Thursday, June 30, 2016


Another long week at work. I've been too distracted to complete the new graphics on the Holocron, and the end of the month snuck up on me way too fast. So that prototype I promised is going to have to wait for the three-day weekend coming up. (Even if TechShop and the lasers I need are closed on the 4th).

I felt in a writing mood tonight and tried to push ahead a little on the fanfic. Finished a scene. Then scrolled down to my last take on the same scene...and I like the voice and some of the details of that previous attempt a lot better. I may have the desire to write today, but apparently the skill isn't with me.

The new instrument is still going surprisingly well. I'm fingering, and yes I have enough pitch sensitivity to be shifting to the right position on that fretless neck...and just enough muscle memory to more-or-less come back to those right positions.

I have some indirect evidence that my pitch sensitivity is not as acute as it might be, however. My experience in mixing singers was that someone could be off by a good thirty cents before I noticed it. So I run a real risk of being enough off on my intonation that I sound horrible -- but not being aware of it and thus unable to improve it.

I also (wasted?) the time making a video record of my attempts to learn this new instrument. Which have been posted on YouTube, and so far have gained an entire one (1) view. I think. That one might have been mine.

Oh, and yet -- my first attempts in playing a tune. Those were humbling. I see I have a while yet before I have the control necessary for that.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lithic Reduction

I have one slim lead on the Holocircuit; the MOSFET I got may not have the right specs. I have a different -- better-tested in actual circuits -- one to try. I wish I could do all the calculations myself, but at the current extent of my electronics knowledge I'm basically doing this by cookbook. As long as I don't descend all the way to cargo cult...

The new instrument is here and looks good. I am actually a little disappointed. In that I put on new strings, checked the bridge height, tuned it, and did some practice bowing...and had no problems. I didn't break a string or drop a bridge, the pegs are all holding fine, and the very first time I touched rosined bow to the strings I got a clean tone. I was prepared for all sorts of difficulties. None of them showed up.

Maybe this was the Thomastik Alphayue's that made it this clean? Well...I do have a little work yet in string separation!

In any case, I actually expected I'd pick up bowing fast. I figure, if I can learn how to hold the tools for a wood lathe in a couple hours, I can pick up how to hold a bow. The part that I'm a lot less sanguine about is fingering. This is my first fretless instrument, and I'm really unsure if I've got the ears to manage it.

(I'm also thinking my collarbone is really going to prefer if I stop trying to be traditional and go and get a proper shoulder rest).

And no progress to speak of on the next Tomb Raider/SG1 chapter. I've been casting a research net in the general direction of North American neolithic, plus a little Mesoamerica and a side of Assyria up through to the Ottoman's.

But I've been thinking about flint knapping. And that led to an image, which opens up a very different approach to the flawed Tomb Raider (2013) story. I really like those moments where a Checkov's skill comes up; where the protagonist is backed into a corner, but it turns out to be a very familiar corner. And they give a thin smile, and say to themselves, "You're on my home ground now."

I really like the image of Lara Croft -- as the young student shipwrecked on Yamatai -- making herself a stone knife, or spear, or arrow points. This is divergent from the idea of wilderness survival skills. What I'm linking to here is the idea of experimental archaeology.

Oddly enough, the flint knapping community (the chance is that there are more people knocking flakes off stone today than had been doing so at any particular moment in neolithic times) doesn't really appear to be conscious of their activity as neolithic per se. They are more likely to characterize it as an art of indigenous people, to the extent that one popular tool/method is referred to as an "Ishi Stick" (after The Last of His Tribe himself).

(The flint knappers also don't see it as a "dead" technology. To them, there is a continuum between faithful recreation of what they sometimes refer to as aboriginal tools to modern hunting, wilderness survival, and general crafts.)

Experimental archaeology gets into all sorts of things, including the monumental; transporting a stone Moai from Rapa Nui using nothing but ropes and volunteers, erecting a (small) pyramid, and of course crossing the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. It is stretching things a little to expect Miss Random Grad Student to have gotten so deep into the practical neolithic reconstruction that she could knock out a nice biface in a couple of hours.

But it's a cool conceit, and that counts for a lot in writing. And I've harped on this before. Lara Croft has always spent a chunk of her adventures finding the secret passage or starting the ancient water wheel in order to progress, and the (generally not experienced as such by the player) implication is that her knowledge of ancient cultures is what lets her do this.

So here's an island that's a rabbit warren of mouldering old temples and shrines, with all sorts of hidden secrets, and here's someone who understands what it is she's looking at; who can read the glyph pointing to a debris-hidden doorway, or understands the purpose of a deadfall. A lot more interesting, I think, than her magically developing the entirely orthogonal skill-set of firing off WWII era sub-machine guns and gunning her way through the opposition.

Perhaps this doesn't look a lot like Yamatai. But what it does look like, if you played it right, is that moment where the scared but determined young woman, fleeing from the men pursuing her, realizes just where she is and how her specialized skills can be of use. And smiles. "I'm an archaeologist, boys," she says softly to herself. "And now you are on my home ground."

(Of course it's no cakewalk. There are reversals. And there are plenty of places where those skills aren't what she needs. Because one of the best things you can do to your characters is throw them into a situation where they are uncomfortable. That's why I'm aiming in my fanfic, across the distance of at least another four chapters, Jack O'Neill separated from the usual engineer types like Samantha Carter and having to try to fix a complicated machine all by himself. "What do I look like," he grouses, "MacGuyver?" But with that said, there is such a satisfying moment when your character gets to demonstrate why they are the best at what they do.)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Holocircuit progress report

Well, it mostly works.

The Kapton tape arrived Saturday, and I opened up the reflow oven. Yup. A bunch of cheap paper masking tape in there. Removed all of that, replaced it with the Kapton, closed it back up. And the oven worked fine the first time, without any bad smells.

