Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ode on a Minoan Urn

Deeper I fall down the rabbit hole. I've said before, that practically everything is simpler than you think to get into, but harder than you think to do well. The most straight-forward seeming of subjects will inevitably unfold layer upon layer of unexpected complexity upon closer examination.

All I'm trying to do is create a 2,000 word sketch, a little fantasia. I'm not trying to be historically or linguistically accurate -- but I do feel constrained, however, not to blatantly violate historical reality or to perpetuate tired myths.

So it turns out we sort of know what the Minoans called themselves, as well as what they (or, at least, pro-Aegean peoples considered generically) called the various islands and other locations around that corner of the Mediterranean. For the former, Minoan trade with Egypt was well-established enough that Minoan translators were present at court, some Minoan writings (notably at least one medical text) were phonetically transcribed into Amarna-period hieroglyphics, and depictions of Minoans appear in tomb art.

There are strong reasons to believe there are similarities between the Minoan language and writing and later Mycenean (just as there are documented connections from Mycenean through to early Greek). There may also be an Etruscan connection. Some small progress is being made in translating Linear A, although it has not gone much past recognizing a few place names, but there is growing confidence in the basics of word order and conjugation as well as understanding the written alphabet.

But I'm not going to be able to use much of this. I haven't the patience to learn Mycenean or Etruscan conjugation (likely parallels to the Minoan), much less struggle through the papers and books and blogs where the slow decipherment of the language takes place amid much argument. Just filtering out which theories I chose to adhere to for the purpose of the chapter would be too much work!

And practically speaking, my main need is to properly lead the reader. To cleave from the familiar names enough to clue them in that I am not using the stock props of King Minos and Minotaur, Ariadne and her Clew. But not to be so obscure they have no idea who I am referring to. And still yet, avoiding another mined passageway in not picking terms that sound too much like something entirely different (and wrong). And all of this within and maintaining the flow and consonance of a narrative in (modern, even colloquial) English.

On the subject of learning too much (aka, the time you feel confident is the time you are most ignorant. The more you know, the more visible the voids in your understanding become for you) I knew already that the early 20th century conception of the Minoan world was suspect. It is largely the product of one man, who saw Greek myth and particularly the Minotaur everywhere, and who reconstructed some of the architecture according to a marked Victorian sensibility.

What I had not realized is that this colonization by other aesthetics did not by any means end with Arthur Evans. The laughing dolphins of the famous palace "fresco," images of noble Minoan youths; apparently some of these are so retouched and reconstructed they are a kind of Ship of Theseus themselves. They tell us much less about Minoan artistic sensibilities than they do about the 20th century artists who filled in the spaces between small faded fragments.

Well, whatever. I'm stuck with a Stargate universe, which builds on the artistic integrity and scientific accuracy of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, re-treading the already shopworn Ancient Astronaut nonsense of Von Daniken and the like; nonsense that borrows liberally from older Theosophist meanderings that in turn drew upon existing conceits of hyper-diffusionism.

(In the baldest of terms, the colonialist reluctance to credit non-white, non-european cultures with accomplishments like the Giza pyramids, requiring theories of (white) outsiders as givers of culture and technology; the romantic idea of these outsiders is then fleshed out with elaborate fantasies, a host of new-created myths, which then go through multiple permutations as they evolve to suit the Weltanschauung of the era of the writer de jour. Salt with cherry-picked appropriations from whatever actual science is being done at the time.)

So whatever I try to get right about history, the core truths will always be that there are real figures behind some of the gods, and they did give some of the culture and technology enjoyed by various ancient peoples as well as lend their names and stories to our mythologies. And in this particular sketch, there was a Minotaur of sorts, and it was fought by an Athenian youth who went on to be King...oh, and in my specific Stargate universe version, the events in the labyrinth also supplied (possibly even though Solon) some of the threads Plato gathered together to create his Swiftian political lesson on what happens when a perfect Republic meets a rapacious empire going by the name Atlantis.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Imperial Highway IV-B

A couple of poor photographs, taken with room lights and an aqua-colored clip light I'll be using at FOH tomorrow:

All in all, there's just too many kids on the wall

Hold on; let me get my cane so I can wave it over my head while I rant.

