Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Sea Peoples

I've found my new novel. And the research is insane.

It came in a moment of inspiration. I can boil it down to one terse statement of purpose (always a good start!) But that statement would be phrased in keywords referencing some of what was going through my head at the time and thus would only make sense to me.

Things like Ozymandius (the Shelly poem, also a similar by Sandburg). The influence of W.W.I on J.R.R. Tolkien. H.P. Lovecraft. The Anabasis of Xenephon. The heroic quest and the concept of the five-man band. Minoan Crete. Bronze-age trade networks. Akhenaten's Egypt. The Belisarius series.

The part of my elevator pitch that I can share, however, is, "...during the Bronze Age Collapse."

Not that this is that explanatory either. It is a complicated and under-documented era in history. Which, honestly, attracted me; the sources are thin and contradictory enough that you can make a lot of shit up with a wave of, "it is defensible that..." or, "sources don't say..."

But that's for the actual collapse. See, here's the problem. Something collapsed and there's remnants of it and stories about it and a whole batch known about it. Oh, and worse? Dark ages don't last. New cultures flower, and some of their stories and myths are buried in that less-documented past.

See, the time of this story is also at the height of power of the Egyptian New Kingdom. Literally Ozymandius (Shelly was inspired by Ramses II, and he and Ramses III document fighting the Sea People.) Tutankhamen and the rest of his interesting family is only a few generations earlier.

And when we come out of the dark ages and the Greeks start writing stuff down again, one of them is a fellow named Homer. Yes, the Trojan War theoretically takes place during the Bronze Age Collapse. And if that wasn't does much of Exodus.

Yeah, sure, these are pretty heavily disputed and sources, as we say, disagree. But whether there was a Troy and where it is and when Jerrico fell and who was the Pharaoh of Exodus can be endlessly argued in academic circles, it still remains that if I'm writing a story during the collapse, and any of the peoples mentioned actually show up as characters, I'm going to have to know their cultural background. I need at least a smattering of the myths and beliefs and oral traditions and philosophies.

And it gets worse. The Homeric Age and Egypt's Golden Age are both very, very popular. On the one hand, then, you've got fans. On the other side, you are going to have critics. Harsh ones.

(And it doesn't stop there, of course. There's also the wee bit of Ancient Warfare, which has a lot of cranky opinionated people studying it, and it wouldn't hurt to know a little Biblical history, and even though it collapsed hundreds of years ago the Mycenae more or less took over the islands and trading empire but...deep breath...there's never anything wrong with studying the Minoans a little more.)

In a similar good news, bad news way, the popularity of some of these areas means there are unusual research opportunities. I'm all about the look and feel; it is one thing to be able to say "dromon," it is an entirely different (and much better, for the reading experience) be able to say something about what kind of wood or how the sails are used or otherwise put across what the characters see, hear, smell, etc.

There are re-enactors and mummy rooms and epic poetry and recreated historical music and foods and reconstructions of buildings. There's opportunity here to immerse in, if not the actual culture, then something similar enough so it can be extrapolated and approximated. And, yes, I've started pricing plane tickets to Athens.

So far my tentative research list is archaic arms and warfare, Homeric epics, ancient seafaring, Egypt's New Kingdom, Egyptian philosophy, early writing systems, early Greek philosophy, Mycenaean culture, the Hittite empire...

But the first step is getting a general grounding in the period and seeing if I can indeed write a heroic quest in which a rag-tag bunch of misfits (tentative list includes a Mycenaean mercenary, an Egyptian scribe/court magician, a Cretan born seer) fight their way across a war-torn world to solve the mystery of the Sea Peoples. "...during the Bronze Age Collapse."

Monday, September 11, 2017

"It was a dark and stormy year..."

I keep having these ideas that cross historical times with fantasy elements. More or less. I'm interested in that intersection between the rational and the fantastic, particularly as a societal conflict. That's making me think of several possible time periods.

First is a somewhat hazy zone somewhere between Victorian and Edwardian, the place where antiquarianism is giving way to modern archaeology. When the map of history is slowly losing the "Here be monsters" in its margins. Not to say there aren't still endemic and deep-seated misinterpretations of both ancient and living cultures. Far from it; this is an age of the uncovering of Troy and extensive biblical archaeology. An age, also, where Piltdown could reside in a place of honor because that ridiculously obvious forgery supported what a part of the western world wanted to believe of itself.

I don't think this can be nailed down to a single year. You can have Budge and Petrie meet, but the latter is still fumbling and the former is more than a mere antiquarian. Nor can you concatenate the decipherment of Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs, cuneiform and Linear B. The stories of each of these, taken alone, also spreads across decades of which far too many of the stories are too interesting to want to leave out.

And oh yeah; the fantasy element? I don't know. I don't know if I even want it, except for the crassest of reasons (shelf space for SF/fantasy is bigger).

A new one just occurred to me today. And that's basically the EC Comics Weird War Tales, but using WWI. Because you can leave the weird completely out and the conflict that interests me is still there. It is the conflict that most steampunk stories shy away from recognizing; the old empires are falling, the old ways, the rigid social classes, the flower of French Chivalry and all that are falling as everyone flails around trying to get a grip on the quite literally world-changing technology of mechanized warfare (and industrialization in general).

Of course that's a slower process than just one war. It is just a place and time -- especially the earlier parts of the war -- where you can throw it into sharper relief. And more than one story, fiction and non-fiction, has already been written with just that same focus!

There's again no real need for the weird here. It is also unclear what roll the supernatural (or otherwise non-part-of-history) elements. To put it in strictly Lovecraftian terms (I wouldn't want to use the Mythos, not even in a serial-numbers-filed-off way, because it doesn't go where I want to go with it), you could have unspeakably ancient, indescribable lurkers in the dark representing either the fears of the coming modern world (as Lovecraft used them) or the reactionary and irrational. Or have the weird split, with something like Lovecraft's Migo representing the darker side of technology, fearful and impossible to fully understand.

One possible direction to take this is alternate history; that a completely new element is introduced, quite possibly one that reflects and emphasizes part of the existing societal conflicts. Such as (given purely as illustration because as an actual idea I hate hate hate it) zombies erupt in the middle of no-man's land and both sides have to turn their efforts towards combating, understanding, and possibly exploiting them.

A rather different venue, and one of my first ideas, is World War II. I particularly like the Pacific War for various reasons, but in any case. This could be a Secret History -- there are quite a few mysteries around and quite a few odd secret organizations and adding a few occult ones to the mix is hardly even fantasy (until and unless they actually manage to get something to work). Plus I'm fascinated by the side players, the civilians, the Coast Watchers, the boffins, etc.

Or it could turn alternate universe as various supernatural entities enter the fray. In any case, the key place where I would approach this period differently than the earlier war is that in this one, humanity is the greater monster. Or to be more specific; Cthulhu rises from the ocean and we start dropping nukes. And nobody is happy. Except the writer, because I am fascinated by the dawn of the nuclear age, the cast of characters, the way scientific questions were confronted, etc.

The last period of interest is modern day. And the sub-setting is archaeo-gaming; the intersection between archaeology and games. Here the core conflict is not exactly science versus tradition, or rationalism versus the demon-haunted world, but more the way modern Archaeology is trying to be honest to the facts and sensitive to other cultures, versus commercialism and lowest-common-denominator audiences and all the ways "it's just a story" can be used to trample the real concerns of real peoples.

I realize that sounds a lot more didactic and preachy than it should be. It wouldn't be. And there's plenty of space under the basic umbrella for retro-tech and paleo-gaming, the vibrant current cultures of emulators and 8-bit music and arcade restorers and all that. And real current concerns about intellectual property and cultural appropriation when archaeological artifacts can be scanned and those files printed in physical media or reproduced within virtual worlds.

All bunnies are, again, free for the taking. If you think you can write it, then you have my blessing.

And the rabbit's foot dropped today, during lunch. I'll write more (far too much more -- you know me!) on it soon, but the gist is that my area of interest is the Ancient World and the period of interest is....The Bronze Age Collapse!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

No research? Hah! I'm cursed.

Well, yeah, the chapter I'm working on is in its own way a big set-piece, bringing together threads and hints that were spread out over the rest of the story. So I was going to have to look up at least a thing or two.

But really I'm doing the research because it is so fun. Take the boarding school in Scotland. Gordonstoun, the real Gordonstoun, is a perfect choice. Aristocracy went there. It has an unusual emphasis on physical fitness -- at its founding it had a physical regime which verged on Spartan. Someone over at Eidos did their research. So already excuse to talk about the weirdness of Sparta, and to quote Wellington.

And it looks like he didn't actually say Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Dammit, march of history!

Then I hit the best quote of all. Prince Charles went to Gordonstoun. Which he called, pithily, "Colditz in kilts." Oh, yeah. I gotta write about this place now.

