Sunday, November 19, 2017

Origin of Species

The Khajiit piece is coming along. Went to a concert of Early Music last night and it has given me ideas.

Mostly about counterpoint...most of the songs performed last night were tenorlieder, in which the outer voices dress a melody held in the tenor voice. Pity I don't have a tenor recorder, and my Susato crumhorn in quality brown ABS plastic is not really suitable for a lyrical line (I can play one, and in theory it fits -- the cat in Prokovfiev's Peter and the Wolf is performed by a low-register clarinet, but in practice the sound is just a little too silly.)

The Bodhran also arrived yesterday. I'm not making a video of that one for the "How long does it take?" series, though. Within an hour or two I could perform the parts I'd written (well...I'd intentionally written parts I was pretty sure I could learn). Before the afternoon was done I also had a pretty good start on the Bodhran triplet.

But then, that series is kind of a fail. First off, I don't have the patience to properly script and edit video (plus I was going for the immediacy and honesty of showing what it really sounds -- and looks -- like when you are struggling with an instrument for the first time.) So it is rambling and semi-coherent (much like this blog).

Second is the question is far too open-ended. "How long does it take to learn to play?" is the perennial question, and the only real answer is, "The rest of your life."

How good is "good enough?" I have been theorizing that there is a fuzzy line you cross where you actually feel like you are playing a melody as opposed to struggling through a technical exercise. But on reflection, I think the question is better turned on it's head; "How bad do you sound after n hours?" Would you be willing to let a friend listen to you after six hours? Would you rather wait six weeks? How long before you tried to play with someone else, in a band, or record?

The other fail is that I'm not a complete noob. I've been messing around with instruments for a long time. I've struck a variety of drums in my life, including as much as a hundred hours on the pads of my electronic drum set. So bouncing a stick off a membrane and getting a good tone is not new territory for me.

The U-bass was a similar exercise. I've never played bass, but I've a couple years of ukulele already. So I'm not starting from ground zero. And in all cases, I have a smattering of music theory, experience in how instruments are supposed to sound (from recording and mixing them), and decades of experience with other complicated manual motions from various sorts of tool and craft use. "Hold it this way and turn your hand this way and then apply pressure like this" is not a terrifying new prospect. It's just one more set of muscle memories to absorb.

And, yeah, the trumpet. I've tried to get a tone from a horn in the past, messed with it enough to be able to get two partials out of a post horn. And I also knew the theory. But the trumpet brings up another problem with the "how long does it take?" question. Because you can practice for a week, but your actual practice time is only a couple of hours.

The reason is, the first hurdle to the trumpet is building strength in your embouchure. You literally can not practice for more than five minutes at a time, and twenty minutes in a day is pushing it. Your muscles fatigue after that and there's nothing more that can or should be done with that instrument that day.

The violin is similar in that getting that rotation -- particularly as an adult -- is bad enough that wrist and shoulder and neck and back strain show up quite rapidly. The pain is enough to mess with your concentration after fifteen minutes. Even now, I get sore if I try to push past thirty minutes without a break. So the time you spent in "days" is not really indicative of the total effort.

(That's not counting watching instructional videos, doing finger exercises, reading up, cleaning and maintaining the instrument, and so forth).

And that also means it isn't actually that silly to be practicing four or five instruments at once. Particularly since I'm practicing the actual instrumental lines I mean to start recording within the week.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Xenephon's Cravat

I'm very much on with "Five Senses" writing. Isaac Asimov made a long and fruitful career without describing as much as the color of a character's hair, but I gravitate towards fiction with enough look and feel to make me feel as much physically embedded in the setting as I am intellectually engaged with the story.

This is not always the easiest stuff to research, especially as one moves back in time. It is also not the easiest thing to describe. The colors in a sunset or the odors of a cooking fire are easy enough to translate to modern eyes and nostrils, but how does one economically carry across design motifs, clothing styles, technologies?

This is exacerbated by the fact that it is much easier to find the name "khopesh" or "krater" than it is to find out how heavy it is, how it breaks, how it smells, how to carry it; in short, all the five-senses stuff that is at the forefront of the experience of someone actually living around and using these things. The name is of use mostly to those who are cataloging them, so of course so many sources both contemporary and modern tend towards lists of names.

Names are also an often necessary short-hand. In a modern-day setting the writer can say "Paris" or "Taxi" or "Starbuck's Coffee" without having to explain and describe. The look and feel comes across to the reader because they have their own sensory experience with the thing to draw upon. Or at least have encountered sufficient other descriptions to be able to fill in.

But for those things which are not modern (or referred to frequently within modern contexts?) Well, there's one peculiarity to note right off. There appear to be certain genres or periods -- Victorian era and Roman era leap to mind -- where part of the contract with the reader is an assumption that the reader knows what a cravat, a Hansom Cab, a spatha, a legate is. And there are sufficient depictions so said reader can get a little of the five-senses impression of how loud, uncomfortable, effective, powerful, etc. these things are, in addition to the general size and shape and color.

This is not like, say, shogun, samurai, kimono and katana, which are more-or-less assumed to be part of our general cultural knowledge (as inaccurate as common understanding of these things might be). This is instead a special expectation; that someone drawn to stories set around Rome or with a Lost Legion on patrol will know or will make an effort to know what the lorica and gladius are and have at least some idea what it means to be a Roman.

I'm pretty sure the Bronze Age isn't one of these exceptions. So the names alone are insufficient. The names are often problematic anyhow. For every wonderfully expressive, essentially self-translating term like "ox-hide ingot," you have two like "krater" that need translation, and two like "stirrup jar" that seem useful until you realize stirrups hadn't been invented yet.

This latter is a tremendous problem for the writer. Not only do many terms in English have specific, known (and therefor culturally inappropriate) origins, so do individual words. "The point of no return" comes from aviation, "running the gauntlet" came to English in the 17th century and had a Swedish origin (although there is a Greek equivalent, "Xylokopia," that just puts it back into the other problem of needing translation.)

You need to catch as many of them as you can, because once the reader's attention is attracted, they are going to realize how many of the words you are using in an ordinary 20th century English-language text are quite obviously derived from other languages, and that brings up too many questions you don't want them to have.

I ran into this during Shirato when I wanted to mention a certain blue glow but "Cherenkov" is both a personal name and the name of a Russian. Which didn't fit at all with my pseudo-Japanese setting. It yanks the reader out of the text while the ordinary anglo-saxon (despite its also complex cultural origins) sneaks by unremarked.

And what do you do with something like "Wanax?" It is the appropriate name of a Mycenaean ruler of the palatial period. It is similar to "king" but there are important differences. Put "King" in the book and the reader will make certain assumptions that don't fit the culture under discussion. But put "Wanax" and you have to explain it, slowing the narrative. Or -- from a later period -- there is the entirely appropriate word "tyrant," which was applied then without the pejorative sense we give it today thus would, again, require explanation.

I'm willing to bet there is no global rule. Each item has to be approached on a case-by-case basis. "King" will do because we're not going to meet many of them, but "Basileus" (which is a later Greek transliteration of a fortunately quite similar Mycenaean term) is a better match for the former functionaries/local governors who during the LHIIIC phase of Mycenaean culture take over from the fallen palaces and morph over the years into local chieftains/warlords.

"Khopesh" is fine because it is vaguely familiar to the audience and (vowels aside) is a faithful recreation of the Egyptian "ḫpš."  "Naue-II" is out because it is obviously an academic coinage and contains the name of the German archaeologist who categorized them. Since they were traded all over the place there are probably some authentic names for them out there, but as that doesn't help visualize them it would be best to describe them from an in-universe point of view; "One of the long narrow swords that had come out of the North in recent years."

And, yeah; this little game is even harder when it comes to the names of entire peoples. I am perhaps fortunate that in the period I am writing few have a national identity per se; they are mostly tribal, with a certain affiliation towards cities in some places. My Mycenaean may self-identify as Athenian, for instance; Athana or perhaps Athenai goes back as a city name to at least the late Bronze Age. My Laconian is less lucky, as his people (quite possibly Mycenae fleeing from the collapse of the palatial system) didn't move from the lower Peloponnese into Laconia until a few hundred years later.

And of course "Egypt" is a modern transliteration of classical Greek; the earlier Linear B inscription is "a-ku-pi-ti-yo" which possibly derived from the Amarna-period name "Hikuptah." Which is back to the original naming problem; "Egypt" is expressive but wrong, but "Hikuptah" would take a bunch of explanation. The one advantage I have in my particular story is my characters are a polyglot bunch; the moment one of them says one name, another will correct or amplify with the name that their people use!