My gym has been taken over by kids. In fact, both the places I pay (rather steep!) membership fees at have gone in the same direction; increasingly limited access without any corresponding cut in fees.

And there's no reason for these two businesses to care if members complain, even if the members leave; the businesses are too busy milking the new cash cow.

It's something theater groups discovered a long time ago. Children are money. Offer something that adults can take their kids to...or better yet, drop their kids off at...and you rake it in. This happened a few years back with Makers Faire; it used to be a get-together and networking event for people who, well, made stuff. Now that networking and that sharing takes place in short harried conversations behind the scenes, because the structure of Makers Faire now is to put lots of eye candy out to where it will draw the children, then sell them (rather, their parents) lots of crap that pretends to be about what they just saw.

TechShop has added so many outreach classes and after-school programs and STEM/STEAM auxiliaries it has gutted the originally core business of renting machine time to small business. Entire floors of machines are closed off for weeks at a time with little or no notice so they can do a new round of classes for young people...and nary a whisper of recompense for the wasted membership fees.

And my gym has followed suit. It is nearly impossible to climb there anymore; it isn't so much that it is crowded, but the kids (as great as many of them are) simply aren't mature enough to read a wall. So instead of waiting in, they'll jump on any random route that looks open. I've had to bail multiple times rather than being able to finish a tough problem because some tween couldn't read the wall and jumped on a crossing route after I'd started.

Yeah, sure, children are our future and all that. But adults are our present and sometimes there need to be places for them, too.

But, really, I don't think this is about a generation divide. It is, like so many other things, a class divide. Because the kids don't come themselves. They don't apply for memberships. Their parents take them. Which is to say; people who have "made it," who have achieved relatively comfortable lives and now have disposable income, see something else they can buy for their children.

It is in a way like the loft wars (part of the gentrification wars); people with lots of disposable income and relatively pliant day jobs were attracted to these cool little semi-industrial areas where artists were living cheap by living in their workshops (and vice-versa.) And after purchasing a stake in this Bohemia, the yuppies realized that paint smells and metal workers will hammer at odd hours of the morning, and they chased all the artists out. And then wondered what happened to the charm they had meant to purchase.

So these same walking checkbooks are coming into the places where people like me are hoping to work on the stuff we define our lives around; the self-run businesses, the replica props and cosplay circles, the small theaters, and the places where people like me are trying to keep our bodies in good enough shape to keep doing that kind of work, and they shit a wad of cash across the landscape, destroying most of what was good about it in the first place.

And in this arena, the colonialist troops are children. Like I say, I like the kids. Individually. As a mass, as an effect, they are taking away things I enjoyed and things I thought I needed and things I am really wondering why I am continuing to pay good money for.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Imperial Highway IV

The first four segments are done.

I'm not happy with the engineering. Basically, I had no real sense of the shape and how it would work (as in, how best to hook them together, how best to be self-supporting, how to mold, whether they would be stackable) until I'd built the masters, and at that point I was loathe to take the time to strike off in new directions.

Which means what I ended up with is casting the side pieces with a supporting ledge, and with both that ledge and the deck pieces having holes sized for the smallest readily available (aka could be bought by the packet at my local hardware store) supermagnet.

The ledge didn't mold well, and the material of the master wasn't well-suited for holes, so the magnets don't fit that well. And they sort of stick out, too. Which along with the ledge makes the things stack quite badly. And superglue is not as strong as supermagnet; it is unfortunately easy to tear a magnet out when dissembling a road segment.

I'm still not sure which alternatives would be strong enough to support themselves safely enough to permit figure miniatures to be placed on top. I think based on my Holocron experiments that snap-fit acrylic might be stable enough. It would be even better if I could design some simple bracing scheme. And I have a feeling I could come up with a way to transfer the detailed texture of the master to vacuum-formed shells that could then be glued to acrylic backing.

If someone asked for a lot more of these things, I'd definitely experiment. As it was, I made about two dozen casting attempts over most of a week just to achieve four complete sets. And painting, as crude as it was, took another three or four days.

When I have some fresh casting compound I'll try to run off a couple more. I'm also still planning to try to make both an access ramp and a tower, both of which it is my intention to make a simple shell mold and slush-cast (the poor man's roto-cast) in one piece. No more fumbling with magnets. Might also desire some of the pillar elements which are used in conjunction -- these I am assuming I can model and 3d-print easier than anything else (although possibly cast instead of wasting the print time making more than one).