So next I needed a throwaway detail -- a place that is just background so a character has a place to have some life changing thoughts. And I have no idea why, but I thought of the mummy room at the British Museum. A little diversion first to who said it had lost its charm (George and Ira Gershwin, and there's a great cover by old Blue Eyes himself.) Then on to the Egyptian collections.

After a little poking around I came across a paper that attempts to establish a baseline for nomenclature and provenance of the mummies in their collection. And, oh, the wonders in there. About Budge buying them wholesale in Cairo, the so-called Sales Room of the Cairo museum, the factories on the west side of Thebes swapping mummies and cases and grave ornaments to make the best-looking composites for the mummy trade. And of course the complete lack of provenance up until -- yeah, you could have seen this coming -- Flinders Petrie.

Yeah, but none of this is going to fit. I decided early on that Gebelein Female 1 was the best mummy for the scene I need to write. Who was nicknamed "Gingerella" despite her brown hair because at one point she temporarily replaced the male specimen known as "Ginger" (who was a ginger -- or at least he used henna to that effect) in the mock-up pit burial he was displayed in. And, yeah, even that is too much for the scene.

Besides, I need space to talk about Roman-era grave paintings (something I knew about already) because it underscores so well the point I'm trying to make in my little ode on a Grecian Urn...I mean, Pre-dynastic Egyptian Mummy. (And, dammit -- I was going to let it go but now I can't remember if it was the very Greco-Roman paintings hung like creepy posters or a really cheap Halloween mask on the front of a wrapped mummy, or actual carved death masks that are what I was thinking of. Heck...I think it might have even been a completely different funerary I'm going to have to fact-check anyhow.)

Nope, nope, I'm wrong. Or rather, I was right before. I was thinking of the Fayum, the mummy portraits of the coptic and Roman era, and it has been contended based on comparative analysis that the apparent naturalism is less true than it could be. Which was the point I wanted to make for the story, connected as it is to preserved remains which are separated from their burial goods, the correct signifiers of status and gender, even their names -- in those rare cases that history recorded them in the first place).

And yet one more thing that won't fit into the scene. I love the life and character of the Fayum Mummy Portraits but there's something about the eyes that makes me think of the goggle-eyed gaze of Byzantine mosaic art.

Of course little of this fits, and I'm far enough above my target word count I may have to split the chapter as it is. Thing of it is, it is making me think more and more of a place it could fit. There are so many stories and so many incredible characters in the earlier days of Archaeology. From the mass of scientists and artists Napoleon gathered around him at Giza to the famous names like Schliemann and Carter to the often unsung women and non-European archaeologists whose stories are finally starting to be unearthed.

I rather want to write a novel set in that transition period between antiquarianism and modern science. The research, though -- it is terrifying just how much one could find oneself wanting to do.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yer a Croft, Lara

Sigh. So much for no-research, no-planning, write-this-quickly. I'm working on a chapter where the main protagonist mulls over some life-changing incidents from her past. I'd considered and rejected an event from one of the alternate chronologies available.

Over the past week I realized that event could actually be worked in, thought about how it would need to be written, contemplated trashing the draft and starting a new one, then finally decided the incident might be canonical but needs to be glossed over to fit the flow of the existing story.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him

I've been getting stuck with needles a couple times a week. Blood draws, which they've gotten really good at and which hardly hurt at all. Injections of various things which, well, less so. I've also stumbled on a fun urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. Toby does blood magic, so she'd be seeing a lot of the stuff even if her approach to problems didn't end up with her bleeding out on the floor at least once a book. I've was also just offered lighting design on a new adaptation of Dracula. And I've been back to listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts, from which the biggest lesson this week for me is "go for the blood."

With all this blood around, how is it my writing of the past few years has been so bloodless?

Next post -- discovery writing and when it fails.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Inside, Outside

The peacetime Army has a little thing called a Field Problem. If they called it a camping trip you'd get the wrong idea. It is a grueling, intensive exercise that makes the regular rounds of barracks cleaning and ranges and inspections and PT something to look forward to.

My last regular Army field problem was in drizzling rain. The first night was 50% security, which meant that out of the four hours left before dawn after we'd set up camp, only two were spent sleeping. We'd dug deep foxholes in the stone-strewn earth and covered them with wet foliage and I slept in full uniform, leaning against one muddy wall with my boots in the cold water slowly filling our hole.

Eventually things eased off a little and I had a little time to read a paperback I'd stuck in one of the large pockets the Army so kindly provides. I've forgotten what it was, but the gist of it was the characters were slogging through a wet, dark, depressing world for most of the pages.

The drizzle tapered away to let in a little light and warmth at almost the same moment; the characters and I climbed out of our dark and muddy holes together.

I collapsed at work Friday (collapsed is a little strong a word; I felt weak and lay down on the floor for about an hour until I felt strong enough to drive myself home.) Saturday, I was almost too weak to limp across the street for milk. It got bad enough I gave up on the desk and computer and unfolded my futon.

And in the latest book on my reading list, the protagonist got herself poisoned. She was getting weaker by the chapter while I was lying in bed reading with a perfectly good Saturday going to waste outside.

More or less around the same hour, she found her cure and I felt at last the warmth of normal circulation returning and the weakness beginning to ebb.

Well, not completely. I doubt I'll be doing any long-distance running tonight, or even tomorrow. At the moment I'm just about recovered enough to draft a couple quick blog entries.

But the rain is over. At least for now.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Words are useless, Darling. Gobble gobble gobble gobble.

I know you've tried this; take a word, one ordinary word. Taxi, say. Then repeat it over and over again. It doesn't take long before it turns into a meaningless sound. Just a pattern of letters, a pattern of vowels and consonants, a symbol that has come unmoored from that emotional immediacy of meaning.

That's sort of how I feel about writing at the moment.

Or perhaps I should say, my writing. Or it might be even more accurate to say, some writing. I'm alternating the latest October Daye book with the first book of the Arkana series. The former is still a success at that prose trick; the words, the letters, the paper are a transparent window to the world contained within.

The latter is, sadly, not succeeding. I'm conscious at every step of the choices the writer is making, from choices of plot to choices of punctuation (and it isn't helping when I disagree with them).

The trees are getting in the way of the forest. Of course in my own work, I planted those trees. In any creative work there's still a lot of boilerplate. Even at the creative heart, the ideas don't appear like Athena, fully armed. They are pulled from the matrix of your experiences. Whether you chose to say you were "inspired by" or you "borrowed from" is up to you (I tend towards the latter, when I'm not going all out and saying I "stole" the idea.)

And, yes, even if there is an intangible inspired pure Idea somewhere at the core, that idea is fleshed out, the clothing and armor it wears constructed, whether in a fluid free-form process of nearly unconscious association or in mechanical construction, engineering with known and tested elements. And the difference between those two extremes is itself in the eye of the beholder; what seems mechanistic to me might seem a creative insight to an outside observer.

But that is probably beside the point.

What's bothering me now is that greater bulk that holds no pretension to coming directly from the muses, unsoiled by the ordinary world. What is bugging me now is all that boilerplate. All the naked mechanics of chunk of exposition here, chunk of dialog here. Of the necessary interleaving of speakers, of the cadence of sentences, of the rounding of every paragraph around a single idea -- all the way out to the basic story which is almost always there, regardless of the theme, the genre, the word it is set in.

Create a character. Set him in motion after a goal. Have his journey go through a place. At some point you are reaching into the box to assemble the building blocks and it hits you like mjolnir how few are the Seven Basic Plots, or how many the Greeks had -- whichever list you have, it is too few. And how much the creation of your characters starts to resemble those children's flip books where you mix-and-match head, torso and feet to make your own hybrid creature.

Yes, it is easy to make fun of the form. Easier still if you are trying to satirize a genre; generic fantasy; "A new evil has arisen. The black-flame steeds of the Dark Lord of H'gar thunder across the once-peaceful lands. All that stands in their way are a young bard, a willful princess, a failed alchemist and a thief. All will be lost unless they can recover...the Chalice of the Snow."

When you stand this far back, sure, everything blurs together. All urban fantasies are grey in the night-time. All stories were already told before Aristophanes had even started. And it feels so futile and so silly to worry about the details of yet another one.

So there has to be something in the particulars that makes it matter. We are in our hindbrains social primates with millions of years of watching each nuance of expression and body language to tell us who is angry and needs to be pacified, who found food and needs to be followed, who is receptive and should be befriended. Most of our media is endlessly playing pictures of these naked apes so we can watch others of our kind live and react and emote, and so we can learn and affirm from them what it is to be human.

It isn't a boy that meets a girl. It is this boy, this unique individual, this single happenstance of genetic chance and unique upbringing, that meets another happenstance of genetic chance and upbringing to struggle to bridge a just a little that unbridgeable gap between every unique I. The details matter. Every word choice matters, every cadence in the dialog matters.

If it is boring, it probably means that I'm not doing it right.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Orogeny recapitulates porphyry

Ah, research.