Just as well the Bronze Age is not one of the periods with a special dispensation. Because this research is tough enough without having to face those critical and well-informed readerships.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

TechShop RIP

I can't say I didn't see it coming. When I gave them a thousand bucks for the current year's membership I did so reluctantly aware they might not last the year.

What I didn't expect -- what no-one expected -- is that one Wednesday morning their loyal members would find the doors locked, no-one answering the phone...nothing but a (belated) email later that afternoon explaining that they had filed Chapter 7 and no longer existed as a company.

Yes, I understand why the members were kept in the dark. They were still hoping to find an investor or strike a bargain. But on sober reflection I don't sympathize. The above translates as, "We were in such dire financial shape we had to hide our books from the suckers we were trying to entice to give us more money, so of course we had to lie to our own members lest they give the truth away."

So, yeah. I feel betrayed.

It was a useless effort anyway. When I realized TechShop was in trouble I went web surfing and everywhere I found future investors hanging out, they all knew damn well (and in better depth and detail than I did) how bad off TechShop was.

It might have been smarter to be open and lay out exactly what they were dealing with. The kind of help they needed went beyond finding some random guy in Dubai to send them an infusion of cash. They needed a restructuring, they needed a better business model.

But I have to wonder if this wasn't almost implicit in shape of the very thing we were trying to preserve. TechShop was Maker. It ran on the philosophy of throwing it together. A sort of laissez-faire approach to building where doing it the right way or even the safe way was de-emphasized in favor of experiment and originality and the freedom to fail.

I loved the hands-off approach. TechShop gave you just enough instruction to get started and at least know the obvious ways to cut your own hands off, then let you alone to study, learn, and make your own mistakes. The alternatives I've looked at are much more about the "community," with a touchy-feely atmosphere so strong it makes you look around for the Kool-aid. If you wanted to come in at ten at night, speak to no-one, log into the machine and make a few cuts TechShop was the place to be.

The thing that I will miss most is the multitude of options. Sure, I can get access to many of the operations and some of the machines. I can send away to Ponoko to laser. I can get printing done at Shapeways. I can build my own mini vacuum-former and I can do some machining at the machines at work. But this isn't the same as having all those tools right there to hand.

When TechShop was open I could laser off a little bit bit of material or even a stencil or whatever. Now it is either wait two weeks for Ponoko or use hand-cut with X-acto knives and what-not or simply find some other (probably less efficient) way of achieving the desired effect. I was just that day contemplating using the Brother CNC embroidery machine for a possible project -- that's how I found out within a few hours of the closure.

It is a more flexible, nimble, exploratory way of working. Having daily access also better supports iteration; you can try out ideas knowing that you can run off an improved part the next day. Having to mail off a file and wait two weeks for delivery (plus paying the money for the service) seriously constrains that.

The part I regret most is all of the leveling up. I found all the collectables, I finished the side quests, and I unlocked so much. Which is to say, I took (and paid a lot of money for) a great many Safety and Basic Use classes. CNC mill, CNC router, 3d printer, laser scanner, laser engraver, metal lathe, wood lathe...  That is all waste. The classes are far too introductory to be considered worthwhile general instruction in that tool, and they are too site-specific to save me anything at somewhere like, say, Crucible -- meaning more time and more money to get back to having full access to the same tools.

What could they have done differently? Well, for one thing they were badly organized and badly managed. And their crisis response was to do more of the same. When they saw budget shortfalls they spent less on maintenance and salaries and started shorting their own instructors. Which is to say; they removed value from the thing they were trying to sell in the first place. They also ran endless promotions, which besides bringing in short-term cash at the cost of long-term income (membership specials that over the long run brought in less than the cost of maintaining that membership) raised a pervasive odor of desperation.

I would have gladly paid more. I'm not sure how many other members would agree, but perhaps if they had been open about their books we might have. I'm also not sure it would have been enough.

Let me attempt a back-of-the-envelop here. Assume capital investment in the actual machines on the order of 20K per "machine," a half-dozen machines in four generalized groupings -- call it 20 and apply another 20 worth of smaller tools and supplies. So that's 800K to be amortized over ten years of service life before you need to spend an equivalent amount in replacement or repair. Double that annual cost to 160K to cover staffing, utilities, etc. (And that's probably an understatement; even with the expense of these tools I could easily see their amortization working out to only a quarter of the total annual costs).

I'd say there were fifty people there most times I've visited, with capacity say a hundred. That allows a standing membership of 400-800. Being generous, the latter 800 members would have to pay...$2,000 annually. Which isn't that far off (their Makers Fair specials ran that number down to just below $1k, but to compensate monthly members pay about %140).

I suspect strongly my numbers are far too low both on ongoing maintenance costs for the equipment and staffing costs. So...would I have spent 4K for a membership? Perhaps.

I'm going to also assume that classes are a wash; they money they bring in should go into decent pay for the instructors, because you want quality instructors but the class prices are about as high as anyone wants to go. Also, quality instructors means you could expand past the SBU's and start offering proper in-depth instruction for those that wanted it.

But here's where the model that works for me stumbles into the question of the actual market. And I have some deeply pessimistic ideas about that. I've noticed at other corners of the generalized Maker sphere that the emphasis is on "getting your feet wet." Everyone is offering introductory classes, introductory kits, first-time user specials.

Which is great, and also links into STEAM and the focus on getting more young people started into actually building things again. Leaving aside the gripe that so many of these kits and classes seem more about the illusion of building things -- the Arduino equivalent of a Paint-By-Numbers kit -- I keep getting the sensation that the biggest problem the Make movement faces is retention.

By which I mean I suspect a great many more people are "getting their feet wet" than who actually end up swimming. So that model of yearly members bringing in a steady cash flow may be wrong. It may be that many of the people at TechShop come in for a month, a week, even a single class. Or send their kid there on a STEAM outreach program. And maybe print something or do a couple name tags on the laser printer but don't stay.

And, sure, the typical cycle for the serious user/entrepreneur is to go three to five years during development and growth: until they can afford their own machines and don't need to continue paying membership. I suspect particularly the generalist (like me) is very much the minority. I made "props." Most people coming in on a regular basis are making "product" and they rapidly narrow down to just one or two machines that they do most of the work on (and can as their business grows afford to own themselves).

There's also the impression among some that there are members thriving on the atmosphere. Like investment bankers soaking in the artsiness of live-work loft spaces, they come to park on a table with their laptops and the free wifi and coffee like a more tech-centric Starbucks. Like the Paint-By-Numbers above, I keep getting this impression of people doing the sizzle and not the steak. Of putting on the beret but never actually touching paint.

Because, honestly, if you are young and hungry what you want is investors. Looking like the next Steve Jobs is a lot more important than actually soldering anything. So TechShop functions in this way as a combination meeting ground, bullpen, source of inspiration and photogenic backdrop.

And myself? I don't know.  This is a music week -- I did complete my bass case and post up a new Instructable (which already got Editor's Pick) but basically I'm playing, not building. The only reason I even looked in on TechShop yesterday was about an idea I had for a Bodhran case.

Am I phasing back out of prop work? Am I going to go in different directions? I don't know. About the only thing I'm sure of is none of the other maker spaces in the Bay Area look that attractive. They almost all seem small and ingrown and very clubby, with a sort of shipping pallet and cinderblock earnestness that only really works for the young and hip and at least slightly delusional.

The only offering that exudes any kind of professionalism is the Crucible, and they take it to the other extreme; serious fees, serious classes, and the pervasive impression I get from them is you don't dare think about doing your own machining until you've done five years of apprenticeship under the eagle gaze of the senior members. Plus they are mostly about fire and glass and metal and although I've flirted with the idea of casting it isn't enough to draw me there.

Really, I miss my lasers. (And the vacuum-form machine, and a lathe I didn't have to fight over).

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

My Dog Has Fleas

My first solo recording project is an acoustic rendition of Miracle of Sound's Khajiit Like to Sneak (a comical look at some gameplay elements of the massive RPG Skyrim.)

I've been playing a Khajiit bard, so it occurred to do a cover of this piece using instruments not entirely unlike the bardic collection; lute, end-blown flute, hand drum, etc. The Khajiit accent and cultural trappings are vaguely Arabic and/or Spanish (perhaps Moorish Spain?) to the extent that the extant (third-party) collection of Khajiit songs uses classical guitar. So there's that to fold in, too.

And one big problem; the original song is spoke-sung, meaning it can be notated for time but not for pitch. Fortunately someone posted the underlying chord form up at one of the big guitar tab sites (even if I'm not sure they got it quite right). So I have some guide to possible pitches.