Yeah; basically, the lesson of the raygun strikes home; I would have done better making a full CAD aka 3d model first. And possibly printed the master. Pity it seems so difficult to transfer out from CAD to a good EPS file for laser cutting. Working it out in 3d allows you to visualize, and get all the dimensions, and makes it a lot easier to make changes as your design evolves. It does take longer to start with, but the time-savings only get larger as you get further and further into the design and build cycle.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Gun too long

A question.

If you take replication of specific theatrical creations out of the equation, what is the point of building a prop raygun?

It is straight-forward to carve, cast, assemble, print, or whatever a nice looking raygun. And it is fun to do. But at the end of it, you have a gun-shaped object. And you could spend ten bucks at the local toy store for a NERF or water gun. Or spend a few more bucks to get a nice looking thing -- assuming you either don't care or even, rather like that it is a duplicate of something used by the third Stormtrooper to the left on the second film of the first trilogy.

To my mind, there are a few possible reasons to do your own.

First is that it is fun. You are doing it because you want to do it.

Second is to save money. And this is a "Sort of." You probably can't get something as nice as a quality replica prop for less than it would cost to just order one. But you can get something better than a water pistol for less than you'd spend for a quality replica.

And last is to get something that just isn't out there. Leaving aside, again, the question of wanting a replica of a specific (licensed or unlicensed, historical or fictional, whatever) item, this question narrows into uncommon design elements.

The raygun I made for my sister qualifies; it is a type of retro design that is uncommon and hard to find pre-made (well, hard to find pre-made in semi-realistic form).

A direction I've been tempted in for years is towards the sort of materials and fine detailing of watches and expensive lighters. For that matter, there are few fictional hand-arms (available as reproduction or not) that have the sleek hard simplicity and the look of precision machining of real hand guns. The most typical design form is oversized, rounded, sort of lumpy (pretty much any first-person shooter game with a future setting).

So maybe, there is a value in making prop pistols with high-end fabrication techniques; something showing real metals, real woods, moving parts.

All things, in short, not readily achievable in sculpting, carving, casting, 3d clay and MDF and craft foam and found short in any of the materials and methods that are fun and easy to do.

I could probably whip out a nifty-looking laser gun prop in a week using the kinds of traditional materials and methods I have lying around the apartment. But I can't think of any good reason to do so.

Topology and Gender

Opened a show Thursday. Started ten minutes late due to an electrical problem -- a problem I had seen coming but wasn't in a position to do more than try to correct after the fact. And that's made me think about the problem-solving toolkit. And further; it is possible this is a chicken-and-egg problem? Does the toolkit come out of domain knowledge, or can the toolkit be learned and applied by someone without that domain knowledge?

Right. Definitions first. When I have a microphone fail on stage, I have several problem-solving steps I can go through. I also have several prophylactic problem-solving steps that I try to do when setting up that microphone in the first place.

Simple example. This last show I strung cables for a house speaker and a foldback speaker across the front of the stage. Taped them down, then went to the stage snake. Potential problem here; which cable is which? They are under scenery and tape and can't be easily traced. Solution? A long time ago, I started putting ID bands on all my microphone cable. The cable to the foldback had "114" labeled on both ends. Problem solved.

A similar situation arises when I ran the cables from another speaker and a microphone (now, really, a smart tech labels all the cables with tape flags before running them, but even that is no panacea.) This was never a problem, however; the gender on each cable end is different, making it obvious which is which.

And this opens up into two of the most basic tools for keeping cabling from getting confused; gender and topology. In a sound system, particularly, most of your cabling has gender. Sound sources are male. Places where sound goes are female. With some exceptions, you can follow the arrow of male cable ends from the microphones on stage through all the snakes and mixers and processors and finally end up at a speaker.

Which means you know the purpose of any cable on the floor by the gender you see.

Topology is a similar and related problem-solving method (both prophylactic and after-the-fact.) MIDI cables, for instance, are a daisy-chain topology. You can string MIDI from one item to another, but they must go from an OUT (or THRU) to an IN. Follow the MIDI signal chain from the master (a keyboard, say), all the way out to the last slave (usually a sound module). Anything else is a mistake.