I'm into the "less research, dammit" part of the story. I'm skipping any rest stops, roadside attractions, or other touristing as I send my cast down the interstate and to the final location of the book.

All I wanted was a couple of words. Like "the red sandstones had been left behind for a muted, depressing yellow-ochre." Or something like that. But...what color is the area I'm traveling through?

Not a simple question. I'm thirty tabs deep now on the geology of the Colorado Plateau (of which the San Rafael Swell through which I-70 passes is part of), the various layers of Jurassic, Cretaceous, and earlier materials, the weathered remains of an anticline formed 60-80 MYA, the leaching of iron from exposed Navajo Sandstone, the unique endemic species, etc. etc.

I'm no geologist. In times past I had the illusion it might be possible to do world-building from the mantle out, to figure out the underlying geology and work all the way out to rain shadows and micro-climates. Well, the US is so damned geologically complex it is essentially beyond me to grasp enough of it to be able to paint the kind of broad strokes the template sentence above implies.

Still: the question of what central Utah looks like fails most of my tests; there is no kind of reproducible behavior involved, it ties into no politicized argument of which I am aware, is in short a completely neutral issue. I could say it was bright pink and filled with unicorn farts and it would only reflect on my willingness to do the research.

Yeah, but you's fun to read up on the geology. And, yeah -- how else would I find that the Planetary Society set up a station because parts of the swell are similar to the landscapes of Mars?

Peppermint and Lead

I've been reading the October Daye series of urban fantasy books. Found one in a "please take some books" pile, was just intrigued enough to try out sample chapters via Kindle and you know how it goes. I wouldn't call them great, I'm not even sure how much I enjoy them, but they are page-turners.

In those books, each person has a distinctive "smell" to their magic (in Toby's case, at least, this is as much part of her powers to read the nature of other Fae as it is actual scents). These scents are often appropriate to the kind of Fae and the personality thereof; Toby's magic smells of copper and blood (or at least it did, when she thought she was a half-blood Daoine Sidhe. Spoilers!) Tybalt, King of Cats (a little Romeo and Juliet reference there) smells of musk and pennyroyal. One villain smells of oleander and (!) sulphuric acid.

I'm still tasting peppermint and lead. I'm actually a little disappointed. There's a whole pallet of interesting sensations people have reported from the contrast agent used for a CT scan, and I got almost none of them. Even the "metallic taste" was muted (even if it lasted for far too long).

So far every test to try to track down my mild anemia and not-so-mild attacks of fatigue has come up blank. I've definitely got a low RBC count, with no explanation for why, and my cardiologist is seeing just enough in the various stress tests to want to discuss further (and more invasive) tests with me.

My current approach is to just work through the spells of fatigue. Not fight them (that usually ends up badly), and not give in to the urge to rest (unless it is the weekend -- explaining why I've been reading so many paperbacks). Experience says I'm going to hit a day when I can't even get out of bed, but until then it's pretty much just feeling tired and run-down from the moment I wake up each morning.

It is working, though. I'm getting my hours in at work, getting a little violin practice in every few days (when I'm not so exhausted I spend break hunching over a cup of coffee) and even a little writing on the weekends.

But I'm putting the last Holocrons on indefinite hold. Just trying to compose a post for the RPF that will lay it out honestly without being a bid for sympathy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Not a new thought.

But I was listening to radio coverage on yesterday's eclipse, and cicadas came up, and I found myself remembering the process of several sound designs.

Crickets and birdsong are part of that suite of sounds that tell the audience where a scene is taking place, indoor or outdoor, city or nature. They can describe a biome and an emotion; a peaceful meadow or a spooky jungle. And, of course, a time of day (excepting when those crickets or birds get confused by a solar eclipse).

But it is never so simple as just grabbing "birds chirping" from a free online sound library. Besides those little matters of audio quality and legal use, you need to particularize. Chickadees making a racket in a Soho pet shop are not the same as morning sparrows on a farmstead in Illinois. Not all library sounds are equal -- or equally appropriate.

Worse, most plays will have multiple locations, and multiple times of day. For something as simple as Bye, Bye Birdie I had three or four different cricket-and-night-insect backgrounds, depending on the time of day and the emotional mood I was going for; the background to the anticipatory twilight of a hot summer night prior to "Got a lot of living" is quite different from the one-AM still of the final tired chorus of "We love you Birdie."

But that's just primary selection. Then comes the next task.

Library recordings vary hugely in their equalization. Some of the birdsong I reach for frequently have huge (even oppressive) low-end rumble in them. So these need to be equalized and focused in to bring out the sounds you need without masking the stage action and dialog you need to preserve.

(A lot of them also have a huge white noise content. This comes with the territory; birdsong is outdoors sound and wind and background roar are always there. This is wide-spectrum noise, though, and pretty much impossible to edit out. You can only work around it).

Then you need enough so it covers the length of the scene. And starts and stops smoothly, without a jarring effect. Often the library samples you start with are too short. A little over a minute is typical for a library effect and ten minutes isn't unusual for a scene. And you don't want to simply loop (especially because the raw library effect will either start with a bang or will fade in and out leaving an obvious silence in addition to the obvious repetition.)

This is why I like layering several different tracks. I can duck them in and out and change how they line up to present an ever-changing picture that doesn't have so many obvious repetitions in it. (This also plays well with how I like to approach background sounds; to start them louder and more complex and drop them in volume and complexity as we move into the scene proper).

And we're still not done. Because birdsong, particularly, is pretty much defined as being stretches of silence separated by distinct calls. If you leave most library tracks alone, they will be too quiet to make a background track -- except at 1:03, when the bird nearest the microphone suddenly lets out a loud chirp.

I edit the sounds manually. I go into waveform view and "ride the fader" (as in adjust the amplitude moment-by-moment to smooth out the levels.) Audacity has a very nice "envelop" mode for doing this quickly and smoothly.

And here's the trick, and what ties back to the title of the post:

If I do all this, and do it well, no-one will ever realize I did it.

I've mentioned this before. It struck me, while I was listening to that radio program, that the majority of my creative work over the years has been exactly this sort of invisible work.

Hemingway famously tried to write so the words went away and all you perceived was the story. A fellow lighting designer shared with me the conundrum of the box set and the fireplace. The audience will notice a fireplace effect. But if you did your job right, a box set interior (a room in a castle, a hotel suite, whatever) will just look like a room. It will never cross their minds that giving the impression of light coming from chandelier and sconces and or the big bay window is really, really difficult to integrate with having everyone inside properly lit, easy to see, without too many distracting shadows.

(As my friend put it, you spend three days focusing that damned box set to try to control the shadows and the scoop shapes on the walls and so on. And then you plop a $15 fire log from Wallgreen's in the fireplace and plug it in and the audience goes "ooh" and "ahh.")

What little stabs I've taken in the direction of engineering is the same; a good engineering design does what it needs to do in the most direct way possible. A good design ends up looking simple and obvious -- a simplicity and obviousness that was not there when the design process was begun.

With a stretch, you could even include violin practice, since 90% of the job over your first couple of years is the not-making-obvious-mistakes part of it. Your skill is defined largely by how much someone doesn't notice how much (or, rather, how little) skill you have.

But, you know, it really sucks when it comes time to getting credit. For people to mention the sound design in reviews or in the big thank-you-everyone at the opening night party. For reviews, in particular, the only mention is when it went wrong. Never when it went right, because "right" for the bulk of the work is being invisible; the illusion that the singer and the orchestra just sort of showed up in perfect balance and clarity to every pair of ears in the house.

(And since your director and music director and producer and so forth have no freaking idea how much work went into achieving that illusion of transparency, and how fragile it is, they will go behind your back and change stuff and then blame you for when it "for no reason at all" suddenly sounds like shit.)

And it shows up when payday comes around, too.

(There's another example for the bucket; I've been listening to a bunch of archaeology podcasts, as well as the Writing Excuses podcast. The latter is properly engineered. If you just listen to the latter, there's nothing to hear; you just hear the people talking. Listen to the former and you get it; distracting background noises and huge level shifting that makes listening to a dialogue an exercise in daring and frustration as you keep racing to adjust the volume on your earbuds between "I don't know what he said" to "would she please stop blowing into the microphone!")

Monday, August 14, 2017

Senseless Violins

Man, my playing is bad.

I got in a good practice session today. Did nothing but try to get the bow straight, relax my death grip on the neck, get the right pressure on the stroke, and cross the strings over a scale.

A fascinating thing for me is how much it isn't like learning to ride a bicycle. There isn't a magical moment where you finally get the motion right, and after that it is much easier. The motion is always hard. You are always having to control weird little noises. The bow is always bouncing. You fingers are never perfectly on the desired pitch. Instead of not having to worry about those things, what you gain over the many hours of practice is skill in dealing with all these things as they happen.