On the bad side, turns out I'd gotten a syringe of solder flux, not solder paste. And was surprisingly hard to determine this; almost all the available information and reviews assumed you were looking for flux, and explained in detail all the ways it was a good flux. And every now and then there'd be a "...and for soldering" which was vague enough to be misleading. So I won't need the oven again until a syringe (or jar) of the real stuff gets here.

Well, with the board properly fluxed and all the components stuck down, it was really no problem to go around and run some solder on to all the components with an iron. I only got one solder bridge -- although, here, the oft-lauded solder wick method completely failed to work and I had to use a solder pump to remove the excess solder.

USB through-connection worked; I was able to access a thumb drive. ICSP worked; I was able to upload the software from the previous holocron (after wasting some time replacing the ATtiny45 with an ATtiny85 -- until I realized I'd already known I needed the larger program memory of the latter, and had in fact ordered and soldered in an ATtiny85 in the first place.

I also had both LEDs the wrong way around but after that got a clean power indicator and charge indicator. And the LiPo charge circuit worked like a charm, successfully charging the battery. The mercury tilt switch did its job as well and the capacitance sensor is working even without the antenna and the NeoPixels did their magic.

However. The last part of the load sharing circuit isn't working. I've traced and tested all the leads, gone back to check the circuit and the pinout, even swapped out the MOSFET and did a new clean solder job. The MOSFET isn't switching; the LiPo won't connect. So I'm a bit depressed right now: I don't have any good ideas as to why it isn't working. It's a very simple circuit, described in at least one brochure. About the only lead I have currently is that the MOSFET I'm using may not actually be the optimal one -- but I'm not really sure which specs would need to be different (plus I'm not happy about having to table work on that part of the circuit until another order can get here from DigiKey).

And as poorly as I'm feeling this weekend, I know it will be a long week in hot weather (and things are a little tense at work; sales are down and we've had to lay off some people). In short, I'm unlikely to be particularly brainy next week. And I'm also realizing just how much programming I want to do on this circuit before it is ready to ship.

Not to mention the physical layer. Finishing the artwork for the laser engraver is going to take a bunch of hours yet. And although I've figured out almost everything else, I'm caught in a nasty little loop trying to find some way to make the 1/8" magnets fit properly into laser-cut slots in the nominal 1/8" acrylic.

Yes. Acrylic (like baltic birch plywood, oddly enough -- and I'm sure there's more) is manufactured in metric. 3mm estimated in this case, caliper measured 2.98mm for the piece I cut last week. And then it is sold in Imperial.

Unfortunately neither magnets nor even ferromagnetic material (aka stainless steel) is commonly sold around here in small metric sizes. And you can't grind down a magnet (not that I want to; there's too much labor in this thing already for the price point I'm trying to hit). And I can't even engrave the difference on the laser, because the needed slot is on the back side to where I'm making my other cuts from, and the software on the new machines has a rather critical flaw when it comes to lining up multiple elements that way.

Oh, yeah. And until I solve that, I can't even cut the final shell piece, meaning I can't go ahead and start painting up shell elements of my new prototype.

I'm going for an oxidized, strongly weathered copper/brass for this one. Star Wars is a used universe, after all. Basically, I'm making the "hero" version of what was seen in an animation.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Dropped some extra bucks on Amazon to get them to ship the last part of my order. The oven has been here for days:

(No, it doesn't come with the hat. It also didn't come with the Kapton tape I ordered, but tracking says I'll finally get that today.)

The components have been here for a while (Digikey is fast, as is Adafruit):

And the new board arrived yesterday from OSHpark:

So far everything seems correct. The footprint for the USB connector is slightly wrong but still fits -- I'll need to fix my Eagle library part. On the down side, it is larger than I was envisioning. Yes, I had measurements, but I didn't make a test cut-out. I was more concerned about having enough room to clear traces and be able to reach the SMDs to place and solder them.

Well, looking at it now, I'm comfortable with compacting it quite a bit. And changing over the larger SMDs (1206 size) to 0805's. Or possible even 0603's (those sizes only really hold for resistors, but it's a pretty good guideline to how small you are getting).

At least I've finally figured out how to translate the sketches I've been making for the Holocron diffusion layer into black and white (the laser engraver will respond to gray-scale information, but on acrylic the results aren't usually worthwhile):

And I picked up a set of Thomastik Alphayue's. Which means for some people I've just given the game away on the new instrument...currently tracked to arrive Monday, and I'm having a heck of a time waiting for it!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

This Joint is Heating Up

The reflow oven arrived yesterday. It's so cute! I'm not worried about finding space for it now. Unfortunately, every electronics hobby person who has a T962 has recommended tearing out the original tape (used to insulate parts of the circuit board) to replace it with high-temperature kapton -- and my order of kapton tape hasn't even shipped yet.

The components are all here. Digikey ships fast. I can't imagine how they can afford to snip three surface-mount resistors from a roll and put them in a plastic bag, but they will. I've got all my SMDs in a book I bought at Adafruit. It's smaller than I thought -- about the size of a trade paperback (but thicker). Has sheets of plastic slotted to safely contain cut strips of tape, and the plastic takes Sharpie so you can mark them (especially handy for caps, which don't usually have markings).

And the boards are arriving Friday. Of course there could be mistakes on the board that I can't fix with a few cuts and bridges, but really right now the big hold-up is the kapton. As soon as the oven is prepped, I can assemble a Holocron board and see if it is all going to work as designed.

Right now my priority projects are Holocron, House, and Horus. I promised to have a prototype ready for pictures by the end of the month. As soon as I can clean one more outstanding project off my desk, though, I desperately need to do some house cleaning. And I'm overdue to update the fanfiction.

But of course...I put an impulse buy in my last Amazon order, and I'm being cagey about the thing until I've actually tried it out and seen if I can play it. But I've been doing a lot of research, and I already have a laundry list of upgrades...some which I should probably do before the thing even arrives (currently scheduled for monday). Like one basic rule for bargain instruments; get new strings (or new mouthpiece, or new get the picture). My $30 ukulele became much, much nicer once I swapped out the strings that came on it for a set of Aquila's. Oh, and improved the setup. Marginally (shaved down the nut. Another seeming rule of cheap instruments is they come with the strings way too high).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Wrong Path to Competence

I own six keyboards, four recorders, four other assorted fipple flutes, a crumhorn, a shawn, and a ukulele. I just bought yet another instrument and I'm actively shopping for a new uke.

