Friday, December 23, 2016

10,000 Fleece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No comments:

Post a Comment