So, yeah, the fact that you are consciously having the same problems but doing a better job of hiding them makes you your own worst critic. But I think I have enough background in listening to, mixing, working with musicians to recognize what a certain level of ability entails in the way of cleanliness of articulation, focus of tone, accuracy of pitch, and adherence to tempo.

Writing is an oddly similar task. You will always be aware of where the problems are, and only get better at hiding them from the reader. And there is an equivalent of muscle memory. Over the first years or first 100,000 words or whatever you have to keep stopping to check that you are in the right tense, the consistent POV. You are measuring paragraphs and counting lines so the pacing is consistent and there's a good balance of dialog and description. And, yes, outlining in great detail.

And over the next 100,000 words that stuff becomes basically instinctive. You can still pull it to awareness at any time, and tweak and adjust to meet the needs of the story, but you don't have to step out of the flow in order to make your verbs agree or check the Oxford Commas.

Which is good, because I've gone a little crazy on my current writing.

I'm excited again about writing for publication. The story I'm tinkering on won't take massive research or world-building and I have hopes I can get it done in a year.

But I do want to complete the Tomb Raider/Stargate crossover and put that away, rather than leaving it on a back-burner. So I'm adjusting the outline to let me conclude within the next four chapters (which, at my historical rate of progress, is about four months!)

And I also got re-invested on a simpler piece, "Sam I Am." A fluffy piece, first-person POV through the snarky, profanity-laced voice of a secondary character from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. The only research I've been doing is looking up titles and directors of documentaries (it is a running gag; Samantha is canonically a documentary film-maker, so I've turned this into her version of the Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook; whatever the plot needs her to know, she conveniently remembers the details from a documentary she saw once.)

This would be so much simpler if I had my strength. Cardiologist is supposed to be contacting me this week. With luck, when he sticks a camera in there he'll find something that we can actually fix. Until then, I'm taking long naps immediately following work and there go all my productive hours....

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Can he swing? Listen, Bud, he's got radioactive blood

Well, not any more. Technetium 99m has a half-life of only six hours, and in any case a biological half-life of about a day.

I should really be logging this stuff. As of my blog entry of the 28th I was feeling full of energy. As of three days ago I've been in a slump again. Not helped by the cardiac and nuclear (well, also cardiac, but using gamma camera imaging) stress tests. Still, I'm dogging it out at work and putting in almost a full shift.

(And I'm going to feel a lot better -- one way or another) when I finally get the test results back.)

After four weeks of emails and phone calls I finally got the parts to repair my U-base. The wrong parts, turns out. But fortunately I'd thought to "throw in" a part I didn't think I needed. Which was of course the actual part at fault. So now I just have to decide whether to put the old pre-amp back in, or modify the bass to fit the new pre-amp, which sounds better and has a built-in tuner.

Hrm. Stated that way, it seems obvious. I just don't have a lot of time to be messing around with modifications. I'm having enough trouble finding time to keep up on my practicing.

Oh, and got offered another show. Lighting design for a new adaptation of Dracula. Even though I've been avoiding taking on any theater design work this year, I'll probably do this one.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Those who do not learn history...

...have an easier time writing a quick novel?

The character Sam Starfall (from the webcomic Freefall) once said, "My lies are more convincing when I don't know what's impossible."

Back when I was hacking out an artwork or two with Poser and Bryce (anyone remember Bryce3d? The textures were legendary. So were the render times) I was a member of a 3d art forum. And the same conversation came up over and over again; a (usually young) artist complaining they didn't want to learn perspective, color theory, the other basics of traditional art. Their stated reason? Because that would negatively impact their ability to bring out their own, unique, vision.

My usual rejoinder is that yes, Outsider Art is a thing, but most of us benefit from learning the rules before we go around breaking them.

But, as I get deeper and deeper into history, archaeology, and the classics, I'm starting to have more sympathy for the "Sam Starfall" school.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Roadie for the Elves

Enough fanfic. I'm ready to get back to a "real" novel.

I had an idea a little while back that got as far as an outline. And that's where it stumbled; the outline revealed I only had half a story. I like the setup, there's some fun ideas, but I don't know how to develop it.

(There's also a research problem. The setup is, baldly, that the Fair Folk are real, a group of refugees cane to the modern world...and they went into folk music. Which is not a new conceit (star example being Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks) but is still a silly fun idea. Trouble is, most people that would tackle this as an idea would know their folk music (particularly Celtic) and know their Irish and other folk tales. I've been exposed to the stuff but I'm only a quarter Irish by birth and a lot less by inclination. This just isn't, for me, writing from experience.)

(Of course my POV character is writing from experience. I could expound endlessly on live sound (like I do in these pages) but in a work of fiction -- urban fantasy adventure fiction with a comic twist -- a little of that goes a long way. )

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Moon Over Buffalo

Another old design.

This time I'm using Shotcut, a freeware video editor. Much nicer than iMovie for this sort of thing. It lacks the ability to do audio ducking or similar, but that's okay -- I would have spliced all the audio together  in Audacity or Reaper anyway, if I wasn't dealing with a bad mic and poor recording conditions anyhow.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


(Diary-entry post deleted in favor of more rambling about writing.)

So, research. I find research fun. Sometimes more fun than doing the book. There's at least two phases of it, and that first phase -- the background and familiarization phase -- is more like what you'd do to unwind than it is like work. That's the part of just looking at a lot of materials -- popular-press and fictionalized are just as good here -- to get a general sense of the material.

It's great because you can do this sort of stuff in the background, immersing yourself in the material while eating, at work, getting ready for bed, etc.

The final -- loosely put -- phase is the least fun, and that's when in the middle of typing up a scene you have to pause and go back over your collated notes and bookmarks and whatever to put in the correct spelling of the Pharaoh's name and the correct dates of her reign.

The latter is one of the reasons why it can be helpful to write up your research; to put together a monograph (or whatever you want to call a distillation of what you've found). Another big reason is that organizing it and writing an essay on it helps you to better grasp and remember it. Which is why students have to write so many of the things).

But what I really wanted to talk about is the pleasures of applying that research.

At the lowest level, there's knowing you are getting the names and dates right. I'm tempted to call this Wikipedia-level stuff, except that Wikipedia has gotten so crazy detailed over the last few years someone needs to step in and fork out a more entry-level approach for the general audience.

Better than this is four-senses stuff. It isn't quite as simple to find out what the colors or the sounds, much less the scents and tastes are (well, depending on what you are researching!) This is stuff that draws a reader into a setting much more than just naming the city.

More work yet -- and more payoff -- is a layer I'd call functionality. I could also call it the place where the nouns live. In your outline framework your character might sheath their weapon or hail a cab or button a shirt. When you've done the research, you know that you don't sheath an axe, the better casual transport option in Bangkok is the Tuk-Tuk, and there's no buttons on a wetsuit.

This isn't about errors, per se. This is about how the minutia of picking up and purchasing, strolling or hiding, or whatever functional things need to be done to get the character through the stages of the plot, unfold differently in different fields, with different tools, in different places. "Buy a burger" is a cheap way of covering, "in scene six the protagonist eats something"; good research will option up the option to have them "Haggle over a kebab at a street stall."

Better than that are the things writer Even S. Connel called "pickled plums." These are the bits that are so specific and yet so illuminating, things that could only have happened in the specific circumstances you are researching about. During one early Arctic expedition, it was so cold out that the moment the diarist (Cherry-Girard, I believe) stuck his head out of the heated tent his outer clothing froze "instantly," trapping his head in a screwed-around position, and he had to struggle through the whole morning like that.

My own pinpoint observation of extreme cold came on a glacier in Alaska when the moisture on my eyelashes froze. It was a quietly alien moment, gently astonishing as so far outside one's usual experience. I even thought I heard faint chimes as the bits of ice rang off each other with each blink (but I was almost certainly imagining that).

As delightful as the plums are, above that is where you are able to resynthesize. In all the other stuff, you are basically regurgitating. You've found a description that said "The color of fried tomatoes" or "a short walk from the pier." The best fun is when you've done enough research where you can come up with your own description from scratch. Where you can apply your own emotional response and parallels from your own experience to approach describing the thing.

And, also, when your understanding of it is so organic you are no longer dropping in the correct nouns and adjectives, but where the entire scene is shaped by the specifics of a thing or task or environment or character.

In short, 180 from the stereotypical "hollywood" approach (aka script first, then distort the real world to fit the existing plot).

Oh, yeah. diary stuff. I'm increasingly excited about composing again, getting in my instrument practice and music theory studies, but I need to set up, before I set up I need to clean, before I clean I need to put the holocron project to bed. This afternoon is about soldering up another set of boards, and I have hopes that I'll be able to keep focus long enough to get some detail painting in as well; two tasks my health woes and work schedule did not permit.

Friday, July 28, 2017

It's good to have coverage


This week I've had four blood draws, two x-rays, an EKG, optometry/ophthalmology exam, an interview with a cardiologist and an emergency tooth extraction.