And I can't play anything well.

Okay, this isn't as bad as it looks. I'm not trying instrument after instrument hoping that one of them I'll actually be able to learn. Well, not entirely! On that flip side, there is a difference between individual examples of the same instrument. On the ukulele, for instance, beyond the fact that my first uke is very cheap, with a poor sound and the fretboard is not set correctly (meaning fretted notes are slightly out of ratio with open strings, it is also a "standard" or soprano. My fingers are really more comfortable on the just slightly larger (but otherwise identical "concert" ukulele.

(Of course, me being me, instead of just purchasing one I set out to carve my own solid-body electric. All the parts for that are still in a box in the closet.)

Even when you aren't the greatest player, cheap instruments are cheap instruments. They are harder to work with, harder to learn on, and can learn you bad habits. It is surprising just how much even a poor player like me can feel and hear between, say, a Yamaha 300 series and a Yamaha 600 series recorder. Same plastic, same shape, same company, but the more expensive one falls into the notes cleaner.

My crumhorn, as another example, is a Susato and is not even slightly in tune with itself. And is hell to articulate. I tried out a thousand-dollar hand-rebuilt Moeck soprano at an Early Music fair and that thing just sung...went right to the notes with a wonderfully clear tone and crisp attack and release.

Oh, yes. And only one of my keyboards is a full length controller with working keys. The Roland W30 has a plastic action and several broken keys, and everything but the Behringer are under 24 keys -- used almost entirely as effects controllers. (And even then, one of them is a replacement for one of the others, which has seen some hard use through the years).

Still, it does seem pretty silly that I have my eye on brass (would really like a trumpet with the whole "Silent Trumpet" practice system), a bowed string of some sort, electric guitar, and a couple drums...bodhran for starters, then see how it goes.

And, yes -- I just dropped fourteen bucks on an Irish tin whistle.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Crisis (on) Infinite Tombs

If you got the joke above, you are too much of a geek to need the explanation following.

Still hopeful to have a prototype new-model Holocron up by the end of the month. I revamped the shell design again and I really, really like the "stolen" design (aka, design inspired by one of the few holocrons to actually appear in a film or animation). I cringe to think of how much time I wasted trying to get other shell designs to work properly, when I should have just gone straight to doing this one right.

But work is tiring this week. Maybe a mistake listening to fan covers of game music instead of the history podcasts I usually listen to while I'm sanding wood and sorting scrap. Means I have more CPU cycles spare to dream up more ideas I don't have the time and energy to implement.

Such as: it would be a fun challenge to try to create the title track to a Tomb Raider game that never was.

Hence the reference above to DC Comic's famously flawed attempt to sort out their canon. There are essentially four unique Tomb Raider canon. Start with Core Design. In 1996, this game company released Tomb Raider. They followed it up with five more games, with 2003 seeing release of the polarizing Angel of Darkness. But in the end the sales figures, and some behind-the-scenes creative differences, sounded the end of that sequence.

Already there are two phantom games here; Core Design saw Angel of Darkness as the first of a tightly connected trilogy. In any case, although the earlier games in particular are rather casual towards any attempt at establishing an internal canon, as the games progressed they became progressively tighter-woven.

In the meantime the two movies with Angelina Jolie came and went. Core Design and Eidos (the parent company) thought the movie tie-in would help flagging sales but alas, neither property did as well as hoped. The two movies are consistent to each other, but have sharp differences with any other Tomb Raider canon.

(It is, of course, more...complex...than that. Winston has been a constant in every game but in the movie was replaced by Hillary. Yet, the Abingdon Estate of the movie became, quite clearly, the model for the manor in the Crystal Dynamics games. And so on and so forth.)

Crystal Dynamics took over, but gave some appearance of floundering with three games of markedly different character. Legend was the first, with a cheesy title sequence and more emphasis on the action-adventure aspects. Then Anniversary, which was a remake of Tomb Raider I...Natla, the T-rex, and all. Their third offering, Underworld, surprised everyone by making both previous games canonical with each other, and tying elements of both together into a single overarching plot.

Leaving aside a parallel Game Boy title as insufficiently memorable, 2010 also saw a new console set of top-down, cooperative-play games that appear to generally agree with the Crystal Dynamics trilogy. There had also been a comic book and a few books of debatable quality.

Finally, there is the 2013 game by Crystal Dynamics. This was the first time the series saw a complete reboot, a fully conscious and intentional change to the character and her back story and the style of the games. This is a darker and more psychological turn; the confident, independently wealthy adventuress who crosses the world with twin pistols blazing is replaced by a shy young archaeologist who has to find her inner strength after a shipwreck on a rather nasty little island.

Tomb Raider (2013) was followed by Rise of the Tomb Raider and a licensed comic book kept carefully within the framework established by the company. There are also plans for at least one movie; this marks the first time the series has clearly established a canon -- a brand, really -- and made sure all available materials stay in agreement with it.

So, right. A lot of background there. My idea, such as it was, is that there was a fourth Crystal Dynamics game building on what they had done before. I'm calling it Tomb Raider: Legacy. Fresh from the events of Underworld, Lara has at last achieved closure after her encounter with the remains of her vanished mother in the Norse underworld. She has returned home to the ruins of Croft Manor.

But it turns out another figure from her past is not as dead as everyone thought. Werner von Croy, her one-time mentor, and time has not mellowed him in the least. He is as dangerously obsessed as ever, and he leads her into discovery (in the usual exotic locales, particularly the Giza Plateau, the Bolivian jungle where her father vanished, and much nearer home; Stonehenge) of some particularly dark secrets of her own family. And betrayal is sure to follow.