The other angle of attack -- and again I've forgotten the proper musical term -- is using the implied pitch of vowel sounds; like the ukulele mnemonic I've used for my post title. "Khajiit," for instance, implies a medium-sized interval with the lower note first.

Over the past few days I've worked up a MIDI mock-up, using patches that sound similar to the instrumentation I have available, making sure to stay within the actual note range, and practicing to see if I can actually play the ideas I'm writing out.

I've solved the basic orchestration issues. I have sounds that work well together. Now the two-fold task is capturing more of the accents and changes of the original (particularly the rhythmic accents), and fold in more early music and/or Flamenco references (I'm limited to what I can actually play on "guitar" -- actually, a ukulele with leather pick standing in for lute with plectrum -- but I do have a few techniques like rasgueado that I can use).

Of course a major element is going to be bodhran drumming, which I have yet to even start learning!

After that is general tightening. This mock-up is entirely internal; I'm using it as a guide and click track to record the actual parts. The more I problem-solve in MIDI, however, the easier the process is going to be.

The big problem-solve left is voicing in the Recorder section. My first idea was to use a Recorder Consort, interwoven lines performed on SATB (despite only owning sopranino, soprano, and alto recorders myself...they get rapidly more expensive as they get deeper in pitch). It still sort of seems like it will work, but it has been a long time since I studied voice leading and species and so forth.

This is the only place where I'm going dots on a line (at least, until I prepare the parts for recording). I already went to notation for the melody. Borrowing a technique I used extensively for theatrical sound effects I imported the original song into the Reaper file and synchronized the metronome. Then I was able to type out lyrics in the notation view and make sure they lined up accurately with the original vocals. With that, and the chords as a guide, I could come up with pitches that sort of worked.

And that's where I'm going to collect the three or four Recorder lines so I can make sure they are properly outlining the underlying chord progression. This is the sort of thing I did on paper way back long ago. I have a new booklet of staff paper but as with so many things these days it works well enough on the computer.

It still bugs me that the original is really using time and texture to express its ideas, but once you add melody there is inherently a focus on tonal and harmonic elements. Well...I'll see how it goes as I try to clean it up and focus it in better on the important ideas.

Frantic Activity

I forget who said about the swan: that it looks so serene gliding across the water, but under the surface there's all this frantic activity. That seems to apply to a lot of things, musical instruments included. In the case of brass and many of the woodwinds, what the serenity of the resulting melodic line hides is the intense physical effort involved. It takes a ridiculous amount of pressure to even get through the first octave.

It is a different sort of difficulty than that of violin. For violin, the movements are so necessarily precise you have to concentrate intensely no matter how simple the melodic line appears. For brass, there are most certainly nuances, but for the beginning brass player it is all about the physical stamina.

(Well, it is a learning thing. The better my embouchure gets -- and the stronger my lip muscles get -- the less force I have to put behind my breath. And the better the tone as well. That's what's causing the octaves to slowly open up. I'm getting the fifth partial already, and it's been a little over a week).

Of course the piece I'm working on now is all recorder and crumhorn....and bodhran.

The bass case is complete. I'd give it a B+ for concept, maybe even A-, but a D- for execution. It looks ugly, but it works well enough to tote the bass back and forth. But I still haven't gotten around to repairing/replacing the built-in pre-amp so I haven't been getting much practice on it.

So I don't know if I want to do an Instructable on a hybrid case off that example. I may have to wait and make another case. But the next one I might try vacuum-form and expanding foam as techniques...

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Bridge Too Far: MOH Airborne

Airborne is the 11th installment of the perennial Medal Of Honor series of first-person shooters, and joins a still remarkably small number of games with historical settings; this one being of course World War II.

The ravening horde shouting out unintelligible insults had taken over the FPS genre at this point; it has a rather short "campaign" mode to concentrate it's energies on multiplayer (and as with so many games, the servers crashed on opening day and there were weeks of game-crippling issues with that multiplayer mode).

For the single-player campaign, you play as a low-ranking (eventually buck Corporal) soldier in the 82d named Boyd Travers. And as his clone, as any time you get killed between checkpoints a new "you" parachutes in to take up where you left off.

An unusual and fun mechanic in the game is that you make a combat drop into each new map with a steerable parachute. Not quite sandbox, it still means you can chose what order to take objectives, or even land somewhere completely random and proceed to screw with the game a little.

In the usual FPS mode you get a choice of two long arms, a pistol, and grenades. You can at various times swap out either of the long arms with what you find lying on the ground. And here's my first problem; with the exception of the panzerfaust, all the weapons as depicted are so vastly similar there's little reason to care which you are using.

Older weapons in real life are a lot less consistent. Some are bolt action, some have detachable magazines, some are notoriously unreliable; there's a lot to learn and you really shouldn't be able to just pick one off the battlefield and start shooting. Or find the right ammunition just lying on the ground.

Case in point; at various points a Gammon Bomb (which the game calls a Gammon Grenade) is added to your armory. Which cooks off and throws just like any other grenade. Well, the Gammon had a unique fusing system in which an unwinding strip of linen cloth armed an impact fuse. It should at least look -- and really play -- different. Heck, the game doesn't (as far as I can tell) even give a range advantage with the potato masher, which is pretty much the point of that long wooden handle.

I don't know if you really want to be modeling having to, say, run the bolt with every shot, much less have to go through some multi-button routine to shove a stripper clip through the top -- but then, many FPS already have a gun mechanic where you have to hold down multiple buttons to go into sight mode and shoot. In any case, I'd like something to make the weapons more distinct than just having a different sound and a different HUD model.

This ties into the hands-off philosophy so many of these games have with history. The writers cared about the period, did their research, and had a good consultant. It all looks great. But you as player engage so little with it. At least it is appropriate for Airborne soldiers to be carrying a huge armory around with them. There's a particularly famous picture of one with anti-tank, at least three other guns, and a blanket and poncho as well. But basically this is the FPS mantra; whether it is historically accurate or appropriate to the setting the player must have their four basic weapons groups.

Of course, what I'd really want is a game where you could talk to locals, go on pass between operations, swap stories with your buddies, spend time in hospital. But that's not going to happen, not even on AAA budgets. Mostly. I mean; Skyrim allows you to explore, engage in conversation (stilted as it can often be), even set up as a shopkeeper and put the sword down for good. I'm not asking for a game where you play as Anne and spend the war in an attic, but I do wish for more engagement.

In any case, the ruins are fun and look appropriate (but then, MOH have had eleven games and about as many years to learn how to model and render good-looking debris). The AI are mildly more interesting, as they seem more aware of their surrounding and even give hints of cooperating between each other. But alas, they fall prey like any other to my favorite FPS/3PS game of "confuse the AI." Just like in Tomb Raider, I could leave cover, sprint into their lines and cause the AI soldiers to spin in place as their tracking and pathfinding routines clashed.

And then beat them up with a potato masher. Amusingly enough, you get skill points for kills with a weapon even if you are doing melee with it. I think I got my first marksmanship badge with the pistol by pistol-whipping Italian irregulars behind their own barricades. Oh, right. After completing the main campaign once I went back through the first parts of the game determined to rely on the pistol and ignore the rest of the weapons. And also run around the battlefield like a maniac, which is how I got so intimately familiar with the respawn system.

It is a cover shooter, after all, with a rather cute "lean out of cover" mechanic that, alas, doesn't help against the increasingly skilled enemy shooters. As has been found in real war, the majority of bullet strikes are hands and head (the only parts exposed when you are trying to shoot from cover). The AI is aware enough to make sniper duels nicely challenging and give you a good sense of accomplishment.

The game somewhat goes off the rails in the later maps. Eventually you are fighting in a fantastical concrete warren that looks like a James Bond set against gas-masked black-uniformed super troopers who can take three shots to the head without going down and who advance on you terminator-like carrying a dismounted heavy machine gun. Accompanied by other gents who think a panzerfaust is an indoors weapon.

This is perhaps inevitable. You the player get more skilled as the game progresses, plus it has a skills system that does...something (weapons upgrades are most noticeable). So to make the later levels more difficult something has to be added. More enemy is the usual. Tougher enemy is the other. In the real world, the elite troops are elite because they know what the heck they are doing. They use cover better, they support each other better. Well, the AI is already running at its peak in the early game. The enemy can't get more skilled. So all they can get is weirdly armored. No matter how realism-breaking and un-historical that might be.

(They also in the real world get the better gear, but this is a negative advantage in the FPS world because anything they have, you can have for the price of a few bullets).