The last meaning I'm eating soft foods all weekend.

But other than a rotten tooth, I appear to be disgustingly healthy. In celebration of that I even got out to the gym earlier in the week.

Now if they could just figure out where the fatigue is coming from....

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Virtual Lithics

Skyrim has mods.

This has the potential to become an interesting problem for the game industry. On the one hand, Bethesda is one of the companies that strongly supports the modding community, releasing the Creation Kit for anyone to try their hand at adding new content, changes in focus, or basic bug fixes to the worlds of Skyrim and the Fallout series. This, when it works well, gives games some of the advantage of Open Source. There are some very skilled people out there who don't happen to be working for Bethesda (or who don't have any deadlines other than self-imposed ones) and are able to do things the original creators did not or could not.

On the flip side, official DLC can look bad by comparison. I have to say that Bethesda shot themselves in the foot a bit with Skyrim, at least. The two big DLC's, Dawnguard and Dragonborn, got decent reviews and are considered more-or-less worth the price. However, Hearthfire is considered by most reviewers to be a waste of money, hence a waste of employee hours by Bethesda (unless they got a lot of sucker sales).

Dawnguard: Adventure Found Me

This is not my Skyrim review. I hope when I get to that it will be a little more organized than this. This instead is an exploration of ludonarrative in the emergence of a character arc from meta-textual elements.

Or, in short, how a young Breton with dreams of becoming a bard was pulled into a conflict she didn't even know existed, became a legendary hero and saved the world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Thursday's practice was thirty minutes of doing scales.

The Cecelio arrived in early July of 2016. That means last week I marked the first year of learning violin. I can basically get through a tune now. Accidentals, string crossing, shifting, the start of a vibrato. I'm not doing much in special bowing and I've yet to assay a double stop.

This next year is basically about refining. About, more than anything else, getting comfortable. Right now it still takes so much concentration there are days I simply can't practice.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Informative Tombs

I was dashing off a couple simple scenes for a Tomb Raider fanfic when I suddenly stalled. I wanted to put a little color in the bit (from Tomb Raider: Anniversary) about Natla telling Lara the location of lost Vilcabamba.

Trouble is, Vilcabamba isn't lost. Well, it was, but only a little. Hiram Bingham found the site in 1911, it was identified in 1960, and in the 70's the identification was widely published.

We can give the 2007 game a pass as it is a fairly faithful reproduction of the 1996 game. But, really -- calling it "Lost Vilcabamba" in 1996 is pretty shoddy research.

There's a more important omission in the game, however. And that is, lost or not, Vilcabamba is interesting. What it was and the part it plays in the final act of the Incan civilization is fascinating enough that at least two works of fiction were inspired by it. But all the game does is throw out the name.

(At least the player gets that much; they might be inspired to look it up. There is a major location in the first game of the Crystal Dynamics "trilogy" that doesn't even get a name. In fact, only indirect evidence even tells which country the site is located in!)

This is particularly sad because the art direction of all the games has made an effort to bring in some of the artistic motifs, architectural elements, living arrangements, natural surroundings, etc., appropriate to the various cultures brushed against.

The 2013 game does a little better. Particularly nice are the "artifacts," in-game collectibles that have a nicely textured model that can be turned and examined, along with a charming commentary by this game's college-student version of Lara on the artifact's history, use, cultural context, etc.

Pity these are outside of the main plot. In fact, few elements that are important to the plot or the gameplay are examined in any interesting detail. Heck; there are plenty of people who would enjoy a name given to the various wartime wrecks littering the island and the handy weaponry (mostly left behind by the Japanese Army) that Lara picks up. At least there's a bit on the (actual) Himiko, but what the game gives is almost entirely unique to the plot and has little to do with any actual historical myths.

I do realize games are rarely about context. Gameplay is king, and that only makes sense. But the Civilization games made a name in part by referring to real historical developments and making it possible to learn things about them that went beyond what was strictly necessary for game play. In a very different example, the game Skyrim is absolutely stuffed with context, with artifacts and cultural ways and histories and architectures and stories, stories, stories.

In and among the gold pieces and healing potions stuck into treasure chests or littering a bandit's hideout are plates and bales and pots and eating utensils and other cultural relics that can be picked up and examined, and also books, books that add no skill points, carry no hints, have in short no influence on game play, but books that contain multiple readable pages of text. Of stories and legends and songs, all there just to give more background, more detail....more texture to the world.

So, yeah. If I'm playing a first-person shooter set in W.W.I, I want to have equipment that is modeled after the real things. And I want the game to tell me the real names. And some of the context. To name the battle, to name the leaders, to explain why it matters, to tell me (or better yet, let me experience personally) how it unfolded in history.

I don't need this for every game. But any game that flirts with history would, I think, want to make that history breath. To have more than just a name here and there or an accurate in-game model, but to make it possible for you to learn from it. To inform, just enough so you get the value of that peculiar thing games can do; to allow you to walk within and interact.

To experience the thrill and the sorrow of walking the ruins of that last Incan stronghold, knowing what you are looking at...and why it matters.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken ownership of the Pfretzschner. That is to say, I've started modding it. I don't know what the history of the bridge is (it's probably not original) but it looks like it has been through a number of hands. On closer examination, the curve is all wrong.

The A string was sunk far too deep. I could work with it in 1st Position but when I really started working 3rd I couldn't sound it without hitting another string. So I cut a tiny sliver of hardwood out of the back of a file handle and glued it in with CA glue. Re-shaped, cut a new notch.

The E string is still not right. This may be the fault of the bridge having been cut for an E without the protective sleeve. In any case, the compound curve just isn't there (oddly, though, someone seems to have monkeyed with the G string -- the curve there is sharper than it should be). Enthused by my success with the A string I lightly recurved and deepened the notch for the E string by less than a string width.

And it feels good now.

And that all inspired me to another crafts project:

The metal practice mute was not working for me. I have lots of scrap materials at work, though. So I cut two pieces of thick rubber, bolted them together (no need for Barge Cement for something this simple) and cut string notches in it.

Works like a charm. The volume is significantly lower but much of the sound quality is still there. Only drawback is not being able to see the fingerboard over the mute. But then, I'm not supposed to be working by eye anyhow.

Now all I need is to find a shoulder rest I like. Perhaps I should build my own there, too....

The U-bass, meanwhile, has developed a minor electronics issue. Volume dropped a bunch. I may have to swap out the pre-amp. Going to try adding an external pre-amp first.

I'm working up a full Instructable when I finally finish the thing, but here's a preview pic of my other bass-related project:

At two violins, a ukulele, and a bass (not to mention three recorders, a crumhorn, a bombarde, and a penny whistle -- and of course two 61-key keyboards and a couple of mini keyboards) I really need to add some kind of rack to my collection as well.

The main musical adventure of the moment is theory, however. I really need to improve my music theory. I've been listening to podcasts -- maybe not the optimal format, but very efficient for studying during work hours.

I'm realizing I need more theory to do what I want to with my next big composition. I want especially to be more deliberate with harmony, especially harmonic progression. Fumbling around for chords that sound cool kinda works for solo piano stuff, but it becomes a huge pain trying to find which notes to harmonize with, which need emphasis, etc. when working up a full arrangement.

More on that later. I'm strongly contemplating an unrelated sketch just to get back into things.

But, hey, if I do it right, I can work in some violin recording. I'm just about ready to start learning parts.

Monday, June 26, 2017

copy morphs from actor to another

There were a couple hits recently with the above as a search term.

It is relatively easy -- if you read the question on way (and much harder if you read the question the other).

Morphs in the Poser universe are a set of deltas. Poser meshes are .obj files (or .obj format imbedded in a Poser native format like .pp2) that define a 3d surface via a set of vertices connected by edges and filled in with faces. Each vertice has 3 Cartesian coordinates; x, y, z.

A morph file must have an entry for every single vertice of the mesh it will be applied to, in the same order (called "winding order") that they are listed in the .obj file. Each of these entries is a move in the x, y, and z directions.

This is what give morphs their flexibility. A single morph can be applied at a fraction of the full move, a multiple of it, or even as a negative of that move. They can also be combined; the final position of the target vertice will be the result of the addition of all the vectors.

With that out of the way; to move a morph from one file to another merely involves copying the big chunk of text that lists all the deltas. Plus a control. So, basically, copy the entire channel; everything within the brackets following "targetGeom nameOfMorph".

I should note that as of...I think Poser was possible to store the actual morph data in an external file. I never worked with those in my prop creation so I can't advise there.

There were also and probably still are third-party helper applications, some of them running within Poser itself using Poser Python, to copy and paste (and also delete and rename) morphs for you.

However. The morph has to be for the same mesh. The exact same mesh. Even one missing vertice will cause it to barf. I have to make particular note of this because in the Poserverse, "Actor" is the name for an individual part. A leg or arm or individual gear in a gearbox or whatever. Poser uses the term "Figure" (or prop) to refer to a fully rigged instance within the workspace. And, no; a morph designed for a leg will not work on an arm, any more than a morph designed for V2 will work on V3.

