Friday, April 28, 2017


On Fiddle Talk and similar forums the phrase Violin-Shaped Object (VSO) shows up in certain discussions.

I've understood the term on an intellectual basis. This week I've started renting a Pfretzschner violin in the $400 range. Within minutes I had a new emotional appreciation of what this term means.

I've blogged about this before. In the long scale of musical instrument quality there are concert-quality instruments. There are good instruments. There are student instruments. And then there are things carved out of softwood in the general shape of an instrument and sold online, in non-speciality shops, and (more often than they should be) at Guitar Center.

If you want to be charitable, call these display instruments. Like the Ukuleles you get at a gift shop in the airport flying back from Hawaii. There are pieces of plastic or dyed kite string pretending to be strings, a painted board with some random frets on it, peg-shaped pieces of wood jammed into holes. It looks cute on a wall but there's no point in trying to play it.

I'm not in a charitable mood. When it is being sold as a "student" instrument, with copy boasting about the manufacturing quality and selected endorsements by happy customers, prettily packaged up with the basic accessories desired to play. it is an Instrument-Shaped Object.

And it is a disservice to the student, whether they are a child or an adult beginner who always wanted to try. Because in most cases, the person will struggle to get the instrument to work, at last giving it up (and their dreams of playing this particular instrument family) with the impression that it is all their fault.

At the borderline cases, you can still learn. But the learning will be slower, with more of it learning the work-arounds for that particular ISO's flaws and less of it learning the basic correct postures and gestures. And the results will not be as pretty. If you are good, or lucky, eventually you figure out you
need to transition to an actual student model.

When you graph prices against playability, there's a sharp bend on the lower end of the scale. For the Ukulele, my experience is the bend happens somewhere around $100. Below that, you can luck in to a good, useable instrument. Above that, you will almost always have a decent tone and a good setup. Below around $50 the Uke takes a swan-dive. My own Rogue -- purchased for about $35 -- has an indifferent tone and the fretboard is set just wrong enough so open strings are not in tune with fretted ones. But with a little work it was playable. More on that later!

I have (rather, had) an Aulos recorder in that range that goes from under $50 to the $5 specials made in bright colors. It does not play in tune and has an awful tone. I found a Yamaha sopranino for about $50 and it is much more pleasurable to play.

In fact, even as a self-taught amateur with the equivalent of six months of recorder practice I can still feel quite clearly the difference between a low-number Yamaha student model and a more expensive Yamaha (still-student) model. The more expensive instrument falls into the notes in a more defined way, finds the pitches more easily in half-holes and overblows, and has a nicer tone. It is easier to play, easier to play well, and sounds better across the board.

In the case of violins, I'd be tempted to place the bend at $200-300. You are unlikely to find a sub-$200 violin that doesn't need work. And by $600, you will probably get a decent student violin. And, again, the difference is remarkable.

The most unfortunate thing about picking up my $400-used instrument on a rental is it has made me realize how much is lacking on my slightly-over-$100 internet special (outside of the one being a solid-body electric and the other being a proper acoustic, that is).

Musical instruments are expensive. The precision hand work necessary to make a good violin is mind-boggling. It can't be automated, not and get quality results. And that is largely because a violin is made from organic materials. A violin is a whole series of balancing acts between friction and tensile strength that depends on specific detailed qualities of the actual materials. I mean, think about it; that essential violin sound comes from rubbing a string with hairs from the tail of a Mongolian horse, hairs stretched taut and smeared with tree sap. These are not materials that can be brewed in a vat with some exact proportion of chemicals.

(Another informative tidbit is the most important part of a violin is a tiny spruce peg that is propped up inside and is held in place only by the pressure of the pieces it is trapped between. If you take all the strings off a violin, the sound post can fall over, and it is an expensive and time-consuming task to get it righted again).

So you can't blame the student or would-be student for hoping to find an instrument that costs less than a car. Or even less than a cell phone. And you can't blame the manufacturers for rising to fill that need. Especially because it is so tempting a problem; yes, you can mass-manufacture and CNC and you will, by luck of the draw and some cleverness along the way, get something that approximates the playability of a properly built instrument.

What I find weird is that -- at least from my Yamaha experience -- this even applies to an instrument which is drilled out from a hunk of plastic. You'd think it would be as trivial to machine one right as it is to machine one that is out of tune. But this is not the case. (There is good reason why you can't just dial a CNC cutter to a mathematically derived measurement and expect to get the right results, but that's a subject for another lecture.)