This is the sad truth of FPS, and the tired old AAA model. Time is money. To make a player spend money on a game you need to give them playing time in return. And the cheapest playing time comes from the variety and sort-of emergent behavior of AI opponents. Even an extensive dialog tree is only really novel once, and it takes a lot of time writing and recording voice talent and animating actors to achieve. Making a sprawling set that supports multiple strategies of engagement and then filling it with AI opponents is a mature technology, well-honed by the industry and familiar to the player.

Still, it plays well enough, looks fine, and there's at least a little sense of a past place and time.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

So, that was a thing

Wired up all 200 feet of LED strip (it only took 3-4 hours). The hard part was calculating it all, spec'ing it all, making sure everything was actually going to work. So that's done and delivered.

Also finished the costume for my friend's kid. We didn't get to work on it on the weekend so that was a big push yesterday and today. That and being so tired yesterday I gave up around five and basically went to bed (woke up for dinner then went right back to sleep).

The best I can say for the costume is during the last push I finally started to remember what I was doing. It takes a while to blow the dust off skills you haven't used in a while. It all more-or-less worked but I'm sorry the version #2 (version #5 if you count the muslins) of the hood is a little too small. All the others were too big but somehow we overcompensated. Pity, because that medium canvass really drapes well, and I lined it and everything.

(In case you are wondering, that's a simplified Arrow Season One as a vest instead of a long-sleeve body suit. The hood-and-shoulders is detachable, strapping under the arms and velcro'd to either side of the zipper in front. The raw un-hemmed edge at the shoulders is one of the "tells" of that outfit, like the contrasting lining and the chevrons on the angled twill tape (done with iron-on patch material...I am not one to be afraid of expedient construction methods).

Means I am basically clear of favors and designs and other projects with deadlines and can go back to practicing violin and repairing my bass. And possibly shaping a bronze sword; there's a couple of people who offer a raw stone-cast bronze blade for reasonable bucks.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Someday you feed on a tree frog

Got in some good violin practice over the weekend. It took the first year to learn how to play a tune badly. The second year is all about playing a tune....not so badly. The pieces in my practice repertoire are there because they test the agility and accuracy of my fingering...some nice crosses, some slides, a little vibrato, etc.

I keep adding pieces I'd like to learn. The last couple that caught my eye, however, are brass-heavy. So I'm being very tempted to borrow a trumpet and find out how hard that is to play. As if penny whistle and bodhran weren't ambitious enough! (At least I already know recorder, and own half a consort already, so when I finally do work out the parts for the Khajiit piece I'll be ready for it.)

Well, I have a friend's costume to finish on Monday, and there's two hundred feet of LED strip rolling around the apartment that I'm wiring up for another friend. So there's enough already to keep me distracted.

That, and work. I have this terrible urge to climb a really, really long ladder....

Saturday, October 28, 2017

So...there's an umlaut in Linear B?

I've reached a low point of confidence in the novel.

At this point, I know more about the Jason myth than a so-called professional writer who used that as the basis of a whole Tomb Raider novel. But I know significantly less about Homeric epic than your average Heavy Metal songwriter.

(This is not a joke. I just read an article in Amphora about the long relationship between Heavy Metal lyrics and themes and ancient history and myth. And not just Germanic, either. Apparently there are even epic-length songs about Alexander.)

Fortunately the Mycenae are not Greeks. Homer may have been casting his eye back into the Greek Dark Ages, but he as often as not described his Heroic Age in forms that were contemporary to him. There's a big difference in researching these two periods.

The classical world is a literate world. It is a world in which History exists. The earliest writings are mostly accounting, interrupted at long intervals by inflated claims of kings. The classical writers talked about themselves. Political and military analysis, philosophy, fiction. The amount of Greek writing available to the researcher today is staggering. It's also moving online and becoming more and more searchable, too.

Worse, through quirks of history literacy in classical languages was wide-spread for at least a hundred years. Many, many students and dilettantes and professors and professionals have sorted, interpreted, collected, codified, analyzed, extrapolated. If the amount of Greek and Latin writing available is staggering, the amount of writing about Greek and Latin writing is terrifying.

So if an author wants to set a scene among Plato's students on a hillside below the Parthenon there is a multitude of secondary sources that have already sorted out for you from the available clues in the primary literature what they would be wearing, what they would be eating, how they would address each other, etc.

Researching the Bronze Age throws you rather more prominently into those primary sources. Not to say there isn't extensive analysis and interpretation. There rather has to be, in part because the primary evidence is so much more sparse.

There's a couple of letters I have heard about so many times I even recognized when one was being referenced as a joke (a podcaster, speaking of the wealth of New Kingdom Egypt, said "gold was like sand." Which is a reference to a rather cranky letter from I believe a Hittite king that reads something like, "Why were you so stingy with your last gift? Are we not like brothers? Gold is like sand in your country, you only have to scoop it up. I'm building a new palace here, bro. Help me out.")

There's three shipwrecks that give so much information about trade in the Mediterranean I can practically recite their manifests by now. And for all the Tholos tombs, there's a handful of really indicative grave goods.

This sparsity, and the fact that these are mute indicators, not the pontifications of contemporaries, means you engage with primary sources as an archaeologist does in order to construct the world of your narrative.

And that means writing a book looks more and more like making a thesis defense. Or at least preparing for your orals.

There's another reason to be really familiar with the primary sources. A reason I'll go into in another post. And that's the name problem. If I was researching a scene set in Paris I'd be okay with discovering the names of the street, museum, metro stop, whatever. But due again to those historical flukes we have many names for things of the Bronze Age that are misleading, too modern, or just not right.

I don't even know if I want my Minoan character to self-identify as Minoan. She may have never heard of King Minos, and she certainly hasn't heard of Sir Arthur Evans. Unfortunately there's no Amarna letters for Minoan rulers. And we can't read their own writing. Best we've got is what the Egyptians may have called them, based on some medical texts.

One way to avoid the name problem is to describe. Either in alternative to or in addition to, portray the thing in question through what it looks like, how it is used, where it comes from. Instead of "He held a Naue-II" say "He held a long cut-and-thrust sword with a straight blade." Or more organically, "He thrust, using the reach of his long sword to advantage."

And that's why, in addition to sweating the research, I'm thinking about buying a sword.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Grading on a curve

Dracula is open. The LEDs are calculated and now it is up to the theater company to actually get around to purchasing them in time to install them. And I took most of today off to work on my friend's costume (I was really sleepy after being in rehearsal until almost midnight two nights running anyhow).

Vinyl (that's the generic term; you can call the embossed stuff pleather if you like and I usually do), is a real pain to sew. It alternately grabs and slips in the machine, bunching up at the slightest excuse. I sprayed the presser foot with silicone lubricant and that helps a little. A trick I just read about is to smear vaseline on the fabric just in front of the foot.

It also doesn't heal. You need to use a wide stitch or risk weakening the fabric so much it tears like a page from a memo pad. And you really don't want to cut open a seam and re-do it. You also don't want to pin anywhere but the selvage, which makes pinning even that much more pleasant.

Flattening the seams is almost worse. Because you can't press it. Only way is to glue. The one nice part is that if you glue a hem first, you can actually topstitch it for strength and looks without it going crazy on you.

But I also found out close to the end of the day that because it doesn't rebound the stitches end up loose, and you can't backstitch for strength because you'll just make a hole. Which means my seams were weak. Because my friend needed it for pictures I temporarily protected the seams with a few drops of fabric tack, but when I get it back I'm going to back all of them up with seam tape. Or bias tape and more glue (top stitching would be even nicer but I think it would look cluttered at this stage.

Interestingly enough, the actual show-used costume this is based on did no hems and all of the seams were "open," instead of stitching leather to leather they topstitched the leather to a black jersey knit. That gave the seams a little give for movement.

If I do another personal project with this material, I'll either use a similar trick or I'll do lapped seams. Or if I am lucky enough to have garment weight instead of the current upholstery weight, something like a flat-felled seam.

In any case, that's one more fixed-date deliverable off the table. Aside from lingering tasks with this LED thing I'm able to relax again. Just in time. My recovery from the last bout with the unknown illness was in danger of hitting a relapse if I had to keep up this week's crazy schedule.

Monday, October 23, 2017


Still sick, Dracula is looming, and got an emergency call from a lighting designer friend to help a friend of his "do a Broadway lighting effect on a community theater budget." So I've been deep in calculations on LED strips and not at all amused by the way most vendors won't tell you the wattage you are working with.