USB is a hub topology. You can never take USB out of a slave. It always starts with a host and goes to either a peripheral or a hub. And, yes; I've had musicians come up to me asking for a "USB A to USB A" cable. Nope. There can be only one (host). Everything else is in USB B, Micro, etc., etc.

Most people, I have found, run power to an orchestra pit by taking every object that needs to be plugged in and stretching it to whatever outlet is nearest. This means you have cords running every which way, and when the guitarist needs to move his amp over a foot to make room for the bass player the cord doesn't stretch and the only other outlet nearby is already filled up with music stand lights. And when someone trips on a cord in the dark things across the pit go mysteriously dead with no-one able to figure out where they need to plug in to get power back.

My method is to first determine the likely needs, then to provision outlet spaces; start from the smallest number of clearly defined sources of power, tape those cords down well, then break out in a star topology to power hubs placed in strategic parts of the pit. The thing is; you can always expand the star; plug an additional power strip into an existing power strip. And this means you always know where to look when the power fails to a trumpet player's stand light.

So what started this train of thought?

In this show, we have a blacklight effect. Several UV fluorescent strips are arrayed across the front edge of the stage. Their power cords are all gathered together into a power strip, which gets power from an extension cord which runs all the way back to the lighting table in the back of the auditorium. There, it is plugged into another power strip so that the switch on the strip can be used to toggle the effect on and off. The power for this strip comes from a nearby wall outlet.

I describe it this way because this was not in the minds of the people who were responsible for quickly loading in the show to make the morning performance. They weren't using a systemic understanding of the system, which meant they had no diagnostic toolkit to know when they were putting it together wrong -- or how to fix it with the audience already filing in and the show about to begin.

I've mentioned a previous workplace a couple of times. This was a place where magic spells were paramount. Instructions didn't just substitute for understanding; they trumped it. A case in point was when the institutional philosophy crashed into a simple light switch and was stumped by it.

There was a set of back-stage work lights, dim and blue so they didn't shine out and distract the audience during the show. One of the pre-show checks was to make sure these were turned on.

How did this institution train to achieve this goal? By substituting the goal of making sure the switch was turned on. They carefully labeled the switch (which sits, incidentally, right under one of the blue lights so that blue light clearly shines down on it when it is on), as to which direction it needed to be in.

Yes; the instruction had filtered itself to be not to turn on the lights, not even to turn on the switch, but to set the switch in the correct direction as per instruction.

And this actually worked okay (well, except for the frequent times someone read the checklist too fast and forgot to flip the switch, and the crew literally sat in the dark all show without thinking of mentioning it to anyone). But this just happened to be a two-way switch, with the other end of the switch down a rarely-used hallway.

And one day someone flipped the other switch to get the lights on.

Shock! Horror! The label is wrong now, and there is no way in heaven or hell to get the switch set to the right direction!

So they moved the label. This lasted until the (presumably) same helpful person flipped the hallway switch again.

Electricians were called about the mysterious broken switch. This was an emergency; they could not open the show without those backstage running lights, and there was no way to achieve backstage running lights if they couldn't tell which way the switch needed to be.

Eventually some kind soul explained about the two-way switch. Ah. Light dawns. Well, no. The other switch was firmly taped over with a big threatening notice to never, ever mess with it again. The label was restored on the remaining switch and it was back to business as usual. (Which is to say, forgetting to hit the switch and never, ever, ever thinking to look if the lights themselves were on.)

So my present theater company (aka the ones with the blacklight effect) haven't quite achieved this rabbit hole of mistaking the map for the territory. Their problem is more that that can't read a map and have never seen the territory.

There's this thing called theater sense. I don't know exactly how to put it, but it is a combination of knowing theater traditions, how things are usually done, and knowing exactly where you are. Theater sense tells you who to talk to when you have a costume problem. It also teaches you when to bring up a costume problem (or more importantly, when not.)

Our lighting volunteers are wonderful people but they don't have it. They aren't tuned to the flow of problem-solving going on between Director, Stage Manager, and other departments, and thus have no idea whether we are about to re-take a scene or are going on with the rehearsal. Heck; they don't seem to be able to figure out when we are actually doing a scene and when we aren't!

