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.