(LEDs are always prey to this. Vendors for individual LEDs love telling you mcd's -- milli-candela. Which are an area dependent measure thus can only be compared across LEDs with the same view angle. Strips, meanwhile, love to tell you how many LEDs total, to the extent that some don't even bother to tell you how long that particular strip is! And even when you get the data, the numbers don't always add up with what the vendor is claiming.)

And, yeah, was tempted by idea of rolling up my own 6-channel Power MOSFET DMX-512-speaking PWM board. But not this time; the show installs on the 1st and although I could design a board and get the PCBs fabbed on quick turn-around committing that kind of money without a chance to prototype and test is not a good idea.

On the novel, finished the first book on the Hittite Empire, half way through a book of tales from Ancient Egypt and getting deep into a collection of more academic papers on the late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean.

The characters are coming along. The more I read on Egyptian magic the more I like the Scribe character. He's pretty firmly in my mind a "crouching moron, hidden badass" type (to use the TVTropes term). Academic, geeky enthusiasm for old texts, can read anything (and speaks a few dozen languages as well). An unprepossessing body reminiscent of Amarna-period depictions, and gives no impression of martial prowess. But he's scary smart, Batman-level of prepared, and when he (reluctantly) whips out a magic spell...

The Mycenaean mercenary is coming along, too. He's sort of the audience POV, even though the culture he hails from has its own oddities. He's terribly steeped in honor codes and other aspects of what eventually gets recorded by Homer; he's a sort of a textbook of Heroic Age foibles, Achilles sulking in his tent and all.

The "Minoan" seer is giving me more trouble. Except for her gift. I've dreamed up an idea I haven't seen used elsewhere, an idea that could be a lot of fun even if it doesn't have any connection to any culture I've yet to study. And it fits in wonderfully with the way Egyptian magician-scholars of the tales come across quite a bit Indiana Jones, fighting their way into tombs to steal books of lost magic.

We forget that the past, too, has a past, and they were as fascinated as we are by long-passed cultures. After all, as the quote goes, the pyramids were older to Cleopatra than she is to us.

Ah, the Minoans. You got to envy the Hittites. See, all the common terms we have in Modern English for Egypt come down to us through the Greeks and Romans. The Minoans got hit later, with Sir Arthur Evans naming them after Greek myths. But the Hittites vanished from history. They weren't talked about by the Greeks, or by Roman Scholars, or by French or German or English speakers from the antiquarian age. They didn't (mostly!) get hit with labels given by scholars who were trying to see the world of the Christian Bible in everything.

They got discovered second-hand through the Amarna Letters. Through contemporary Egyptian writings, and then through their own writings. We didn't basically discover them until we'd gained the ability to read about them in their own words. So most of the names given to things Hittite are pretty much accurate transliterations of what they actually called them.

That's...unusual and lucky for most peoples, really. Especially when you are talking those on the losing side of history, the names we still use too often today are the names given by their wary neighbors, if not their conquerors. Names that translate far too readily into, "Slave," or "Our Ancient Enemy."

In any case, as much as I want to play with a Minoan point of view, to have some nice arguments and contrasts of perception, I haven't figured out how to defend a cultural relic of the height of their civilization finding a place amongst my cast two-hundred odd years later.

And, no, I still don't have a plot. I'm still pretty down on it being a quest novel. Of a motley collection of characters who could only have been thrust together by the most extreme of circumstances, becoming fire-forged friends and eventually accomplishing miracles.

There's two models I am currently considering. One is the "Heart of Darkness" model. The other I don't have as handy a label...perhaps call it a "Count of Monte Christo" model.

The former is a quest from a place of safety into the heart of a storm. More-or-less, the characters would launch from the court of Ramses III and journey along the path of destruction of the Sea Peoples to discover the greater evil that they in turn had fled from.

The latter is a quest to. Whereas the former begins in a place of strength, this hits nadir in a very early chapter. They've discovered a dangerous secret, and they have to fight their way across a world at war, against near-impossible odds, to deliver it to the right hands. It's the "After we get out of the inescapable prison..." plot.

Both models have their attractions. I am tempted either way to have a Ten Thousand back story for the Mycenaean. With or without his own Myrmidons. That is; they are the remnants of a mercenary army that barely escaped the fall of Ugarit, Hattusa... or even Illios. It did get sacked more than once, after all. Plus earthquakes and fire. (And to top it off, a German antiquarian with his dynamite...)

I am wary of the temptation of putting in too many historical in-jokes (or mythological in-jokes). There's a point at which this needs to be about the late Bronze Age, not about the familiar works and events and people of later ages. They should face their conflicts and solve their problems organically, not somehow through the power of being the protagonists in a novel written in the late 20th century come up with the exact same solution Scipio Africanus used against Hannibal.

Still, it is hard not to drop a mention of, say, a people largely unknown outside a peninsula of the Greek mainland who are already taking both warrior culture and a certain terse way of speaking to extremes... You know the sort of thing I mean!

So, yes. A lot of the book could be within larger social circles than our small band of adventurers. Within the fractious fighting for leadership and position within the remnant mercenary force, and the complex relationship between our main Mycenaean hero and his mentor, say. And it seems far too likely that even when they make it at last back to Pi-Ramses court intrigue ensnares them and they are forced to even more heroics to get that all-important warning to the Pharaoh, activities that drive them deep into the politics of the court and the Scribe's position there.

I don't want to go the route of larger strategic operations. I want chariots to figure at some point but our view of the battles will remain largely that of the individual foot soldier, not that of the generals. Still, modes other than the solitary heroes making only the most shallow contact with the events they move through have their attractions. Tolkien hired one of his hobbits off to Denethor, after all. He knew.

The thing I'm most sure of is the climax takes place in the Nile Delta in 1175 BCE. (Even if the real climax of the hero's arc may have taken place months earlier on an icy, lonely hill in the heart of Scythia.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Future (theater) shock

The Control Booth forum has started emailing notifications again so I logged in to see what they were talking about.

At least two of the projects I'd been tinkering with over the years have been done by others. And done well.

The simpler is the QU-Box, which leverages a Teensy (Arduino compatible with native USB capability) and some arcade buttons to make a dedicated controller box for QLab. Honestly, though, I was an evening of soldering away from doing it for decades -- but my Korg nanokey worked so well for me I never saw the point in completing the project.

Still, kudos to Simon for making a solid, functional device and offering it in kit form for the extra budget-conscious.

The other product I spotted was the RC4 wireless dimmer system. These are quite pricey but I'd still recommend them without reservation. I have nothing against hacks but by the time you come up with a working system you will have spent almost as much, and a lot of time you usually can't afford on a theater tech schedule.

And the guy is smart. He's thought of all the things I thought of, and put most of them in the box. A lot of people would just rig a bunch of PWM outputs and call it done. He's recognized the nonlinearity of output and subsequent color rendering, and put in a much more sophisticated version of the gamut look-up table I have running on my Holocrons.

He's also added what he calls Digital Persistence (another thing I've had to do in many of my projects), which is modifying the output so instead of coming on and going off near-instantly, LEDs will behave more like incandescent bulbs. This is easy for him because he's implemented another thing I was using as a paradigm; although direct multi-channel control is the default, his devices can run a baked-in animation in stand-alone mode instead of having to receive a constant stream of instructions.

Okay, I'd still like to see my prop light thing. But skip the wireless stage -- I'm not doing that much theater anymore and it adds too much complexity. Free-running behavior, preferably set through a full-on GUI running on a host computer and uploaded via USB. Built-in LiPo management, because again, AA batteries make more sense in a theatrical context but LiPo makes more sense for cosplay and other replica prop use.

And, here's the thing. Theatrical props, especially, it makes sense from a budget and time standpoint to take something commercial (usually a toy) and throw it in there. Often it is enough that it lights up. But even something more color-critical like a storm lantern or an old radio it's easy enough for theatrical purposes to wrap some gel around it or otherwise get it "close enough."

For a replica prop, there's more of an onus on getting it to look exactly right, so flexibility and programmability are good. But here it makes sense to leverage the mostly-done-for-you end of the hacker spectrum; Arduinos, various lighting boards, neopixel strips, etc. You pay a little more but given how many hours and bucks went into the prop, that's not a real problem.

The exception I still see is when a specific prop places something at a premium. Cost (because you need dozens of duplicates), space, etc.

For instance, my Wraith Stone. What I want it to do requires a dedicated board. And I'm fine with that -- just as I'm fine with people hacking up a $4 LED charm bracelet if that's what works.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Brother, can you paradigm?

Dracula drained me.