Ah, but there is more. It may not be possible to copy a morph, but there are ways to duplicate it. Manually, by using magnets and other deformers in the Poser workspace or mesh modeling tools outside (again, be very, very careful not to change the number of vertices or their winding order). There are also automated tools. PhilC makes some amazing ones that run within Poser itself (using Poser Python, natch).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

No More One-Man Jazz Trio

I got rid of my drum kit. Gave it in a long-term no-conditions loan to a friend at work. I hadn't even realized (until I got home) that with the recent acquisition of the Kala U-Bass I actually had piano, bass, and drums in the house.

That's the old-school Jazz Trio. It is a great blend of instrumentation.

The drums weren't great, anyhow. Roland SPD-20 "brain," a Roland FD-7 hi hat pedal and one PD-8 that I usually had set up as a snare. As a kit, it needed a lot of work yet. The hi hat controller had a lousy feel, there was no kick pedal, and no-where near enough pads, even including the surface of the SPD-20 itself. But even if it was complete, that's simply not the direction I'm going now.

See, that particular arrangement of controllers is to simulate this:

The pic above is a render of a kit I created in 3d. (Complete with multiple options, textures, fully adjustable and animatable...but that's not the point). The point is that an element of the sound is placed to be triggered from each limb. The right foot tapping the kick on the 1 and 3, left hand on the snare at the 2 and 4, heel-toe on the hi hat pedal on the quarter notes, and right hand laying down eighths on hat or ride (on the kit above, that's a hybrid crash-ride).

And many, many variations thereon. It's all about the coordination, and the idioms descend from the physicality, from what is easier to reach in conjunction with what or which movements naturally coordinate. And the best way to get it is to have those controls with that response in the right positions. You pretty much need something, whether it is an actual acoustic drum kit, or a set of sensors, sprawling out and taking up space in that arrangement or close to it.

Which is partially what my friend was looking for. But also, honestly, even if you are simulating timpani or tin-pan, bongos or part of a gamelan, having big pads to swing a stick at is better than trying to do it on piano-style keys. Or even those cute little baby touch pads on some keyboard controllers.

Thing of it is: you can study and simulate the idiom, but even the way a timpanist mutes the drums with their fingertips to control the long sustain requires an extra effort to simulate. To replicate the kind of intimate complex interaction of the player with a tabla or bodhran or the jazz standard of brushed snare is much, much harder.

And the natural sounds are not there. All the ways the tones interact, all the side noises (wanted, unwanted, or merely accepted), are part of the character of the instrument and the intimacy and presence of the sound.

It might seem like the electric bass and violin, and the Behringer 61-key, are counter to that idea. Don't be deceived by the terminology. Both my first violin and my new bass are electrically amplified, but the sound of the sound is entirely physical. It is the same vibration of strings as a true violin or an upright bass.

Well, sort of. The tone on both (the U-bass is a solid-body model) is simpler, lacking the full body resonances of a primarily acoustic instrument. But they do share -- in fact, because of this same lack of natural acoustic amplification, they even have more -- of the finger noise and bow noise and fret buzzing and all of that.

In short, both have a tone that is far too expressive. Every move my fingers make, intentional or not, is broadcast by the instrument.

You might think the keyboard is the odd one out here, but not exactly. The majority of keyboard instruments share one dirty secret; they are mechanical. If I fret on the bass where I place my finger and how I place my finger matters in the resulting sound. If I play a note on the plays. So a MIDI keyboard sacrifices very little of the nuance of the performer.

(I hasten to add -- that's when it is used to mimic keyboard instruments. It captures fairly faithfully a piano or organ performance. It fails to deliver the necessary control and thus nuance of a string or wind performance when it tries to mimic one.)

So I've been seeing a lot of stuff done with novel orchestration, and with hand-made and improvised instruments. I am still intrigued by the idioms of specific folk musics, of how a bluegrass fiddle is different from a klezmer violin, of the kinds of flourishes typical of an Irish penny whistle, but I'm becoming a lot more cosmopolitan in my arranging.

I'm just as happy, now, putting together groups of instruments that sound good, with whatever interesting techniques each player can muster, as I am with trying to "play the game" and stick with the style, idioms, and expectations of a classic jazz trio.

And in any case...I won't have the piano I want until I've gotten around to hooking up that Raspberry Pi-based keyboard module.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The First Time's the Best: The "Civ Problem"

There's a problem in most computer games. It first came to my attention while playing the Civilization series. Once you've isolated it, though, you see it occurring over and over.

It has to do with the way certain things -- from building a city to opening a treasure chest -- become by the middle of the game rote, boring, and annoying, with too many button clicks and a long animation to sit through. Paradoxically, in the early game these tasks are fresh and exciting enough you as the player find yourself wanting even more. More choices. Longer animations. More detail.

In my opinion, the choice to try to strike a balance is the wrong one. I think games need to do something different. The question is how the design team can afford it.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

We'll make it your way

I work at a company that is essentially using Just-in-time manufacturing technique. Our product line is nimble and always changing, and our catalog is deep, so ww essentially build each order as it comes in. And as a necessary adjunct to this, we only keep enough stock on hand to fill known orders.

That's basically what I was doing. However, the lead time on acrylic, PCB boards, small parts, etc. is enough that I had to anticipate Holocron orders somewhat and purchase those materials ahead. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. It looks like I'm going to be stuck with unused parts. Whilst, simultaneously, being short of what I need to finish the remaining orders.

The problem is largely one of changes.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Friendly Plug

Nathan McCree, the wonderful composer behind the first four Tomb Raider games, has launched a kickstarter to get a suite of fan-favorite selections from those games recorded by a full symphony orchestra.

At Abbey Road Studios. Well the full support of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix.

Check him out!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

All U-Bass is Belong to Us

Once or twice in the past I've thought about getting a bass. Certainly not an upright -- those things are huge, and expensive. But even a traditional bass is rather large and cumbersome. Too much, I thought.

Well, not necessarily. And certainly not as of 2005.

Nathan East with his California 5-string, courtesy of Kala

The small-scale hybrid bass concept is not entirely new. The Ashbory came out in 1986. It uses polyethylene strings to cut the length down to about half that of a standard bass. And then there's Paul McCartney with his Höfner 500/1 (a bass neck on a violin-like body.)

One of the many experimenters over the years is Owen Holt, and he combined a baritone ukulele body with pahoehoe strings (manufactured under his own Road Toad branding -- which name is a reference to the infamous Cane Toads, by the by). He then took the new instrument to Mike Upton at Kala, who had learned ukulele building in Hawaii before returning to manufacture them in California.

The first u-bases were acoustic-electric, constructed not unlike a baritone ukulele. There was some experimentation with truss rods along the way, as bass applies new stresses to the standard uke construction. Somewhere around 2011 Kala brought out a solid-body four-string, and in 2015 had five-string options (as well as fretless and left handed options).

Bass players are converts (or, at least adding it to their collections). I saw a used one at the local music shop and was struck by how odd, cute, and friendly it was (in that, at least, it clearly shows its ukulele heritage).

So, yeah, I bought it. And it is, fortunately, one of those instruments that is easy to pick up (all instruments are a lifelong project to learn to play well.) Ukulele skills translate, as do, oddly, violin skills; the former is in the fretting and plucking, the latter is in the sensitivity. This is not a an instrument requiring you to haul down a thick steel string by sheer finger strength. It is an instrument that registers every fretting finger, every brush, every tap.

The one I got is the Kala sunburst SUB. It looks like a baby electric guitar. It has that Fender solid-body shape -- but an oversized headstock and four thick black gummi-worm strings that look like something that belongs on a toy. Internal pre-amp with volume and two tone control knobs on the front and it is just slightly larger than my e-violin.

It is tuned like a four-string bass and with the 20" short-scale has almost the same range. You can hold it like a ukulele but finger plucking is easier with a guitar strap. With those Road Frog Pahoehoes it has a jazzy upright bass quality (particularly if you thumb-pluck and use the heel of your hand to further reduce the sustain). I'm told that with the optional wire-wound strings you can get more of the aggressive bite of a bass guitar.

It is also almost completely silent when not put through an amplifier. You can't even practice it unplugged (but VOX makes a cute headphone amp for guitars and basses).

I do have what appears to be a set-up problem, possibly inherited from the previous owner; my middle strings rattle. I've emailed Kala and will probably be replacing the nut. The low tension means bending is difficult and snapping doesn't work (slap bass technique). It has frets so slides have that fretted sound and you can't really do vibrato. However, the sensitivity of the pickups makes hammer-ons and pops extremely simple. In short there are still plenty of techniques open to exploration on this instrument.

