricks (like the stack-of-heads method), plotting shadow directions even. These are the sorts of problems that caused me before I put down the drawing tools the previous time to load up mechanical pencils with red and blue leads; the red for panel borders and perspective guidelines, the blue for anatomical studies underlying the final detailed figure.

I'm also working with two grades of pencil lead; one hard (in an attempt to sketch out the shapes and rough in everything without turning the paper all dark and smudgy) and a softer one to cut in the final details.

So I'm getting a little better at holding back on lines and drafting mostly shapes, to solve the actual linework when I come back and ink. And, yes; this is part of the problem of having focused in the direction of comic book art. I think in practically Marvel Method terms; story, pencil, ink, dialog, color. Although at least I've learned to plan in the dialog balloons during the pencil stage!

This is "fun" stuff because there is just so much to watch. Like writing fiction, it is like juggling cats. There's just so much in the air you really have no hope of catching it all. Or not getting scratched. Although the more you work at it, the more you are tracking various issues without having to consciously remind yourself to do so.

In writing, I'm almost where I instinctively pace out dialog and description and page count, work my way towards beats and the build to intermediate climaxes, and hold in my head multiple lines I'm trying to thread at the same time.

In drawing, I'm hoping to eventually be able to internalize where I think in deep space, am conscious of light and where the color blocks are going to fall in the final composition, keep within the perspective, keep figures in scale, watch both the action line and the Line of Action, avoid tangents, etc.

At the moment, it is hardly internalized. So I'm missing stuff all the time. The best I can do is just try to keep drawing. To keep pushing myself not to get bogged down in detail but to move on and do better the next time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Math is Hard

My state's minimum wage is $9 an hour -- going up to $10 in January. My home town is a little pricier, though, being a college town and all, so they are already at $10.

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in this town is $2,800.

There's an average of 170 working hours in a month. That's...significantly shy. To pay for that single bedroom a household would have to work 280 hours. Or put another way; TWO people sharing that apartment and working full time would be spending over 80% of their income on rent.

That is not 30% of income (the traditional marker of affordability). It's not even close. It's not even in the same discussion.

Okay, maybe the average is too nice. We're talking minimum wage, right? So what's the cheapest place in this town? Harder to get numbers, but looks like anything below $1,000 is going to be one of those golden finds you hear people talk about... but don't plan your budget around being able to find it yourself.

The place I'm at, not terribly close to anything, no parking, extremely small -- these aren't even 1-bedroom, but studios roughly the size of a 1-car parking space -- is currently asking $1,300.  That's 76% of that hypothetical full-time job at minimum wage, there.

At least you can cook. Because one has to be ready to reply to the glib answers -- "the rents are a lot cheaper on the other side of the freeway" and "a room is cheaper." The reply being; everything costs money. If you can't cook at home, your total costs go up. If you are far from work and/or good transportation, your costs go up.

Something is off here, is all I'm saying. I don't know who the minimum wage is for, but it isn't for anyone who rents. Not if they want to eat as well.

(I've got rent control, and I am making more than minimum wage. So based on my gross, I'd be theoretically paying 38% of my income for rent. Fortunately I have a second job as live-in manager. But that's hours, too....)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

na no wri mo · bo tro go so · mo flo

For about thirty years, it was never easier (and may never be easier again) to write that first million words. Because it was easy to let go of them. I have old stories in Wordstar and MacWrite, tucked away on broken hard drives, stored on floppy disks and microtape

Yes: even though the formats are largely proprietary and the physical medium difficult to find readers for, I could probably rescue some of these. But, like the old game files that got a serious mildew attack in the back of the closet, it is also easy to throw them away and not look back.

Before that, one had to depend on the manuscripts getting lost in a move to a new city (but they have a terrible habit of coming back to light again). In the very near future, we can probably look forward to the increasingly corporate IP-friendly internet structure losing the creative output of us mere lowly consumers somewhere in the Cloud.

Yes -- that is this morning's thoughts, as I prepare to donate my Kaypro IIx and my Convergent Technologies Workslate and my pair of Wallstreet Powerbooks to a computer museum (or, more likely, the local salvage yard). The last Frankenmac is gone already (this was the 6100 "pizza box" case with a 7100 mobo crammed into it and a G3 daughtercard on top of that.) Oh, but there's still a G3 box on the floor as I glean the last old files off its hard drive over Ethernet. And a couple of MacBooks (Aluminium and Titanium) I drag out to run sound designs on when I don't want to leave my main production computer at the theater.

Except that hasn't happened in a while. I promised my new job I'd give them a minimum of a full year. And that I had no plans of even doing a couple weekends on a design until the new year. 