More apropos to this essay, however, is lack of any appropriate tool to figure out how the lights plug in. It seems to be a collection of fragments of instruction and bits of memory; the "boxes" need to have things in "1 and 3" and "the green cord" was one of the ones that comes from the lights.

Actually, I do have to give them credit. They correctly constructed the dimmer system, which requires that the Dimmer Packs get power (from a wall) and the Lighting Instruments then cascade down from the Dimmer Packs.

But the blacklight effect. When it was tested and failed, what we found was a power strip with three orange extension cords plugged into it and plugged in itself to another, all of them vanishing into a giant pile of twisted cords.

So, this is wrong at first glance; there's only one blacklight.

I took out my Chicken Stick and verified there was no power reaching the power strip itself. So, whatever it was plugged into was extraneous to the operation. I unplugged that.

Shock and horror. "That has to be plugged in; it's the cord going to the stage!"

Um, no. Not unless someone has been blatantly violating UL code on our extension cords. Remember gender? The stage is the lights. Whatever comes from stage will be male.

So I needed power to figure out which if any of the various male ends actually ran to the blacklights. Took the obviously superfluous extension cord and wriggled it out of the pile. It was far, far, under chairs, around lighting poles, back under more chairs.....until it plugged into the very same power strip it had purported to be powering.

Yeah. A perfect Ouroboros. Took that male end out of the power strip, plugged it into the wall, and the blacklights worked again. No need to figure out which was the real cord and which was another remaining error -- we needed to open the show.

But the question I started with is, how can we prevent this from happening? My method, as I showed above, is to have firmly fixed ideas of gender and topology. When I run cables, I have a sense of what each cable does and thus I am alerted immediately if something is wrong. If I'm hooking up a mic and I end up with a female XLR in my hands, I stop because I know I messed up somewhere and I need to fix it now rather than try to problem-solve it later.  (I always work backwards from stage end for exactly this reason. Also, it means I can dress the excess a the live end so if we have to move the mic, we can do so without having to pull up a bunch of tape).

But can this method -- can these kinds of methods -- be divorced from the body of domain knowledge I constructed them out of? Can you have a rule of thumb if you lack even the ability to define when it should be used -- and when it should not?

Are simplified models, arbitrary labels, "lies told to children" acceptable alternatives? Or are we going to require every volunteer we use to spend the necessary time in study to get enough grounding in the subject to where they can apply their own rules of thumb?

Myself, I can't imagine not wanting to learn. That was the biggest disconnect I had with the theater of the two-way light switch; for many of the people there, "Tell me the absolute minimum of what I need to complete this job" was their oft-stated desire. They literally rejected learning more.

In most other theaters, learning is embraced. But to people coming to the more technical end with essentially no technical background -- without even the ability to put the cords back on their home PC after dusting around it -- this appears as a monolithic, entirely daunting task. It is like someone asking if you'd like to learn to rock climb then dumping you at the foot of Half-Dome.

And I simply don't know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

History Mystery

1,500 words down now of Daniel pontificating about the "heretic Pharaoh" Akhenaten and the falcon-headed god Horus. So far I've name-dropped Phillip Glass, John Adams (the composer), Steve Martin, Mother Theresa, Peter Cushing Doug McClure and Caroline Munroe, made passing reference to Einstein and Mussolini, and of course mentioned Amenhoptep III, Tutankhamen, Nefertiti, and Smenkhkare, as well as Isis and Osiris. Oh, yes, and Merlin, the Bourbon kings of France, those lippy Hapsburgs, cribbed a little from James Randi, and obliquely hinted at "Doctor Atomic" -- an opera I was privileged to attend at its world premier.

Let Teal'c make a few Teal'c-isms, let Jack make a few jokes, nearly (but cut it) referenced the Broad Street Pump, directly quoted from the novelty song "King Tut," continued my theme of depicting Samantha Carter as a fan of "Creature Features" (Science Fiction B movies, especially from the 50's and 60's), showed Daniel beginning to rethink some of his positions...

Yeah, you can cover a lot of ground in 1,500 words.

The chapter plan is 3,000 words of "Briefing Room" stuff, basically, "What do we know and what are we going to do next?" And 2,000 words of my little Minoan fantasy, which is being really difficult (I decided I needed a lot more look and feel so I read up on Minoan arts and architecture. And, well, the look is very pleasant and natural, open sunny rooms painted with dolphin frescoes and basically it all clashes with the idea of regular tributes of Athenian youths getting sacrificed to the bull-headed monster that lurks in the center of a dark underground labyrinth.)