So I've rethought how I will be approaching bass in my next recording project. I've been aware for a while of the true expressive quality of the bass, a quality and a realism that synth patches are a poor substitute for. Well, my playing isn't much better. But the u-bass makes it just possible I can do those parts live now.

And a u-base doesn't take up a lot of space.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Bassic Instinct

I got a chance to play with an Bass Guitar* recently. I am starting to understand many things about bass players that puzzled me in the past.

First, though, was mild surprise at how quickly I figured out "where the notes are." The bass is tuned in fourths, and unless you have an "extended" bass, the strings are in the same order (but sound an octave lower) than the four lowest strings on the guitar.

So a consistent interval, and certainly simpler than the reentrant tuning of a soprano or concert ukulele, but still it takes only moments to adapt and figure out where the next note you want it. I still don't get, in fact, why there are fingering charts for single notes (as there are, and many indeed, for the violin). But then, I'm not usually sight-reading. So I don't know I'm on a G, and I don't have to go through figuring out that the next note will be a B, so where is that...instead I just know I need a note that's a seventh above, and I go there.

In any case certainly beats the fork fingering of a recorder (where half your notes require a combination of fingers with holes left open at various places along the body).

I did somewhat "err" in going for thumb plucking at first. This is uke instinct; you hold up the Uke with your fingers so thumb pluck or strum is easiest. But turns out some bass guitar players use this to sound more like an upright bass -- and by the time I'd read this, I'd already discovered the associated trick of using the heel of your plucking hand to dampen the strings (you rest it on the bridge, in fact).

Fingers work, too, but for that I needed to use the neck strap. In any case, finding the simpler walking bass lines and so forth were dead simple.

Which is the first thing learned; getting them to sound clean is another issue entirely. Like violin, every tiny bit of noise is amplified. Every hammer-on and lift-off is audible, as is every time you brush against another string. Plus unlike the violin, where the sympathetic vibration of the open strings is part of the desired sound, those fourths really clash if you don't make a point of muting the strings you aren't using.

The second thing is how hard it is to hear. I couldn't even get my tuners to recognize it at first. You really need an amp to hear yourself well enough to play.

And it is really all about tone. The difference between the right tone for the song and the moment and the almost right tone is like Mark Twain's "Lightning and lightning bug." And, yeah. You don't hear that tone -- the essential elements that make that tone -- without some serious horsepower in your bass amp.

A 10W practice amp is just barely enough, and that's with it cranked up to max.

So in just a little playing around I suddenly have way more sympathy for the bass players and their amps and their constant adjustments in the name of tone.

Heck; I'm not even sure that you really find your notes through what comes over headphones. The violin communicates when your intonation is right in part through vibration that you feel directly through your skin. I can believe that you know what pitches the bass is making -- at least on the lowest string -- by the low frequency vibrations you feel in your very bones.

The bass is more like a piano than it is like violin or woodwind or brass; you can pretty much produce a note-like object the first time you pick it up. But like all musical instruments, making that note sound good, and adding expression to the performance, is lifetime study.

*sorta bass guitar. Details to follow.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Maker Faire 2017: Begin the Begin

And now the Maker Faire rant.

Bay Area Maker Faire (this weekend in San Mateo) was hot and crowded. Neither are the fault of Make or anyone else. To a certain extent "crowded" is a feature; it means tickets were sold, and Make is having trouble financing the Faire already. The heat is by itself not a problem, but combined with crowds you get a lack of access to shade and water that makes the Faire more difficult to endure (especially for those of us who are getting a little older -- or for the many who are bringing little children.)

And it is a given that economics drives the event. Sales (and booth rentals) are what covers the costs. But sales pushes the Faire to be about presentation. And, as with so many things, offering distraction for kids to bring in those parental dollars gradually takes over from any other goal. Maker Faire always had an element of spectacle and an element of hucksterism, but the desire to attract crowds and to have something to offer that will cause parents to bring children means these are eclipsing other aspects.

Aspects like sharing, education, information, trading, and networking.

The rest of the rant/Open Letter below the fold:

iMovie Sucks

I'm in a rant mood today.

Some of that is germane to Maker Faire, some of that is me struggling with a several pieces of software that seemed designed primarily by marketing.

Here's a nice example; there were dozens of the usual PLA printers at Maker Faire advertising as a big selling point that you could print from your phone. Well whoop-de-doo. I design on my laptop, edit and slice on my laptop, catalog and share and store on my laptop, and have printed from my laptop. What would be the advantage of having to send it to my phone? So I could save myself reaching thirty inches to the printer which needs me to hand-tend it anyhow?

And don't sell me the the cloud-based, phone-centric, all-sharing paradigm. I'm not printing the work that someone else did. I'm designing tough, precision CAD stuff that needs a full desktop to play with. You think I want to do this:

on a phone?

Rant continues below the fold.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Kanan in D

The Kanan Jarrus (otherwise known as the Caleb Dume) prototype is built. So far everything works -- in fact, the parts line up better than I had any expectation they would.

Well, actually...since the outer edge is opaque, I could maybe work out a way to open the center to where it really should be (essentially this style of holocron looks like six corner pieces just touching. Which is hard to do and have any structure, and harder yet when I'm trying to hide the overlap of the inner acrylic pieces.) But I've committed to working with the material this way, the designs are already tested and approved and the first six shipped out to customers.

I also had time to re-do the "temple" shell design for the new USB and other tweaks I've made over the development of the "stolen" shells. Cut one out already and will glue it up and see how it works.

(I need to run off a set of "Guardian" diffusion, and maybe a new set of "Gallifrey" cutout pieces as well, to properly make a new "Temple" prototype. I'm also temped to paint it silver and use green for the internal layers).

So I'm one step closer to finishing off the Holocron project and moving on to the next. And apropos of next projects, I made a discovery that might get my keyboard back up and running faster than expected:


It's a software sampler wrapped in a custom-patched Raspberry Pi install. It's designed as exactly what I need from it; a no-frills Pi that simply boots up into a stand-alone sampler. Although...most people add an external DAC as the built-in one on the Pi is a bit noisy, and one enterprising programmer managed to get Freeverb running as well.

But the really unexpected and lovely thing was: I downloaded the disk image, threw it onto a microSD with the freeware utility program Etcher, ran. Right out of the box, first time, no tinkering.

For an acid test, I threw my Behringer controller and a pair of USB headphones at it, and it adapted without hesitation. Playing with low noise and latency and plenty of polyphony, too.

Monday, May 15, 2017

TRL OST: the project

The idea is to write music from a game that never existed.

First, background. The concept, gameplay, and central character of the Tomb Raider series began in 1996 with the company Core Design. The original British-made series ran for six titles, rather spectacularly falling apart on the ambitious but poorly executed Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.

The property was moved to the company Crystal Dynamics for what is sometimes known as the Tomb Raider Trilogy. These games made full use of 2006-era graphics advances and could be called more action-flavored.

The artistic direction for the trilogy could also be called "floundering." The first, Legend, has an action-movie flavor to it's telling of the search for an Arthurian artifact; Excalibur, which turns out to be exceedingly ancient and supernaturally powerful.

The second, Anniversary, is a remake of the first (Core Design) Tomb Raider game, and sends Lara after fragments of an artifact from lost Atlantis and puts her in deadly conflict against a reborn Atlantean Queen.

The third, Underworld, is described in some circles as a rush job, and also as too short and not very involving. It is quite slick and cinematic, however, and brings Lara to a darker place than usual as she visits the hells of several world religions in a search for her missing mother. It also brings back characters from both other games, with the final confrontation against the now-insane Atlantean Queen's attempts to destroy the world with an ancient device that is the literal Ragnarok.

Each has a very different flavor, with different elements of play emphasized, a different look to the main character, etc.

Musically, the three games of the Core Design trilogy are also an eclectic selection. For the first, Danish composer Troels Folmann made strong use of ethnic/regional instruments, and gave the game a modern sound with strong rhythms. For the second, he stated publicly he wanted to be honest to the work of the original game's composer, Nathan McCree.

For the third game Troels moved on to a supervisory position, writing only the main theme himself and leaving the rest to Colin O'Malley. This score was somewhat subdued in flavor and was almost completely orchestral.

So much for reality.

My imaginary game is Tomb Raider: Legacy. It continues the continuity belatedly established in the previous trilogy, beginning with Lara returning home to the ruins of her mansion (torched by Amanda in the previous game) and having reached at least some sort of closure over the deaths of her parents.

So in these parts at least a slower, more contemplative, certainly more atmospheric game than the others. Also one with much more interpersonal interaction; this would be an odd echo of the Angel of Darkness experiment, which saw a more urban Lara interacting -- with actual dialog trees -- with others.

Like Angel of Darkness, and like the real-world Tomb Raider 2013 (which rebooted the series completely and took Lara in a much different direction than before) this game would be an ambitious but likely both rushed and flawed attempt to go in new directions.