Just like with Anniversary and Underworld, this game would have brought elements from some of the first games -- particularly Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation -- back into canon. It also would both reproduce the "Teen Lara" section from Legend and the legendary Revelation tutorial level by having you play as Von Croy's young student.

This is yet another direction, as the game would be deeper psychologically, generally slower and rather more role-playing in style; like Angel of Darkness you'd spend a lot of your time above ground in the everyday world interacting with people.

And Troels Brun Folmann is back again for the musical chores. This is an orchestral score like Underworld but with a lighter touch; more of a chamber orchestra sound, with the ethnic instruments of Legend -- except in this case, often referencing English folk music.

Every Tomb Raider game has had a unique theme, but usually close to or otherwise audibly referencing the original haunting melody Nathan McCree composed for solo oboe. A large part of the fun of this project would be to see if I can develop a theme and treatment that seats itself within the real history of the scoring for this franchise.

So I actually turned on the Behringer this evening and spent a few minutes trying to work the kinks out of my hands. I've never been even a "good" keyboard player -- on my best day I might achieve "passable," and I'm rusty now. But it does seem to still be there.

Maybe once the holocron is finished I'll have some more time to play....

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

God of Zombies

John Scalzi has a regular thing on his blog called "The Big Idea." This is where a guest author will attempt to explain what led them to write the book that is just hitting the presses. I think about this in terms of how confused and incomplete a lot of these ideas seem to be. In some cases, a grab-bag of various things that have been on the writer's mind, things that managed to finally fall together into a single story. In other cases, a single character or moment or image they then worked on to backfill.

Well, I have one of the latter.

The story starts as our protagonist has just crossed the border into upstate New York. Dorothy is a rootless, homeless wanderer, not sure what she is seeking (or what she is running away from). She was a humanities major -- a student of the Classics -- before she dropped out. But things are happening in the world and it's suddenly become a lot harder to drift and to get lost in the crowd. The gods have returned.

Well, sort of. There are beings that inspire certain very specific ideas and behaviors. London was visited by some sort of god of fire, and London was burned by its own populace. Other cities have been visited by their own afflictions. In upstate New York, the trouble is zombies. These aren't particularly violent zombies, at least. They are highly contagious, don't seem particularly intelligent, and are non-verbal...with one big exception.

They've been saying "Dorothy." And this young woman who just arrived in town seems to have discovered that she is -- unknown to herself -- their "god."

She's not the only stranger in town, though. There's another. He is a small, clever, reasonably good-looking young man who is the only survivor of a different incident. This was a riot, a Dionysian revel that ripped through a community destroying all outsiders. He answers to the name "Pan."

What are these gods? Why is Dorothy unaware of her own role? Why was Pan chased out by his own followers, and what secret agenda might he have?

Putting on the writer's hat, it seems obvious that these two are going to form an uneasy partnership, and the "zombies" are going to be a tool Dorothy uses as she tries to get to the bottom of this whole "god" thing. And save the Earth, of course. There are of course a lot more questions to answer.

At least from the Scalzi-blog, inchoate fragments like this can sometimes grow into a whole novel. Can't say I'm fond of zombies, though. Isn't the thing passed already? Although I do own up to starting (and not finishing) a story titled "Zombies of the Heliopause."

That latter was a sort of collection of monster tropes in technological garb; the zombie in question was what people had taken to naming the animated flesh used as telepresence avatars. Okay, take it back a fraction. Near-instantaneous communication but no major breakthroughs in space flight. So cheap to send data to a mining installation on Titan or a research station at the very outer edge of the Solar System, but expensive to send people. So fabricate bodies and upload the brain of a researcher. The bodies only last a few weeks, though, and it gets a bit grotesque towards the end.

Except a terrorist bomb killed the protagonist. So now he "lives" only as long as they can keep uploading him into successive (rotting) bodies. This is the state of affairs when he meets a vampire. Said "vampire" is another problem. Lots of people had turned to cryogenics as potential immortality. Well, ice crystal formation proved an intractable problem. The only discovered method to revive the corpsicles is to replace their blood with a low-temperature fluid with a huge oxygen-carrying capacity (similar to the stuff they've been experimenting with for deep diving), and also replace a lot of their nervous system with silver wire. And some other...wave hands rapidly here.

The vampires can't handle temperature or ultraviolet or, basically, life on Earth anymore. But since they can stay awake for weeks at a time -- their metabolism slowed to a crawl -- they make excellent pilots for those few human-operated spacecraft (they also have faster-than human reaction speed, are extremely long lived, etc., etc. But all as a super hand-wavy "this is because of the technological solution to their original problem. Aka being frozen.)

Said station is way out where the gravity well of the Sun is essentially masked by the local universe, and thus can work on tapping the vacuum energy. Which goes wrong. And what rescues them is the intervention of a ghost.... (a ghost in the machine, what else? One of a set of failed experiments in uploading a human psyche to a computer. Which turns out not to be a failure after all and thus is also the clue for the way out of our protagonist's original problem...)

Be that as it may. My "Roadie for the Elves with Guitars" novel idea remains stalled out, I haven't been able to grit my teeth and edit "Shirato" to the point where I can drop it on Amazon or whoever has the best ebook deal going this week, and thus the only writing I've been doing of late is fan fiction.

Well, retirement will come eventually. Maybe then I'll have time to write.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Borrowed Emotions

The following is a short (ish) essay I wrote to explain to an outsider about modern video game music and the fan community that enjoys listening to and performing it.

Borrowed Emotions

Video Games — like the movies and television — have always leaned on music to build a stronger and more nuanced emotional response. What has changed is that the music created for games can now look backwards and leverage the excitement and/or nostalgia generated by the game.

This is not to say there is nothing inherent in any piece of game music that makes it a delight to listen to or to play. To understand the spread and the impact, however, one needs to look at the context.