And, yeah, so I do have some defense other than work and other distractions as to why this has been the longest wait between updates yet, by several orders.

Tangentially related to the above:

Do you know how difficult it is to write recent history? What I mean is, my last fanfic was set in 1995. This one is set in nominally 2001-2004 (the release dates of the Tomb Raider games and the season of Stargate SG1 don't line up quite the way I would like them.)

And, yeah, a lot of stuff is relatively easy to track. Top music hits, recent movie releases, general fashion (usually by the decade, with fractions harder to come by), political news (who is in power, who is at war). Local hotels, air schedules (for all your ellenjay needs), specific items of clothing or technology...well, basically you have to drill backwards for those. Start with what you think is around and popular, then research item by item to try to get good dates out of it.

And deal with the fact that the majority of your search hits don't care when the thing in question came out or when the slang in question was current. All they care is it was there when they wrote the web page. Dating it usually requires other sources.

And once again, reality is more unbelievable than fiction is allowed (to paraphrase, rather, to massacre Mark Twain.) Turns out a Minoan king could very much war with and later demand tribute from Athens. Because not only does the town go back a lot further than the Hellenic era (in fact, continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years), it was also called Athens far before the classical era.

Well, sort of. It was named and associated with the goddess Athena, who appears to have been around in the Mycenaean age. She may have derived from a Minoan snake-goddess, for that matter. But the form of the name...! Again, few references really care when "Athena" was called "Athena." It suffices to them to say there was a clearly related name in the period under discussion.

This is the writer's problem. It is one thing to describe a current-day historian or archaeologist theorizing about "Athens." It is quite another to write from the point of view of a Mycenaean and try to figure out what they called anything.

Well, eventually everything is translation convention anyhow. You aren't usually writing in Linear A, and the language of the reader is used not just for verbs and particles but even class nouns; "food" or "clothing" when not speaking of a specific historical delicacy or habiliment. 

This extends beyond historical language, of course. Works in contemporary English usually say "Germany" and "China" despite those nations having entirely different names for themselves within their own language. In the well-trod areas of history, one tends to use the familiar (often Greek or Latin) names for peoples as far separated from those cultures as Persian or Egyptian monarchs. The philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ is usually named with the coinage of a 16th-century Jesuit as "Confucius." Basically, unless one is writing for a specialized audience or needs to make a particular point, one uses the form of the names the audience is most likely to have encountered previously (even if they may not be entirely correct).

The trouble comes with reader expectations. Present them with a name that seems to them to be too modern and it will yank them out of the narrative. So even though "Athenian" is defensible for numerous reasons both in usage and even in actual historical linguistics, it is likely to strike my reader as ahistorical to my Minoan setting.


Friday, February 12, 2016

The Long View

I've always had an interest in history, but insufficient patience to really do the work. That's probably still true; I've just replaced the biographies and personal accounts I used to use to liven up the dry "names and dates" stuff with short and lively audio presentations of history (via my new podcast habit.)

The toughest thing to grasp in any subject is the gestalt. That overall sense of the whole thing, the boundaries, the large-scale structures, where the basic parts fit in. And frustrating as it has proved to generation after generation of students, the best way to arrive at that gestalt is through the accretion of detail. Endless detail.

All of those endless battles and short-lived kings and tyrants and cities with ever-changing names are washing through me with very few of the specific details remaining. I've been passing back and forth through mostly the Ancient world, getting as far as Rome before dipping back again. I've been coming at it from both overviews and comparatively small pieces of the puzzle -- such as the personal history and writings of the Greco-Roman geographical historian Strabo.

(Strabo was born Greek and wrote in Greek but spent much of his life in Rome. This was the early days of Rome, when they looked back towards the Hellenic Age as the source of culture. His major error in achieving popularity over the next decades, in fact, was in failing to write in proper imitation of the classics.)

The main thing I brought away from that latter was an understanding of how Rome saw history; essentially, that they were the apex, the achievement that all history had led to. Unlike so many who looked forward to those that would come after, and hoped to leave more than just the broken feet of a grand statue for those later ages to admire, the Roman view of that time was what came after Rome would be...more Rome.