First rehearsal at the actual space and I only went because we were going to use that time to figure out the basics of lighting and sound.

Lighting was software on a Mac. ETC "Eon Family." Which is a Mac port of a stand-alone application of the offline programming software for the Eon board. Which is at least one generation, perhaps two, past the last ETC board I was comfortable with.

So a lot of changed paradigms to deal with. First challenge; this is so much the now-accepted way of doing things, there's no introductory text to the software. There's no overview in the manual, no quick-start guide, no introductory tutorial (at least, none that aren't a three-hour training video). All the resources I was able to quickly Google up on my phone jumped right in. And as this was the latest version of a popular software offshoot of a popular board, pretty much everything I turned up was detailed lists of what had changed since the last version.

I had to figure out the underlying concepts sideways. With a fair amount of trial and error. Mac port of an offline version of a hardware board, remember? So OS GUI standards are absolutely no guide (so much so; when you invoke the "save file as..." command, it pops up a virtual keyboard you navigate with the arrow keys. No, this was not written for the computer. It was ported from hardware.

Thing is, lighting controllers -- all the lighting controllers I grew up with and used through the years -- were at the bottom of it all riffs on the paradigm of the two-scene preset. Think of it this way; for each light/control channel you had a knob. Set each knob to a different value to achieve a particular blend of lights.

Now make an exact copy of that row of knobs and add an A/B switch to switch from one set of knobs to the other. Actually, a pair of knobs, one reversed from the other; turn them one way to turn all the settings from one set of knobs all the way down and all the settings from the other set of knobs all the way up. Reverse for the opposite effect.

This was effective enough and fast enough. On the old manual boards (such as at my high school) one "scene" (one set of knob settings) would be on stage while someone quickly twisted the offline set of knobs into the next desired look. Cross-fade (as the process was called) from A to B and now A is offline and can be programmed for the upcoming look.

Boards evolved from direct physical control via rheostats to electronically controlled dimmers with the knobs -- that is, faders -- now operating on a 0-10 volt control voltage, to digital controls; at which point, all the settings could now be stored in RAM and read out with software.

But through all of this, the A/B paradigm, the so-called "Two Scene Preset," was maintained as a useful way to organize the data.

ETC began to change this back at least with the Express and Expression consoles. Since the desired position of the actual dimmers -- the big triac choppers delivering power to the actual lights -- had long since been decoupled from any direct physical control, the first big shift in paradigm is to think of a "scene" not as a collection of absolute values, but as a set of changes to whatever was the current status.

This was already a de-facto way of viewing the data, as even back in ProStar the console went out of its way to indicate which values had changed, with the values being continued from a previous cue being left in the original color.

ETC implicitly (as I read when I eventually found a more useful manual) converted to looking at all commands to the dimmer packs as being changes. Like an engine room telegraph, the dimmers (as indeed so all the new arsenal of digital fixtures, from LED pars to moving-head lights) will in the absence of new commands maintain the last directive.

Well, that's enough on that particular change. Suffice to say there are other old models which have also gone the way of the dial tone (cell phones have no need and no place for that). The only vestige still there is that the Eon series still has the default characteristic of bringing the previous commands OUT simultaneous to bringing the new commands IN.

(Another major uncoupling from the old two-scene preset paradigm is that "analog dimmers" -- aka devices that put out a varying and significant wattage that is generally poured into a variety of incandescent bulbs -- is a smaller and smaller part of what is connected to the console. Most of the light is coming from various digital fixtures, which require only digital information and which almost without exception use multiple channels of information. The analog dimmers still have a one-to-one correspondence -- or, rather, can -- but as a single LED par uses at least three control channels they are organized instead into "fixtures." The latest crop of ETC boards no longer pretend that a channel can be mapped directly to a circuit, with the rare exception of the analog dimmers, which are treated as a special case. Basically, analog dimmers are fixtures that only have one channel each.)

In any case, it wasn't the stress or the mental exercise, both of which I found invigorating. The mystery illness is back again, pretty much on schedule, and I've been barely dragging to work this week. (Work hours are still not helped by having to put in long unpaid lunches to work on my friend's project).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Under Pressure

Actually, according to my new Omron sphygmomanometer (uncalibrated)  I'm running at the high end of the normal range. (My Kaiser doc says bring it in and they'll calibrate it).

Dracula is going into tech next weekend and I'm in rehearsals this weekend. I bowed out of Enemy of the People and Pinocchio but I've offered to advise, train, mentor and loan equipment. So it would be wrong to say there's no strings on me.

The sewing is going...meh.

The first muslin was way off. My friend pinned it up, I transferred the markings to fresh pieces, then laid the Simplicity patterns I'd just purchased on top as a sanity check. Turns out our alterations had brought my original pattern very close to what was on the Simplicity. Did a little further adjustment, stitched up a fresh muslin and that one fit decently. So now I can start cutting the real fabric.

The first fit of the bass case went poorly as well. On the plus side, turns out I don't like the look of piping on this one so would have re-done it anyhow. And now I know how to do piping. In any case, I'm disheartened by how long it is taking for what I thought was a simple build.

I still have hopes of finishing a few things. Priority now is things that are in the way of straightening up my room (there's so many half-built projects I can't even move a broom around). Bass case is one of those. So is repairs on the bass itself.

And, yeah, there's a bit of a stack. And I can't help thinking (especially as I make stabs at organizing and prioritizing) how many other things I've started that are now taking up closet space or, at least, mental space.

Worst offender is Holocrons. The three "final" holos are spread out over my desk waiting for detail paint and final assembly. Cluttering the floor by the desk are Sterilyte bins of Holocron parts, and taking up the shelf over the Behringer is the reflow oven.

Over by the futon are many of my metal-working tools, as well as another bin of metal stock and parts-in-progress for work. Half of those tools used to be in a bin dedicated to M40 builds. I've had a few people ask about them over the years since the last run and it is tempting to log a few more hours on that lathe I spend so much membership money to ensure access to.

Somewhere in there are also the prints for caseless rounds I should really finish up so I can determine how the 3d file needs to be modified.

Of course I'd like to make a new tool roll for those metal working tools. And the sewing machine has a nice big table to itself at my workplace (it is a work mate I'm helping with the costume for his kid). So seems like a logical time to do a little more stitching. In a moment of ludicrous optimism I even purchased three yards of a cute ukulele print and a Hawaiian shirt pattern...

It is amazing how much closet space fabric can take up. Between that and the sewing machine and the box of associated tools (zipper foot, spare bobbins, seam gauge, Fiskers, etc.) I would really like them out of the way. There's no room here for laying and cutting anyhow.

And, yes, before I got my present full-time job I was having some serious cosplay thoughts. Even
purchased a frock coat pattern, although those are a huge pain to stitch up. Not that these thoughts have quite ended, although my main wearable goal at the moment is Bronze Age gear -- sandals at the least -- for research purposes on the new novel.

Every now and then get tempted towards something like the Dragon Priest mask from Skyrim (there's a nice PDO I have right now and that's supposed to be fast....) And of course my next big personal prop project continues to be the Wraith Stone. And of course, one day would love to revise the 3d files and try to make a more "screen accurate" version of Lara's 2013 necklace...*

Fixing the bass reminded me that I have back in the closet (and, yes, taking up space) a fretboard and neck and the start of a body for a solid-body electric ukulele. I've pretty much decided I'm too impatient these days (and too conscious of how much money I get if I actually show up to work instead of doing stuff at home) to do the hand-carved hard wood trilobite I was working on, but there was the simpler Vulcan-Lyre inspired teardrop design...

Fixing the bass and putting it in a case will take care of some clutter. The Pfetchner is getting a new bridge but that doesn't take up any more room (I've got it at work anyhow, where I have a nice quiet space to practice). The Behringer is however currently useless to me because I have no simple way of firing it up to try out musical ideas.

And part of the fill of the various parts boxes taking up floor space at the foot of the overstuffed bookshelves is drivers and amps and other stuff to make "some" sort of keyboard amp/tone box. Very possibly based around a Raspberry Pi -- which also cleans out another Sterilyte bin full of Pi parts and accessories.

Still, a bigger hole in the pile will come from just putting the old mics and mixers and speakers in storage. I gave away the e-drum stuff and sold off many of the rack modules and can dump old cable (especially the to-be-repaired XLR I simply don't have patience to deal with anymore). Not as much fun as building, though.

I am at the moment terribly tempted by a brass casting of what appears to be a Mycenean sword. Would be quite a few hours of shaping and polishing and fitting a hilt, of course. Possibly as time consuming as getting back to my flint-knapping kit (which also could use a cute roll to protect the tools -- but in that case, something quite far from machine-stitched).