People are recreating the music of games old and new. Some do it as part of the creation and advertisement of games, and the support of the gaming industry as a whole. Some do it for private commercial interest; for sales and donations and job offers, and for the less tangible (but no less valuable) currency of recognition within the sprawling and pervasive social media. And some do it for their own pleasure, for the simple joys of recreating both the play and the listening experience.

The Venn Diagram above must be understood to be mostly intersection. Even the high school violinist teaching herself a theme from Skyrim by ear and posting a camera-phone recording of her attempting it is simultaneously playing for pleasure and earning social credit. From such beginnings some go on, through donations and album sales, to eventually become part of the team creating the next generation of games. But such should not be understood as the goal of all!

Fans have always been with us, writing fiction, creating costumes, building props from the stories they love. As far back as oral history stretches people have been leveraging the emotional impact of the familiar tale to grasp and hold their own audience. “Let me tell a tale of the Trojan War,” the story teller says, and his audience quiets down to listen.

But games, too, are part of the Nerd Singularity. The people who played and play them have grown up, gained disposable income, and moved into the workplace where they can guide what is created today. So there is money, now, for games to hire full orchestras to create their scores. And for trade shows to hire professionals to recreate the scores of old favorites, and for symphony orchestras to try to pull in new audiences with their own interpretations. The path goes both ways; in a nostalgic quest, a few intrepid souls are re-interpreting those same modern scores in the most authentic old-school beeps and boops possible!

So modern game music has the same variety of Music, capitalized. The technical limitations are essentially gone (although certain structural constraints remain — just as the opera requires different approaches than does the concerto). And so does the fan work in response. So in this collection you will hear a gamut; church choirs, high school bands, professional musicians, new learners. I admit to a bias towards efforts featuring the piano, and also made sure that some themes would appear again in new guises as different artists approached them. I also intentionally left out the polished performances by hired orchestras that appear at certain conventions and concert halls, in order to focus better on the people who are performing to share the love and excitement of the music and of the game behind it.

Sing, Oh Goddess, of the wrath of Megaman….

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bow in Hand

I'm right in the middle of getting the Holocron out to the potential customers (people who have expressed a firm interest, that is). So of course listening to all that game music has sidelined my thoughts. Which are pretty inchoate at the moment.

Start with synthesis. I've been listening to both recorded and live symphonic music, and synthesized versions of same. And I think I've modified a previous opinion. There's something intrinsic to the "real" orchestra that gives it that power. An intangible something, not easy even for a sound designer like me to try to point to.

At first glance synthesized orchestral instruments would seem to have it over synthesis of solo acoustic instruments in being convincing. And at this first glance, yes. A synthetically produced backing track can natter on in sub-John Williams for hours without attracting attention to its nature. But then you put the real deal in your ears, and there's an excitement and a power and a presence. Somehow, all those little bits of noise and blurring and sweat and spit  that mark a mass of real humans all working in concert comes through: and the effect is inspiring.

And, oddly, synthesized solo instruments can often fake it more convincingly. Well, some. Plucked strings like guitar fare better than wind instruments. The extremely vocal nature of the saxophone makes the real deal stand out. Oddly enough, there's something about all the brass that doesn't take to synthesis. It always feels somehow off. Paradoxically, I find the synthesized brass that is most emotionally stirring is that which most demonstrates its artificiality; the thick "brass" sound of DX and JV synthesizers as heard in disco and 80's pop. It is as if there is an uncanny valley; "almost human" sounds worse than "clearly artificial." But on the flip side, a synthesized guitar can leap out and grab you with that intangible "reality." And this isn't even, oddly enough, a result of modern synth patches being built on full-length note samples played on actual instruments, because the same prickle of hair on the back of the neck can be raised by a guitar sound originating entirely in physical modeling synthesis.

Well, on the practical side, putting the humanity into synthesized tracks is work. A lot of work. Garritan's libraries introduced some clever tricks to allow a keyboard player more of the expression natural to a wind player (at the cost, of course, of even more concentration necessary to record the track in, and more time spent in laborious hand editing when the take didn't quite go right). This may be as simple as throwing in a few guitar lift-off and fret squeak noises (which go a surprisingly long way in fostering the illusion), or it may be as laborious as recording each and every violin in a section individually (a tremendous amount of work but the results are startling).

When I was doing my own pop-orchestral synthesis projects, I struck a compromise by breaking down to each desk or chair; recording two or three times for each section of violins, then again for violas, 'cellos, basses. Besides giving a better sound than a "string" patch, I think the internal movement possible when doing this is a heck of a lot more idiomatic to that massive complicated instrument we call the symphony orchestra.

If you simply must have exposed solo lines, then there's an old bag of synthesist tricks. Add little bumps to volume and (even more subtly) pitch. Hand-add your vibrato rather than trusting the patch programming to handle it. For that matter -- I used to write string lines with hand-fingered tremolo. Which is pretty much the same reason that playing in a track on keyboard (or other MIDI instrument) is superior to dropping it in mechanically with editing tools.

None of this is new. I realized way back on my second sound design using orchestral synthesis that I favored a performance by even an amateur human over the sterility of the synthesized material. The best of both worlds being using a little of both (as was recognized very early on, to the extent that a major package for synthesized backing tracks for musical theater cautions that the more parts you replace with live players, the better the result will sound).

Most of the game music covers I have been admiring of late showcase a soloist on a real instrument, seated against backing tracks that are better able to hide their synthetic origins. Of course one has to have a musician -- better yet, a singer -- capable of doing justice to the material. Because on the far side of that Uncanny Valley is the perception of a real human who is playing wincingly out of tune, and that can be even more distracting than a clearly but unabashedly artificial player.

And thus we come to my own somewhat prickly relationship to music. I'm not a musician. I lack a lot of basic skills. More than that, I lack the "heart." There's something I can hear in everything I do which is a lack of soul. So perhaps I am best suited to exactly that sort of solo MIDI composing I seem to be disparaging above. Except even that fails if done mechanistically. You can be precise, you can use the technology, but you still have to have those sensitive artistic choices.