This actually helps me understand some of the things I was writing about (or at least had in the back of my head when writing); with the much later Germanic Holy Roman Emperors, the conceit of "The Dark Ages," Dante looking back at Brutus as being the greatest traitor that ever lived, even up to some of that seething mass of racial and religious mud the Ahnenerbe wallowed in.

The toughest thing for me at the moment is trying to get in my mind a real living sense of the ebb and fall of the major empires of the Mediterranean over my period of interest (4,000 BC through the first century AD, or more specifically, from King Narmer to early in the Egyptian New Kingdom). I'm just now finally getting a feel for the transitions between Minoan, Mycenean, and Greek, with Phoenician in the wings, and what is happening simultaneously in Egypt (as well as Egypt's far-from inactive neighbors).

Saturday, February 6, 2016


The solstice is past and the day is lengthening again. The sky is just starting to light when I set off for work in the morning. The sun is still out when I return.

Restarted my gym membership this week (still don't know if I can afford it). Tried to do a gentle first workout, but got interested in some fun routes and flashed a V4. It was an easy V4, though. Usually, I'm sore after returning from a break like this and for three or four days I can barely move. Tried cutting that recovery shorter by doing a gentle session two days later. Maybe it worked. I'm not terribly sore right now.

Spent an evening with my dad, went to the symphony. Did laundry, purchased a new printer and did some long-delayed paperwork for another of my jobs. And on Friday following work, collapsed on the couch for a much-needed nap.

Bit by bit the Imperial Highway pieces are being patched, sanded, magnets glued in, and primed. No idea when I'll get to the other elements (ramp, tower, perhaps a damaged and collapsed section).

Ran into producer of a show I already agreed to light and a director who is thinking of using me again as well. The school tour show starts way too soon. But even before that, someone is renting my microphones and I still haven't been able to get those replacement elements wired up. So I need to break off on other projects real soon and deal with those.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Wars and Conquests of the Cartesians

I just had a fun project at work that arrived just in time to leaven my growing boredom.

Bunch of framed awards to be hung on a wall. All different sizes, and we realized a grid layout would look bad. Fortunately we have visual artists and graphic designers on payroll, and one of them spent a morning laying out a workable pattern on the floor.

So our department is given the job of translating that to the actual wall. First step was obvious; after taking photographs and jotting down a quick reference sketch, I plotted cartesian coordinates for every single frame (they were laid out in a corner of the room, meaning I had two walls to use as baseline coordinates).

Of course they needed to fall eight feet above the floor, and start two and a half inches from one edge of the surface they were going on. There was a steel framing member at some arbitrary height above that line, so I measured the difference. Also, the given edge was the far edge, meaning I had to plot from the opposite side of the wall to get the last frame to arrive at exactly 2.5" short. So that gave me two offsets, which I could add to my coordinates to arrive at the actual point.

Since the point chosen was the upper right corner of each frame, two additional numbers were needed, the distance from the upper edge to the hook from which it would hang, and half the width (because the hook needed to be at the center of the frame but the reference was taken from one edge).

And then a new requirement was added. My plotting data showed there would be an approximately 14" gap on the far side of the wall (the original zero edge). This was not acceptable; we had to expand the horizontal coverage. I did this by dividing the difference by the average number of spaces between frames, and came up with a value of close to one and one half inch; a fourth offset that increased in steps across the pattern.

I was working on a legal pad, and for each frame, now, I had to arithmetically sum four different offsets (plus and minus) to each original set of cartesian coordinates.

And as a last problem, the width of the wall was too much to hold a tape to (also, I began layout from the top and my ability to place a tape was progressively blocked by the previously hung material). Thus, many of the final coordinates were arrived at in stepping-stone fashion; 71" to the bottom of a previous frame, then the difference between that and the target of (107" reference + 14.5" offset + 3(1.5") additional horizontal spacing - (11.25"/2) for center.

And, yeah. The last rows needed tweaking to compensate for all the compounding effects of applying an arbitrary and arbitrarily quantized expansion value to a tightly-ordered pattern. Plus there were some architectural elements in the way. But this is where the real art is; knowing not just a mechanical method to translate and plot this kind of data, but understanding the artistic intent well enough to be able to achieve even when problems develop.