So that's why the plan is still to toss out as much of the random sound gear, the stuff I kept for emergencies, the stuff I never get around to sorting and testing, the stuff that I already know is broken.

Along with cartooning and drafting supplies, prop-making supplies, old synthesizers (I still have a JV880 and a Roland W30 cluttering up the place)...and any of that first million words I find lying around in physical form that I can bring myself to toss.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Farewell to Aux

I haven't mixed in what feels like quite a while.

Well, there was this children's show (adult actors performing for children in a tour of K-12 schools). I can't remember the last time I mixed a band, though -- even a pit band.

The last two months have passed in a bit of a haze, I fear. Get up (far too early), work all day, return home to collapse, eat a little, run only the most necessary errands. Interrupted only fitfully by pretty much random things; a little car repair, a Maker Faire, a prop order to complete. Nothing much to remember, nothing really worth reporting. No big projects, no long-term life goals.

Heck, I still haven't adapted to "the show that never opens." Instead I'm just struggling to get to work every morning and somehow stay fed and get a little sleep and the bare necessities of clean clothes and rent checks and so forth.

Spent today more-or-less reviewing. I've learned so many things, I can get lost for hours and hours just trying to brush up and maintain existing skills. And I have so many memories and life experiences I can get lost for a similarly long time just trying to review them. What was that movie I once saw? Where was the place I visited, who were the people I knew.

Last weekend was a memorial for a family friend. I spent a big chunk of it getting re-acquainted with his kids; these were the neighborhood kids when we were growing up, the closest in our circle of friends, the kids from across the street. Who have kids of their own now. Life is what happened to you while you were distracted.

I'm working full-time but it is practically grunt work. The decades I've spent learning theater craft (or learning to mix, or any of my other skills) are largely untouched by this. Theater doesn't pay well, but I'm getting significantly less per hour now; the trade-off being steady work instead of seasonal. So far, the main way that trade-off has worked in my advantage is that only now am I seeing a bunch of positions being offered (sound design, ME position, plus lots of load-in load-out). The dry spell was almost three months, and three months is a long time between paychecks even if the checks are bigger on average.

So I still dunno.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Persistence of Memory

So the department I work in does all sorts of odd jobs around the factory. Yesterday was resetting the clocks to account for leaving Daylight Savings time. Most of the clocks can be manually set, and that's no biggie. Several of the wall clocks are, however, fancy digital models that get the time wirelessly.

I'm told that in previous years my boss or others would struggle for up to a week, setting the clocks manually only to have them reset themselves digitally during the night.

The controls on the back are extremely non-informative. There is "Set," which does nothing if you press it briefly. "Wave," which also does nothing unless you hold it in for several seconds, at which point the clock advances to 12:00 and stays there. A "DST" switch and another switch marked "A, E, C, M, P." Well, that one is pretty obvious; that would be the US time zone.

On the company website, the instruction for dealing with Daylight Savings is both simple and opaque. "Hold the clock facing Fort Collins, Colorado, and wait for it to update automatically. It may take several hours."

This...this is not radio as I understand it. We're in California; Fort Collins is significantly below the horizon, and I doubt the Atomic Clock is using LORAN, either. The idea of the clock trying and failing over and over to achieve a tenuous connection long enough to update, an attempt so difficult it may take it several days, is at the very least sort of chilling, and most definitely rather ridiculous.

So I popped the clocks off the walls, rebooted them, stuck them on a dolly and took them to lunch with me out on the loading dock where they could see the sky. When prodded, they faithfully went into "waiting for signal mode," twitched for a while, and finally gave up. So then I set them manually, flipped the "DST" switch that neither my boss nor my bosses' boss seem to have thought useful to flip, and as of today they haven't chosen to reset themselves.

We gave one clock a better chance; set it up in a loading bay facing the local microwave and cell phone-festooned water tower. And the sun came out while the clock was there. And the clock melted.

Not the whole thing...the face bubbled up so badly it blocked the hands from moving. No ants, either.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

There's trouble at the mill

import troup.members as vikings

def main():
    while(eggs == True || bacon == True):

Can you tell which language I'm struggling with now?

Just trying to get the GPIO buttons on my Raspberry Pi assigned to automatically boot the GUI on the PiTFT display for easier stand-alone list.

I found my old Adafruit minty-boost kit, by the way. And it does power the Pi! Dunno about handling the full load of video, though.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Festina Lente

I'm still trying to find the time and energy to throw out much of the small scraps, found objects and saved hardware I've accumulated in my props-building. On my new schedule and budget it makes more sense to purchase materials and hardware on a per-project basis, instead of wasting time sorting through existing stock and trying to make it fit.