Sure, I lack sufficient interest to gain the other basic skills. I think I have pitch sense. I can stumble around in sheet music but can't really read. Certainly not sight-reading. And my memory is horrible. Working in musical theater as I do, I am surrounded by people who can remember every note in a long song. I get lost if a tune is any longer than the Westminster Chimes. And this would probably have come with practice. I remember starting up at bouldering walls once wondering if I'd ever be able to memorize an entire sequence. Which I do so easily now it isn't even worth remarking.

Oh, yes, and at some point so long ago I can't even remember it I must have sat down and learned my scales, because I can still go through all the majors without having to think about it (the minors come a little harder).

I'm not sure which I hate worse; the things I am conscious I lack the internal wiring to ever do well, or the things I hold the (possibly mistaken) opinion that I could learn to do if I only had the time.

I do know that the vastly larger portion of the time I have spent working with computer music has been technical labor. Organizing patch libraries, editing samples, plugging and unplugging gear; constantly trying to come up with a rig that I can just sit down at and play instead of having to fuss with every time. But the Red Queen's Race of technology can not be won in this arena either. As fast as I learned one piece of hardware or software, a better one would come to replace it. In the end all I had to show was tinkering, and a few scraps of pieces created on equipment so long-gone it is useless to think of continuing work on them.

And all in all, I would have done better -- I still might do better -- to put aside the computers and spend a little more time with my ukulele. (Which, oddly, is the only musical instrument that gets any attention these days. Dust is collecting on my new Behringer controller keyboard, and I've almost totally forgotten how to work in Reaper, but my uke sees almost daily use. A strum here and there is so very relaxing.)

I've been tempted for quite a while now to try to combine the opening tracks to classic Tomb Raider and the series Stargate SG1. And for that matter tinker up a jazz interpretation of the Black Mesa theme. But to close for the moment, here's the last full-length piece I did for my own amusement. Which was more years ago than I'm comfortable thinking about.


(And here's the fiddly little details. This actually came out of that laborious and possibly pointless process spoken of earlier; collecting and editing patches. Found a freeware "old music box" patch and as soon as I had it connected to a keyboard started playing a sort of Danny Elfman inspired ostinato with intentionally quirky chromatic development. I can't say "harmonic," because I am still grossly ignorant of that whole aspect of music theory. Anyhow, built on it with mostly Garritan patches, and added a few layers of sound effects. The closest this whole thing gets to the idea of incorporating real performance is that all the foley is mine. I walked a pair of mary janes across a wooden floor on my hands, for instance. And then did a whole bunch of manipulation on those samples, of course....)

(And that's actually another idea I've been tinkering with, ever since seeing a video on how a certain mechanical music machine was recorded. And that is to make use of available acoustic instruments -- cheap ones or improvised ones -- with the intent of capturing the human element of the performance and some of the noise and grit that gives it a grounding in reality. But then processing the audio to make it sound better. The kind of dial-tweaking to bring out the essential character that I've been doing on sound effects for years, really. And come to think, I did this once; my work for a children's production of Mulan included my processed version of a handful of dowels I rapped on the floor as a percussion element.)

Rudimentary what?

If a lathe can build a lathe, it makes total sense that there are scads of people upgrading their cheap T962 reflow ovens (used to solder surface mount components)....with new circuit boards filled with surface mount components. (Well, the first thing I printed with a borrowed M3D 3d printer was a spool holder for itself).

I'm already unhappy with some aspects of my new board. I plan to drop down to 0805 chip size, for instance, and (having carefully read the Design Rules at OSHPark) narrower traces packed closer together. I can probably shrink the board by half! But I'll wait before I change anything. I expect to learn quite a bit when I solder up the first prototypes, and more when I try to program them and put them in Holocron kits.

Already I have grand dreams, of course. Given one of various audio chips and a socket for micro-SD, I could actually make a "talking" holocron. And of course if some of the ideas on the new board pan out, I'll be one step closer to actually having the DuckLite marketable. Oh, yes. And back to Wraith Stone as well (already I'm wondering...can I do capacitive touch sensing if it is hung around my neck?)

Also burned a CD for dad. He probably knows very well that video games passed the chip-tunes barrier roughly the time they stopped using vector graphics. But I'm not putting together a "greatest hits." The original conversation was about amateur covers, so I've tried to pack in a good spectrum of skill levels and a variety of approaches, from people recording themselves on a camera phone messing around on the piano in their front room, to professional-level production numbers like the work of Lindsey Stirling.

The first video I saw from Lindsey, she did a nice cover on violin of themes from the Zelda series. The production values really raised the bar; exceptional recording and mixing and professional-level backing tracks that are almost seamless. And the video is of her traipsing in gorgeous scenery, with her violin and with equally gorgeous outfits based on characters from the game. But what really nails it is how lively she is, sawing away at her violin, leaping about, all with this fantastic grin on her face.

Oh, yes, and there was one of those Oh My God moments. You know how it is when you've just learned about something new, something you are just getting into, something you want to share your excitement of with friends? And you open the wrong door and suddenly there's this massive conference room absolutely jammed by people who are into the same thing and know it more deeply and more expertly and are more passionate about it than you will ever be.

Yeah, all of this discovery of amateur covers of music from video games has been like that. Well, I knew they were out there. I didn't realize just how many, how good they really were, and how popular they are. The moment that really informed me was a video from a concert of game music (with a professional orchestra and band) at the Symphony Hall in Boston.

So soloist steps up and starts singing. Giant cheer as the crowd recognizes the number ("Still Alive," of course, from the breakout hit Portal). But that's not the worst. They start singing along. A huge, symphony-hall sized audience, and every one was a better fan than I'll ever be. I recognize the tune. They know all the words.

(There's another moment in the same video that perhaps needs some setting up. The lyric is "Maybe Black Mesa? That was a joke, haha, fat chance." Well, the soloist stepped back and let the audience sing that part. And I can't help thinking that there was a certain bitter humor in their voices. Because "Black Mesa" is the location of the first game in the Half-Life series, games created by the same company who made Portal, and the long-awaited third and final game of that series is now considered by fans to be the gaming industry's greatest piece of vaporware. "Haha, fat chance," all right. There is no longer a "maybe" about Black Mesa.)