My prop weaponry desires also include, however, revisiting the Retro Raygun. Besides revamping the speaker and power supply for more volume, I'd really like a more Diesel Punk; less spray chrome, more well-used metal. And productionize it while I'm at it; fix the 3d files and run off a new circuit board so the thing could be a kit that anyone could assemble in a few hours.

And you know, that's not that scary a list, not right there. I'm still logging off to finish a Red Trolley and play some Skyrim.

* I have a new head canon on that protean prop. Hyperdiffusionism is real in the Tomb Raider universe, and an Ainu jade-carver was exposed to Maori greenstone carvings, thus producing a weird hybrid of at least two different cultures; a little bit Koru, a little bit Magatama. Well, that's what I'll carve. Would be a good preparation for the Wraith Stone; carve this somewhere between 2-up and at scale in clay, then scan it for a new printable 3D file.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


It's been nice and cool, finally -- though not enough to help with all the fires. I sometimes wonder if it is like the experiment with the long-lived rats; if I keep the bedroom a little colder than I'd like, eat less than I'd like, and sleep just slightly less than I'd like, I seem to feel stronger overall.

Monday I was at the peak of the sine wave, 180 degrees out of phase from Aug 27 when I was lying under my desk trying not to pass out. Did a long and busy day at work, did laundry, did errands, and still had enough left over to go out to dinner. Experience says I'll be forced to slow down soon enough but at the moment I'm finally getting things done.

Right, so that's when I volunteered to help a co-worker out with a costume for his kid.

And of course that snowballed. I've made six visits to fabric stores, been researching dyes and re-reading my old costume books and re-learning the tricks of my sturdy Bernina Record 830 (thank you again, Wendy, for such a fantastic gift). I've got a table at work covered with fabric and patterns and all those bits and pieces and scraps and small strange tools of the trade.

Maybe I'll actually finish my bass case -- after my friend's costume is done -- if I haven't gone back into fatigue before then. Of course I also need to build two rolling carts and write up two sets of assembly instructions for work. At least I finished the parts I needed to machine.

(Yes, the lathe at TechShop is looking pretty scummy by now. It also needs some maintenance. I've written them one nasty email already.)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Holy Cow

Learning more and more useful stuff about Egypt.

Previously I mentioned The Book of the Heavenly Cow. Basic idea is Ra gets pissed at humanity and sends one of his "eyes" (in this case Hathor, a fertility goddess, operating as a sort of cosmic enforcer of Ra's will). Hathor starts the slaughter, driving humanity out into the desert, and in the process of giving into her blood lust becomes essentially Sekhet (a chaos god). In any case, Ra rethinks the whole "kill all humans" bit and this is when we have the thousands of gallons of beer dyed red to look like blood. And fortunately for humanity Hathor isn't a mean drunk.

(I'm reading the Budge translation right now, and there's real blood in the beer, along with mandrake roots for an extra-special sleepy-time potion. Two thirds of the story is basically about Ra's retirement and a re-organization of heaven. It opens with a description of the aged Ra whose bones have become like silver and hair like lapis lazuli...what strange sea change indeed!)

So after this (and on Ra's urging) it becomes an annual festival, part of the ever-moving cycle of seasonal festivals. This is one where the Egyptians both celebrate and re-enact by getting blind stinking drunk then (apparently) having group sex. Very typical solstice sort of thing here. (The bit about moveable feasts is that the Egyptian calendar had 360 days, plus five "don't really exist" spooky days, but no leap year; so over a thousand years or so the calendar would rotate through a whole cycle until the harvest festival was actually at harvest time again, instead of in some entirely other month. Anyhow).

So I also caught a program on Exodus from an Egyptian History perspective. Which is pretty much a "what Egyptian history?" perspective; there's no Hebrew slaves, no massacre of chariots, Pharaoh and all in the Red Sea, and of course the Pyramids were built a thousand years earlier and by paid labor to boot (we have copies of their pay stubs). But there are some tantalizing glimpses into what the writers of Exodus may have been inspired by. Including the Hyksos, a somewhat mysterious and seemingly Semitic people who controlled Egypt during the Second Interregnum. 

And the plagues struck me at this time as a strange echo of the Hathor story. There's all sorts of weird little not-really-parallels, like the role of the ureas and the staffs of Pharaoh's court magicians turning into snakes. And, you know, the whole driven-into-the-desert thing. But then, if you are going to be a bronze age people in that corner of the world sand, snakes, floods, fertility, locusts, and blood are pretty much to be expected.

And, yes, the way the court magicians act is not unlike how court magicians act in stories like Teta the Magician.

It still makes me think that some sort of red tide, a scarlet sign much like the weed that mysteriously sprung up around London in the H.G. Wells novel, fits for my story. There's stuff in Heavenly Cow about Nu as well, a goddess of, well, call it the primordial soup; a god of the outer chaos/water but also the fecundity that water brings (annual flooding of the Nile, after all). And of course a primary duty of Rameses III is maintaining maat, order; which makes the appropriate thematic climax of the story the Battle of the Delta.

(And if I ever opened a small restaurant Primordial Soup would definitely be on the menu. What's in it? I dunno...all the essential amino acids, I suppose...)

And I'm realizing more and more that so much of the fun here is the interaction between cultures. Between people from a Mycenaean Greek and a New Kingdom Egyptian viewpoint, at the very least. It would be so much fun to write with. It will also be a heck of a lot of work to get there. 

Images are all from Nina Paley's series of short animations from Exodus, collected with other stories under the general heading "Seder-Masochism."

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stepping in the River

Monday was a diagnostic procedure. Non-zero chance of negative outcomes (6% chance of injury up to and including death). I wasn't scared, per se, but I spent the weekend in a sort of existential ennui, unable to think about future plans.

I got there and it was the full routine; surgical prep, shaving and sterile draping, IV and drugs. One of those threshold experiences. Like travel, like going off to school. Continuity of identity is an illusion, after all. We change constantly, our behavior altered and our very thoughts running in different patterns when we are in different environments.

And I'm still not back. Over this week I just haven't emotionally re-connected with the life I was living last Friday. I'm left floundering as the things that held enough meaning to be my motivators just aren't there right now.

Not helped by recovery. Under instruction to avoid straining my right wrist, which included driving, practicing violin, lifting heavy objects or really doing much of what I normally do. I made up for it with long walks, walking to work through the rest of the week.

And the news is good. My heart is healthy. So at this point heart, lungs both normal, blood chemistry seems normal, vitals are all in a nice healthy range (surprisingly healthy for my age and lifestyle). So the engine is good. Still no clue why every couple of months it just stops answering the engine room telegraph.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Magic Elephant

I don't have a plot yet. But I'm making progress on the engine that drives it.

First conceit is that magic and gods are real, but human understanding of them is incomplete. This sounds like a reversal of my previous "no out of context problems" but it really isn't. The elephant is part of the of the world but each culture has hold of different parts of it.

And this is culturally appropriate. Ecumenical is the wrong word to use of early cultures but in the ancient world it isn't uncommon for pantheists to be entirely open to the idea of other gods. Just...less powerful gods than their own. And I have yet to research how the Mycenae look at magic, but I've been reading a collection of stories from Ancient Egypt and there is a strong theme that human understanding of the ways of the gods is incomplete.

So it will work to have a supernatural force/entity/whatever that each of my characters...and the various cultures encountered...describe in different ways that even they realize are incomplete. Even as they try to find a fit within their own mythologies.

The key is probably to avoid having the "thing" be recognizable to modern eyes. That is, it isn't a dinosaur or a crashed space ship that the locals are spinning their own take on. It is something that is best described in the terms used in the story.

Personified Chaos* is where I'm going right now. Possibly a natural force as well; something that directly causes the mass migration of peoples (aka drought, frost, plague, whatever)**. Whatever personification there is, is entirely there so it can be sought, chased, and fought. Because yes, in both Egyptian and Greek mythologies the gods can be challenged (even if they tend to win in the end.) Gods were driven from the field in the Trojan War. Nefrekeptah stole the Book of Thoth (but Thoth quickly had his revenge). The child mage Se-Osiris visited Duat with his father, and returned safely.

But remember this is the fading of an age. The gods are losing power; soon enough (give or take eight hundred years) Roman poets are going to be spinning tales of hen-pecked Jupiter and otherwise turning the gods into (still erratic and dangerous) figures of fun. Just as the Witch-King of Angemar could fall to a human woman with a sword, it remains thematic that the Big Bad of this story could be taken down by a self-doubting mercenary with a weapon of meteoric iron.