It would also continue the Tomb Raider Trilogy tradition of flirting with previous canon by bringing back Werner Von Croy from the Core Design era. And continuing the popular trend (Tomb Raider: Legacy had one) of "Young Lara" sections. Which double as "the level where you don't get any weapons."

What the game does, what the goal is, even all the settings are something I'll be discovering as I discover interesting directions to go musically.

Music-wise, it might be assumed to be the work of Colin O'Malley, or it might be a new composer, but it would certainly have Troels Folmann in overall control. Thus, it would keep with certain trends, like making use of motives and other material from previous games, including the Core Design games. Few Tomb Raider properties have neglected at least a quote of the emblematic Nathan McCree introductory oboe solo.

Given the musical variety within the Tomb Raider Trilogy, I am on solid ground in allowing this score to take another fresh approach. Given the more grounded approach to some of the settings, with more intimate interaction with the peoples there, the use of local material would go past the samples of Legend and move into full pastiche mode -- particularly for the English countryside, as Lara tries to understand the history of Croft Manor and her responsibilities to it, and as well uncovers secrets of her family there.

Given the tight thematic connection between the Tomb Raider Trilogy games, I would assume quotes as well from important elements there, particularly those concerning the destruction of the manor and the final confrontation of the last game. I'm also tempted to briefly mention a motif from the 2013 game.

And there is an external element here as well; regardless of what other games may have done, if I am to show this as a Tomb Raider piece, it has to reference known and familiar Tomb Raider musical material.

There is an interesting conservatism in the melodic material of the real Tomb Raider trilogy. As illustrated by Pieter Smal in Unifying elements in the Tomb Raider Trilogy game soundtracks, a thesis paper presented at University of Pretoria in 2013, there is a surprisingly small pool of musical material.

How small, rather depends on how tight you set your filters. The core themes of each game -- which are thematically related to the original Nathan McCree motif -- are manipulated rhythmically and given melodic variation with sometimes only the intervalic relationships maintained. In any case certain motifs, and certain rhythms, occur over and over in the course of the three games.

Which at the very least underlines that the new game should have a main theme that can be related back to the Nathan McCree. Of the three games, Legend's theme is the most straight-forward manipulation of the original; the rhythm is almost the same, the notes are similar, only the sequence is altered. They are close enough that the casual listener will feel a sense of familiarity. The same can be said for the variations used in Dagger of Xian and Revelations -- and Angel of Darkness, likely in honor of returning character Werner von Croy, develops almost directly out of Last Revelation.

But that brings me to the first of two problems regarding the first part of the composition I intend. The first is how to make it clearly Tomb Raider music whilst being unique. The second is plausibly a problem for the hypothetical game composer as well; that problem being, the early part of the game is slow, elegiac, and full of references to rural England. However, the first sounds coming over the titles of a game someone just forked out forty bucks for should bring to the player a sense of excitement and grandeur. They should be given a sense that they are sitting down to an epic game. Starting with Elgar in his slower moments is not the best choice!

On the gripping hand, there seems to be a trend in amateur orchestral compositions towards going into the brass and bombast early on (and often as not never letting up thereafter.) I'd like to avoid that trend by staying in a softer mode for longer.

So thematic material should be related to extant scores. It should directly quote the Nathan McCree, of course. It should quote something that is recognizably linked to Werner and/or Egypt -- possibly the descending sequence used in Last Revelation and in almost unaltered form in Angel of Darkness.

Another open question is whether to quote the Ailein duinn. Troels used it in Legends, and it seems appropriate for the Surrey scenes as Lara deals with her various losses. And it has great potential, even as a cantus firmus to develop a Main Theme off. But it was also over-used in the 2000's, appearing in not less than eight different video games.

And that's really all I have for the moment. The next step for me basically comes after I've got my keyboard hooked up again and can start really studying the scores and trying out thematic ideas.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

TRL, the OST: introduction

I've got random thoughts to sort out on what will probably be my next big music project.

First some notes about me. I'm strictly an amateur. I taught myself how to get sound out of a couple of easy instruments (recorder and ukulele) and I'm currently in my first year of teaching myself violin. I also messed around with piano/keyboard for decades. Took a few basic classes in music theory and read a half-dozen books on orchestration even though I can't even sight-read.

I mean, I've always enjoyed messing around (mostly on the piano) but I got into trying to arrange more-or-less as an outgrowth of trying to learn how to mix on a sound board. I'm not even near the skill level for public performance or to jam with others.

Be that as it may, I have in the past tinkered up a few fairly complicated little pieces. Some have featured in previous blog posts:

Bow in Hand

Doomed Drums

Move Over, PDQ

History in Gear

These run from pieces I composed for use in a play I was designing at the time, to personal pieces, and the latter ranged from expansions from something I found noodling around on the keyboard to pieces developed to intentionally fit certain artistic goals; often, mock soundtrack excerpts for imaginary movies.

In a few rare cases I had real musicians to work with and record. In most cases these were done with sampling and synthesis; from a grab-bag of old hardware synthesizers, to the loops and drum machine riffs of Reason to a couple of modern orchestral libraries to another grab-bag of freeware samples and oddities and found sounds.

I flirted with both pseudo-orchestral, working that "Viennese Grammar." and with unabashed synth sounds -- culminating in my noise-and-found-sound sketches for a staged reading of Agamemnon. And I often found excuse for pianistic (or at least keyboard) parts.

I toyed a lot with leit-motivic writing, finding ways in which themes could be developed, showcased in different rhythmic and melodic transmutations, interweaving them. My second-to-last major theatrical work, Moon over Buffalo, played three major themes against each other, echoing the conflict of the main characters that drove the show as well as being so connected to the action as to be actually diagetic in places.

Mostly, however, I started and abandoned sketches. Often there's only enough of a sketch to show how the musical idea is connected to a potential arrangement of it, but only the bare bones are there, in the roughest of performances.

Here's a sample of some of that non-theatrical work (I'd need at least a full post to describe some of my theatrical work at the same depth):

In any case.

For this new project, I hope to include more "real" clips; live recordings (whatever that means) for as many parts as I can sensibly manage. To that end I've been learning both violin and penny whistle. Fortunately, the former is not intended to be used in a front-and-center mode, but instead filling in string section backgrounds.

It may easily fall by the wayside, but the journey is at least half the fun.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Goodbye Inkscape?

Sometimes in the last month or two Inkscape developed a crippling lag. "Lag" is not even the right word. All the windows lose focus in the middle of doing something. Merely dragging a selection rectangle is an exercise in frustration, and it is actually impossible to rename a layer (because the typing box is dropped before you can get more than two characters in).

I'm frustrated enough to give up on it now, despite it having been a mainstay of my graphic/2D CAD work for years now. I just wasted an entire potentially productive day trying to get it to work again, and that is on top of several days and multiple hours of previous attempts.

Here's what I've tried:

Hunting through Preferences and turning down all the various aliasing and so forth (things that are described as causing "slow" behavior)

Trying on clean and new files.

Playing with the X11 settings.

Reverting to an older version of Inkscape.

Deleting the preferences and the Apple applications state files.

Reverting to an older version of Xquartz.

Checking endless forums for help.

Trying (and failing) to register at the official forums to get help.

Trying (and failing) to get into the bug reporter.

Nothing has had a measurable effect on the problem. I can't even draw a rectangle without the selection dropping in the middle.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Loquacious Jedi

Finally got a few minutes to finish the new Holocron program. Current reading from the Arduino IDE is 7,964 bytes (of a 8,192 byte maximum). It's the neoPixel code that does it -- a couple extra blinks would finish my available PRAM.

Human Interface Design is always fun (and seemingly a dying art -- maybe Apple hired them all away?) So the way it works now, hit the SEL button to enter the first programming mode. It causes one of the LEDs to blink pink at intervals. Each touch of the SEL button increases the number of LEDs lit until it cycles back to zero.

Meanwhile the INC and DEC buttons, when hit, flash all the LEDs either red or green. This corresponds to adding or subtracting from the variable being programmed (and that variable is indicated by the number of LEDs that are flashing pink). Hold down the SEL button and there is a long double pulse of all green; this indicates the current value of all accessible variables has been stored into EEPROM.

The variables I chose were jedisearch, rate, depth, and bright. The last three are relatively self-explanatory; the rate of the pulse animation, the difference between the peak and trough of the pulse, and an overall brightness value added or subtracted from the total. The first is the value the capacitive sensor is compared against, and thus sets the sensitivity.

And when I was working on it something was going wrong with the sense. It was triggering, thus playing the speech animation, pretty much back-to-back. Turns out the pin was floating a little; when I soldered the wire that connects up to the sensor plate it stabilized.

Unfortunately my fancy scheme doesn't allow changing the color center, but the color shift is a bit of a hack anyhow. One day I'll come up with software that allows setting a bunch of different "looks" via the user buttons, but this software isn't it. This software does holocrons only.

So....where do Jedi learn to code in C?