So anyhow. Tried to select a number of piano covers, and made a conscious effort to bring back some of the same themes (in the way a concerto might) by showing off different covers of material from the same games. And I tried to focus in on games I've played myself but not only aren't there a lot of offerings there but that would leave off some of the great stuff like Skyrim, the Final Fantasy series, and of course Zelda. And I shuffled and shuffled to get a good flow, building up tension and relieving it, contrasting styles while maintaining certain continuities to help one track follow another.

Tried, too, to include some of the contexting. To show the penetration of game music into church choirs and high school marching bands, the intense fan interest, the stature of acoustic instruments and vocalists and life performance and the cross-cultural world community (as contrast the possible stereotype of nerdy white guys tinkering up music tracks in MIDI). And show too the social networking, the recording and collaboration and jam sessions that take place through the online world.

What I really wish is a little more space than a CD. I have five hours of the stuff already on my hard disk (I auditioned twice that many before making even that selection, and that's barely a quarter of what turned up in my rather basic searches). But then, dad will probably turn off around the middle of the second track anyhow.

So now I just need to find the Ukulele music I promised...

It's Not Future Shock

It's a sort of personalized obsolescence. Which bleeds into a creeping realization of mortality, and comes with the baggage of a nearly overwhelming sense of futility.

That's the trouble with growing up. The more you learn, the more you realize just how much more there is to learn. And when things change -- technologies change, jobs change, lives change -- big chunks of that parcel of skill and knowledge so laboriously achieved fall away into useless garbage.

I should be having a good day. I finished my circuit and sent the files off the fab house (OSHPark). I listened to some very nice music including some pieces that brought tears to my eyes -- and stuffed them into a playlist to savor again.

But while scrounging around for a blank CD (which itself was a bit of future shock; I haven't burned an audio CD in so long I didn't even know if there was software on my laptop to do it. I could only assume that since it still has -- unlike many laptops these days -- an optical drive, it could burn as well as read. Which was a rarity as recently for me as two computers ago.)

Anyhow, while looking for the blank I had to push aside some boxes of software. Software I have no use for now, little remaining memory of how to use them, and in some cases I don't even remember those long, long hours trying to master that particular item.

Software skills go obsolete with frightening speed. Other skills are less hit by technological obsolesce. Yet. Life seems to move at so much a brisker pace, a lot of the craft skills I learned and used to apply are just too time consuming to consider now. Among the things I once had time for -- or at least can remember once dabbling in -- and can't see sparing the moment for today.

And long is the list of things I once knew or could do but am hopelessly rusty at now. In this new stripped-down streamlined life, I find myself relying on a sort of muscle-memory of what was once a base of knowledge. I learned a bit about how to write, for instance. Studied character development and plotting and pacing and use of mirrors and archetypes and all that lot. And I can't consciously remember any of that now. I just...write. And hope that all that time spent in learning left a residue back there that is unconsciously shaping my choices.

Having to rely on muscle memory, on the Cliff Notes version, of how it felt to have a skill (as opposed to actually having the current and practiced skill) leaves you open to stupid mistakes. And makes it easier to throw away even the memory of those old lessons in order to pick up a new rule-of-thumb that may not be right but is close enough for the job that is due today.

I'm reading a lot of history now. I feel like I'm starting to learn something. But slowly I'm starting to remember hitting the history books before. Read nearly two dozen books on the Pacific War, for instance. I'm sure I read Churchill's "The River War," and several others besides. For that matter -- there was a short time that I was fascinated by the stories of pioneer female aviators, reading books by Jackie Cochrane, "Pancho" Barnes, Beryl Markham and others.

So perhaps it is yet another illusion of knowledge, a sense of having your finger on all the essential names and dates, the Sneferu's and the Sennacherib's (and I had to look up the spelling of the latter!) that lasts only long enough for you to turn in the final exam or pass the orals. Perhaps all we ever do is coast on, on an illusion of knowledge; either one borne of knowing too little in the first place, or one borne of putting in the effort but managing to forget not just most of what we learned but most importantly the sense of just how little we'd actually managed to learn in the first place.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


What did I say earlier about "gotchas?" Well, this time it wasn't an unknown unknown. It was a perfectly-well known unknown.

I was cleaning up the silkscreen on my latest PCB. Couldn't get the SMD-type USB connector to look nice. But while I was working on it...I realized I'd never checked it against the actual sourced part. Which, upon examination of the engineering drawings, turned out to be...a through-hole. Serves me right for putting a part on there I hadn't personally vetted!

So once again into the mysteries of Eagle part creation.

And when that was done...realized this would be the first circuit I've made in years that doesn't have a blinkenlight for power status. I know; if it is working right, it will have a stack of neopixels for display. But that little status LED is just so durn handy for back to the CAM files to stick another pair of 1206 SMDs in one of the remaining available corners.

You know what? Those 0805's don't look so scary anymore. I think this will be the last board I do with the larger SMDs. And if stencil and reflow go well, then...FTDI and beyond!

And the board passed the DRC -- with some modification of two of the thermal pads/polygon fills -- and the order placed at OshPark. Now I just have to see if I have the budget left for the parts...and move on to working out the new art for the laser!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Perfect Crash

I'm finishing up the Holocron PCB; it should go out to the fab house Wed or Thursday. So no time to write fiction. (And no time to make short, clear, interesting blog posts, either).

But I was browsing random images today and ran into one end of a perfect string of what I need to do with the second next chapter of the fanfic. The picture was of one of the UFO-themed eateries in Roswell, NM. And an expansion of an existing search turned up petroglyphs not far away. And a glance at the map confirms New Mexico makes a lot more sense as the start of a road trip to Northern California from someone who started in Colorado (well, more sense than Raleigh, NC, which is where I had her before!)