(Yeah -- I don't know yet if I can justify it or how well it works but I can't help thinking of the funerary dagger of Tutankhamen -- which is by the way a really gorgeous piece -- and the actual documentation of iron smelting as early as 800 BCE. And, yeah, Sokka's Space Sword. Not that the latter achieved anything magical, unless you count the armband of the same material he gave to Toph...)

(It is also interesting to look at the local take on meteoric iron. It isn't seen as a gift from the gods, or rather, no more so than springs or seed grains or the annual flooding of the Nile. The available writing is pretty much; yeah, some iron fell from the sky, and we used it to make jewelry.)

Thing is...when I look at the idea of personified chaos, coming out of the Carpathians, possessing people, causing plagues of rats, I keep getting resonances of Vampire lore. Which is as I said exactly what I don't want to do. Or, that is, it is a helpful subtext only in that it works within the local mythologies and doesn't allow the readers a superior distance of, "Oh, those foolish ancient people, it's really a vampire."

A similar problem is facing me for myth-making. I very much want the idea that hundreds of years later the poets will be telling stories based on what happened. The Trojan War is available as an example of a real incident of the not-so-distant past that is being mythologized as they watch. But it seems a similar class of mistake to tie anything the characters do too directly to a single myth known in our time.

Pity, because the idea of Pandora and her jar is exactly that sort of candle to light the darkness I want to end with.

*Actually, to be more specific, it is the current idea that the Bronze Age Collapse is best understood in terms of system theory. It is an emergent effect from existing forces. Even if my planned usage veers parlously close to the popular misconception of Chaos Theory, as exemplified in Jeff Goldblum's mutterings in the Jurrasic Park movies.

**I'm very tempted to do a riff on a genocidal god story told of several different figures; in the Amarna period it was told of Hathor. The key bit being blood mixed with beer spilled on the ground; in the myth, a trap for a god, but in this story, some sort of scarlet blight on the staple crops....

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Denyen, an Ekwesh, and a Peleset walk in to a bar...

...and the bartender says, "I have no idea who any of you are."

I've finished two books, several articles, and about four hours of podcast on the Bronze Age Collapse. Which is just barely enough to give me confidence the story can go forward. But not enough, alas, to move into actual plotting.

The goal is draft in a year. Three months for general research and planning, the next six to nine moving from setting to setting more-or-less as the cast does. One of the things I learned from the fanfic is I do like more of a travel literature style (more extensive descriptions and histories) but I need to back off. I need, in short, to decompress my text. More of the words should be the grit; walking and talking, eating and fighting. More "They sailed for another three days" and less "They boarded a dromon with sails of cinnabar-dyed linen."

Which boils the required research down to something like six to ten 5,000 word essays. Not impossible to complete in a year. This doesn't, of course, account for the investment of visiting Crete, acquiring sandals and a bronze Naue-II replica, eating historical foods, etc., etc.

I am less confident about back-filling, about the idea of skipping over chunks of text or putting in place-holders. Sure, I want to learn more about how Scrivener handles meta-data, but I tend to write in whole paragraphs. This is definitely going to be an experiment in not just outlining, but actual iterative writing. For instance, all the description of Memphis might be in a single chapter, but the Scribe character will be in almost every chapter.

(There's an amusing side thought in this. The Homeric epics are characterized by epitaphs for recurring characters and even natural phenomena; "The wine-dark sea" is a typical phrase. This made it easier to fill out a line to the right length and meter. It also made it easier to remember what was an oral, bardic tradition -- and is theorized also could serve as a sort of standard set of parts to construct new lays. There's something here not entirely unlike the idea of using a place-holder to be replaced after the research is done.)

I originally picked the Bronze Age Collapse for three reasons; because I'd been reading/exposed to a lot of bronze age stuff already, because the period is lesser-known, and because I thought I had a plot.

Well, the latter two fell down almost immediately. Lesser-known is not the same as saying we know nothing about the period. There is a lot of research to do. And more; although I could easily stick to, say, the Anatolian coast and have characters who haven't studied history, it seems a shame not to explore some of the really big players here. Particularly the Mycenae, and the Egyptian New Kingdom. The former is the time of Tutankhamen, possibly the most popular and popularized era of Egypt's long history. The latter is the Heroic Age, the time of Troy and Theseus and the rest of the Homeric and legendary heroes.

And more. There is actually archaeology here. Ancient peoples were as fascinated by the past as we are. And even the idea of ancient writings, particular hieroglyphs, as being magical writing is not something invented with the Theosophists of the 19th century. It was already an idea in ancient Egypt. There's at least one tale of a wandering scribe looking for a book of magic who has to break into a tomb and fight off the monsters within.....

Yup. My Egyptian Scribe character would probably feel at home in fedora and bullwhip.

So between him, and a "Greek" mercenary wrestling with questions of honor against the mythologies he was brought up on, I'm going to have a lot of character time dealing with history and literature and language and religion. As easy as it would be to have Conan-types striding bronze sword in hand through a land they barely understand, it works better for me to have more of a, well, Lord of the Rings flavor with everywhere history and crumbling monuments and ancient ballads and Elvish songs (well, not really the latter).

At the moment I'm at a plateau. I'm continuing to do general research on the period and peoples, but I don't have a good idea now for the plot. The only things I'm sure of is I want to move around, and I want to move mostly along the paths the Sea Peoples took (or may have took; it is entirely unclear if the Sea Peoples, quote unquote, had anything to do with the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the sacking of their cities). And I'd like to end in 1175 at the Battle of the Delta, when Ramses III defeats an assembled fleet of these mysterious invaders.

I am tempted to start with the sack of Hattusa with a Mycenaean mercenary band doing an Anabasis from there (well, march to the Aegean). Willusa/Illios/Troy is probably two hundred years back, meaning it is part of the legends and stories already. Another starting point might be Knossos, when the exiled Scribe and the Cretan seer he has discovered realize they need to get word to Ramses III -- and presumably fall to pirates within the first day of their journey.

And Eastern Europe is not off the table yet. The history and archaeology available in the West is heir to the bias towards the foundational Greco-Roman cultures, but this is changing. And there is some fascinating stuff happening in this period in the Intra-Carpathian region.

The other big unknown is the fantasy element. After thinking it over for a while I've realized I don't want an "out of context" problem. No crashed spaceships, no people (or visions, sigh) of the future. What happens should be presented in, discussed in, understood by the characters in terms they understand.

I want to treat magic and gods the way they are treated in the various literatures. There's a very matter-of-fact way auguries are described in Xenophon -- in one particular incident, it was divined that the freezing wind was a result of having angered Poseidon. One sacrifice later, and "The winds diminished noticeably, much to the Greek's relief." Of course Xenophon is writing in the late Classical age, but then Homer didn't pick up his pen until some two to four hundred years after the period when my story is getting set (and some of the most literary of the Egyptian tales didn't get recorded until the Ptolemy's.)

There's a pitfall, however. The Xenophon above exemplifies something I'd call "deniable magic." And that feels wrong to me as well. I don't want to play the game of having things happen that could be interpreted as the action of gods or merely the blind action of natural forces. It feels dishonest to the cultures being depicted.

It isn't as if it is hard to find excuses to send characters out on an adventure. The Bronze Age Collapse is pretty much the definition of a time of disorder, of rapidly shifting events that sweep up people in their path. I'd like my characters to have a purpose that isn't just a transparent McGuffin. And yet, it would be unfair to the real history to have a single cause for the collapse that they can discover and attempt to thwart. It doesn't even make sense to the real history for our misfit group of heroes to know the "secrets" of the Sea People. The historical evidence is that neither they nor really anyone in the period thought of this as a unified force with specific goals. It was, as I said, a time of chaos.

The best I can come up with is the heroes have some other goal, tangential to but not completely unrelated to the events unfolding around them. A Saving Private Ryan mission, perhaps. Or, something I've been toying with but need a lot more research on the various local mythologies to see if it can be made appropriate, a sort of personification of Chaos or War. Something that was one of the engines behind the current path of destruction and could make things worse if left unstopped. But throughout all of this I keep remembering that this is the end of an era. Even Egypt essentially collapses (well, is reduced severely in power and never fully recovers.) This is the last golden age of many empires, and the best the heroes can achieve is small victories, a candle of hope to light the dark ages to come.

(And here, if nowhere else, it is terribly tempting to have a seer gain a vision of the Classical Age. Which, when you think about it, wasn't exactly wine and roses but in this world of ours you take what you can get!)