So in short, for the majority of the objects I plotted them geometrically -- then I eyeballed them and adjusted if it was necessary. And this is a good basic habit; measure twice if you like, but eyeball once as a sanity check before you cut.

The last show I painted -- I think it may have been the last musical I worked -- was similar sorts of drafting and art. The original design -- New York cityscape and skyline in perspective -- was provided via watercolor renders.

These original images were not square, not scaled accurately to the space, and the perspective was laid in by eye. This latter was the biggest headache; we had to try to achieve the loose look of the original render but we were working in a harder-edged, less forgiving medium. Which meant gross differences in vanishing point stood out, and verticals needed to be made plumb.

The basic method was the same; create an arbitrary reference datum, and plot the cartesian coordinates of each corner or other necessary reference. Then go to the physical set (the wings, drops, and cyclorama) and measure those points. Lastly, strike a line between plotted points, reconstructing the edges of the original artwork.

This is something theater people do all the time. Second nature, basically. Every set wall that is installed is plotted the same way, usually from plaster line and centerline as datum.

Trouble is, a hard cyc or a proscenium is big. And it can't be laid flat on the floor of the paint shop for easier access. When you want to plot two points sixty feet apart, with one of them thirty feet off the ground and the other twelve, it is quite time consuming to get the tape measures there.

So we derive again. The cyc was constructed from 4x8 sheets, meaning we could could add four foot multiples until we came to a fraction, at which point we measure that. Or we could plot from a previously plotted point; because even stretching a tape seven feet is difficult when you are at the top of an extension ladder.

But there's where all the adjustments start to come in. By the time two or three lines have been plotted, there's a number of competing aspects to juggle. The actual plotted value. What looks good in the air. What it looked like in the original render. What is now possible, considering that the lines your line is intersecting with have also moved.

And all of this in a hurry, of course. Whilst balancing tape and chalk and rendering and scrawled estimates on the top of a ladder, stretching out on tip-toes to try to place a point or position a ruling stick or the end of a snap-line.

We didn't always get it right, not that time.

There is a similar exercise in machining. A lathe or mill is designed to move extremely smoothly along calibrated tracks. Which is to say; you can tell to within ten-thousandths of an inch where you respect to a starting point. The fun part of the exercise is establishing that starting point.

A typical method on the lathe is to "touch off"; to bring a tool to where it is just barely pressing against the working face. Now you know where the face is; you can chose to zero the DRO or other guides to that point. For the mill, a more complicated method is to use an edge finder. In this case, the tool indicates when the outer diameter has touched the selected surface, which means the center of the mill is located half that diameter away.

That is of course only where it starts. Often as not you can't reach the reference face you really want with any of these methods, so you have to construct a path to it using offsets. For the Aliens M40 grenades, for instance, the grenade is inside the stock; zero is set arbitrarily at the first flat face achieved, and all the rest of the grenade is projected from that point.

And, yes, drawing in perspective is still more of the same. Heck, even rendering in 3d is the same; in that later case, you set up the setting, the on-set lighting elements, the poses...then you tweak, changing poses to make them read better from the chosen camera angle, cheating objects to remove tangents or improve visibility, and every now and then, actually changing scale or position to make what looks right to the eye (instead of what is mathematically right in the world of ray tracing).

If you do these tweaks from camera, you can find yourself very surprised by what the actual 3d scene looks like when you step back and look at it from another view!

In fine art and the "less than fine" of comic book art the grid method is paramount. As it is for theater people for subjects that are other than monumental and rectilinear. You put a grid over the reference, and one (appropriately scaled) over the blank paper (or the piece of plywood you mean to run through a bandsaw to make some bit of theatrical scenery or prop).

(These days, of course, printers being being so cheap, for small props it makes sense for a lot of people to print out a reference drawing at scale and paste it on to the wood).

Then you go to the grid and eyeball; three squares down and near the middle, ten squares over and just over the line.

Somewhat similar to plotting the contents of a page in perspective; you make a grid, then you eyeball the lines you draw to adhere to what that grid is advising.

The trick is, as always, that the estimates points, the plotted points, the eyeballed curves will never quite be right. The real art is coming back over the (lightly-pencilled!) transfer and applying straight-edges where appropriate, making the curves flow appropriately, and otherwise adjusting until it looks right.