And one of the bloggers I follow has just recapped an older post he had about the claims of medieval Europeans in Arizona by one of the two people who inspired the character Lara Croft will be encountering. So everything points towards the Four Corners, generically.

I'm going to miss the chance to check out the Indian Mounds of the Mississippian culture but I should be able to do all the stuff I want to about the racist underside of hyper-diffusionism and the actual (and impressive) cultures of North America, and the strange bedfellows between weird strains of American evangelicalism, UFO belief, and Atlantis...the way the need to believe that a Greek/Jewish/White European culture was behind the Pyramids, the bronzework of Benin, or Indian Mounds, which grew and morphed with much help from Theosophy to a "Atlanteans/Space Aliens were the seed of all world culture" (which in recent years has been re-costumed yet again with the influence of pre-millennial dispensationists and the like as "Atlanteans/Space Aliens/Angels" -- fused into a hybrid concept often given the name "Nephilim.")

I've always loved the desert -- took road trips out to Lassen and into Death Valley before, trained in that area as well -- and Roswell NM is just such a weird place in that American Roadside Attraction way it will be a lot simpler to make some memorable visuals as backdrop to the (also thematically very appropriate) long-distance road trek of the Damnation Alley- like "Ark III" they'll be riding in.

And I'm afraid I'm going to have to push back a little on the directions "Colonel" Newberry was moving. I still think he is wicked smart, and probably knows a lot of the pseudo-archaeology he's pushing is bullshit, but really he has two important jobs to do in the narrative. One is to be a foil, a devil's advocate; someone who can argue intelligently for the, shall we say, non-mainstream views. But the other and in my mind more important task is to amplify on my peculiar take on just what the relationship is between Lara Croft and real archaeology (for the purposes of this story, note. I firmly believe there are multiple valid takes one could make).

Basically, it is that her world is very close to ours. Almost every legend and myth and tall tale, almost every Bigfoot sighting and Coso Artifact and so forth are exactly what they are in our world; mistakes and hoaxes. Very, very rare are those things that are actually true. Lara has the seemingly magical talent (or maybe just sheer luck) to have found more than one of them. And in my construct, once you find one, your chances of finding others goes up. The Colonel is Lara Croft without that luck. He's smart, he's physically fit, he's got the money and the gear, the smarts and the determination....the only thing he lacks is one of those tremendously handy "tombs" to raid.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Riding Thermals

Show is over, and Holocron board is routed. Now I just need to add fill polygons and thermal vias to help with the heat around the charge circuit components, run the Design Rules checks, clean up the silkscreen, and generally inspect and clean up all the layers preparatory to sending out to the fab house.

Haven't decided if it is worth doing a few parts with syringe and soldering iron or just go straight into solder stencil and reflow oven. I'll be doing more boards, and I'm committed to using a lot more SMDs going forward. This one's basically populated with 1206's and SOT-23's, plus some through-hole parts, but the Wraith Stone is going to go down to at least 0806 if not 0603's.

Not that I've really built up my Eagle library yet. Only a few parts on this board are verified footprints (aka, I already had a board fabbed with them and everything worked).

I may even start putting an FTDI chip on my Arduino compatibles. It's only a 20-pin SMD, not even fine-pitch.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Chapter Adverse

Under the weather and staying in today. And I have -- despite all experience to the contrary -- fond hopes I might finish the schematic for the Holocron board/ducklight ver. 2.

Not the PCB itself; I have some realism! I need to play with heat profiles and thermal vias, double-check footprints, and of course clean up the silkscreen...and I haven't even routed the board yet.

So of course I'm taking a short break to think about the next chapter in the fanfic.

If I had a proper outline, I'd have a pretty good idea what had to happen in each chapter. The same exercise, after all, takes place fractally within each chapter, within each scene, down to the line of dialog or sentence of description.

As an example, in my last chapter I had a "bit" I wanted to do; Alister gets talked into learning how to shoot, but unexpectedly turns into one of those gun collector types who go into raptures about Broad Arrows and Suicide Sears. This framed out as a series of snapshots where he brings more and more unusual guns out to the shooting range. A number of "beats," to use that useful bit of theater terminology. I needed Alister getting a bad start, Alister trying a different gun, Alister bringing out the first unusual gun, and finally Alister talking glibly about his latest unusual gun. As it worked out, I built those beats around several specific handguns; a SIG-sauer P226, a Colt Police Positive, a Whitney Wolverine, and a Nambu Type 14. With a Gyrojet for the payoff gag later.

Between those scenes would be more dry history lesson, so I'd planned to send some mooks into the manor and have a nice knock-down fight to finish the chapter on a high note. Except that this parallel structure, in which each Alister scene was followed by three other scenes, drove my page count too high.

This is the problem of writing serial style. I know where I'm going and approximately how long it is going to take, but the details I'm figuring out only a chapter or two ahead.

So now the exercise is looking at how many "beats" there are in the fight, and seeing if these stretch out to fill a chapter, or if I have to add other business. And there's another problem. Once the fight is over I've got several revelations I can make, and that will pad out the page count, but I don't want the climax of the chapter to occur around the middle.

For pacing reasons, then, I'm contemplating having the discussion of who the heck Amanda is while the armed men she has sent are still crawling around the manor looking for the Wraith Stone. And there's the planning at the moment. I have "bits," but I don't have beats. Daniel has to talk a mook down. Teal'c has to show off his mastery of the manor's hidden passageways, and the gyrojet needs to be taken down from the mantlepiece and fired a few times.

Once I've broken it into beats, and arranged and interleaved them in a way that supports the overall arc of the chapter, I can do a little division and see how close I will make it to my target word count this time.

And it is midnight, and I still feel awful, but the schematic is almost finished -- just need to add the resistor ladder for the function buttons, the resistor for the capacitance sensor, and a couple more decoupling and power smoothing capacitors. Oh, yeah, and figure out a footprint for the mercury tilt switch I managed to score on eBay.