Also want to toss the several tubs of random electronics parts and especially the "this might be repairable" stuff.

Today, however, I was monkeying with some drivers (what people outside the audio world call "speakers.") Which are also salvaged scrap, and what's more, I can't seem to stop myself from bringing more home.

Purchased a couple small amplifiers from Adafruit. Used the 2.8W to test which drivers still worked. So was able to toss two (pity I still have five or six tucked under the desk at work!) Left the 20W alone for the moment to see if I could wake up a salvaged TWO HUNDRED TWENTY watt amp which wants 48 volts (presumable at some ridiculous amperage). Turns out an old computer power supply brick pushing a mere 24 volts is sufficient not to trip any brownout detection circuits in the thing, and run one of the salvaged drivers at more than sufficient volume for my personal listening needs.

Of course, at that point I might as well pack along one of my Jolly 5A's; that's already over a kilogram of hardware, and I need a solid box to get the best sound out of it, and it pretty much has to plug into the wall at those numbers. But I'm still toying with the idea of working up a neat looking replica to house it in -- maybe the Portal radio, perhaps the radio from Bioshock or something from the Fallout series.

But first step is to make a box out of some of the scraps of high-density plywood we've got in the scrap bin at work. And see if there's any tuning I can do with the shape (porting is probably out, as the physical size is too small to permit a decent extension. Although some people have done some crazy stuff with external ports...)

Of course, this is all salvage (power supply included). Nothing says it won't suddenly let the magic smoke out a few minutes after I power it up again.

Oh, yeah. And I loaned my sister my "Tomb Raider" necklace. So now I need something else prop-related that I can wear. I was tempted by Daniel Jackson's "Ra" amulet but I'm afraid I find the actual prop rather ugly...

Friday, October 30, 2015

Open the Pod-Play Door, HAL

More than once I've been disparaging about something I consider too trendy and popular but basically useless. I remember thinking Cliff Bars were a bad-for-you sweet confection sold to fitness wanna-be's with a stupid cartoon of a rock climber on the wrapper. Well, that was before I started climbing, found out the company was started by climbers, and found out it was low-sugar, very solid food -- like good old-fashioned trail mix in a compressed form. Like Dwarvish iron rations only somewhat better tasting. And the cartoon of the climber is technically accurate, too.

I've never had a strong need to surround myself with music while working. In fact, I often prefer silence when I'm trying to concentrate. But then came a spell when I was working near the main assembly floor, and being driven to distraction by the incessant and loud radio station played over the PA -- the auto-tune vocalists (as far as I can tell, there's only two; one male, one female. Otherwise they all sound identical) are tolerable, but the marathon sessions of happy-idiot banter from the hosts is hair-tearing.

So I started to bring in earphones as self defense (oddly enough, a good half of the people on the shop floor seem to have a similar problem with the piped-in music.) I have a couple basic mp3 players I picked up surplus for a buck or two each to use for sound effects in a prop. But I keep all my sound files, imported CDs, and so forth in 44.1 uncompressed; the only mp3's I had lying around I could throw on to the player in the hurried minutes of a work morning were game soundtracks.

I listened to a lot of Tomb Raider (1 through Underworld, minus #2 which I haven't gotten around to downloading yet). Also Portal2, Black Mesa, and Mass Effect.

And that was getting old. I figured out how to batch-process in Audacity and flipped some Chopin piano in there as well, plus the entire three-something hours of "How the West Was Won." But this approach had a basic problem; there's no indexing on my bare-bones mp3 player, and if I found out in the middle of a long session of stripping wires that I was cued up for Tomb Raider Legends once again, I'd be faced with trying to hit the "track advance button" 96 times in a row to find whatever folder might be next.

So, right, I'm facing exactly the reason the iPod came along (and the same functionality in smart phones and, today, smart-enough phones). But I can't quite muster the strength to purchase one, along with the not-plastic water bottle and the polo shirt with the alligator on it. And as it happens, I'd just picked up a Raspberry Pi.

So, great! I can learn how to work in the Pi environment and make a geeky, balky, conversation-piece playback machine that is suitable enough for my modest needs.

Except, as work went on and I found myself listening to music even when the shop radio wasn't blasting cocaine-freak morning-person inanities at me, I suddenly realized that the kind of mindless work I was doing could share CPU space with more engaging audio fare.

In a word, podcasts. Brush up (more like, learn the basics of!) a little history while I broke up old pallets and rolled black paint on plywood.

So, yes. Podcasting is not the useless gen-x endeavor I might have characterized it as. Well, maybe a lot of them are, after all. But there's some pretty good free history and science stuff out there.

And at fifteen to thirty minutes a 'cast, the indexing problem I mentioned earlier no longer applies.