So there's competition for that bottom dollar. An ongoing dialog between customer and manufacturer, but not one that applies to real playing quality. See, there are historically parts that are more expensive. Proper tuners, multiple pick-ups, nice strings, etc. The customers learn to recognize that the cheap Uke (or, let's be honest, the traditional Uke) has pegs. The expensive Uke has tuners.

So the manufacturers find a way to put tuners on. They are probably cheap knock-off tuners, worse than the pegs they replaced, but once again the customer is temporarily fooled into thinking this is a better (read, of the more expensive category) instrument than it is. Until the customers start looking for brand names...and the dialog continues.

And this isn't entirely semiotics. A few quality parts can make a big difference. Setup makes a bigger one. This in particular is one of the places where mass manufacturing can not economically go. A VSO is setup on the assembly line, or swiftly by a technician. It can be made more playable if it is hand-adjusted.

In the case of my Uke, I replaced the strings and shaved the nut. That made it instantly much easier to play, slightly more in tune with itself, and sound much prettier. For a while there, the rule was, replace the strings. No questions ask, strings are a place that is easy for manufacturers to skimp on in order to place their product at $10 less than the competitor (or, in the increasing consolidation of everything into a few monopolies, to grab one or two more of the customers who are balancing this impulse buy against the impulse for a new computer game or a couple of cocktails that weekend).

Now every Uke I see hanging up at my usual suspects have Aquilla strings (or at least a decent knock-off). So that one's gone. New manufacturers have also moved into the violin business with remarkably cheap yet decent-performing strings, so even the VSO's have started shipping with okay strings on them.

Setup on a violin, however, is not for the faint of heart. And this entire idea of set-up; of taking a cheap instrument and doing the tweaks and adjustments the manufacturer could not afford for that price point, and swapping out the hardware that similarly would have driven up the price, presumes that the person undertaking this has some basic crafts skills, musical ability, and confidence.

I mean, how are you going to make even a Uke more playable if you have no idea how to play one?

The Pfretzschner has been informative in ways that are almost too subtle for me to verbalize. Some of that, again, is acoustic. And it is extremely good I made this move when I did. There are, indeed, basic elements of performance that were getting masked by the electric violin. Fortunately, despite the dire warnings I saw around various forums and music shops, these aren't sudden insurmountable hurdles, not hills I should have been already climbing for months.

But then I have unfair advantage over the child student. I have some moderate musical knowledge and skill, and have been attempting various instruments for quite some time. I also am a craftsperson -- I've done a bit of sculpting and painting and so forth and I have the fine motor control to be able to swiftly learn the nuances of a new gesture.

I never had a real problem with bowing at right angles to the strings, for instance. A little work with a mirror to make sure, and it is within the margins of where it should be at my present level of skill.

In any case, tone is suddenly a thing. Heck, this might also be the strings and rosin I have on the electric. In any case, on the electric I really can't get a bad tone. I actually have to struggle to get a whisper-squeak or a good grank. On the acoustic, it is much different. There is indeed a Kreisler Highway of tone as well, a range of pressure and speed in which acceptable tones are produced. And a variety of tone color within that band.

See, there's a coupling of resonance between string and body. On the electric, as long as the string is actually vibrating in the correct Helmholz z-shape (look it up) then you have the note. You have to fall entirely outside, either to the non-linear regime of chaotic movement (too much pressure/speed), or fail to set the string into regular motion in the first place (the whisper of too little pressure or a lack of rosin).

On the acoustic, a narrower range within this larger range of "actually vibrating" is when it couples with the body to develop the full rich tone that, honestly, is what was driving me to move from the electric in the first place.

And fortunately for my progress as a beginner, it isn't really much effort to stay within that band. The only downside is this is also the louder side of the band -- I can't both practice softly and try to get a decent tone. It also changes subtly when vibrato is introduced. Vibrato on the electric is less obvious and you can do it with less precision. On the acoustic, again, there is a sweet spot. Conversely and usefully, it also seems to "talk back" making the gesture a little easier to get right in the first place.

So the lesson for the student? The electric is still a great idea. I don't know yet about how well a practice mute works (had to order one online, as well as some peg drops), but the electric allowed and still allows me to experiment and make all the horrible noises that no-one but me can hear. It gave me and gives me more freedom to mess up. Being afraid of what others think of your playing is the greatest block I can think of to learning.

At the same time, the acoustic has opened up my understanding of what is going on as I play. It is developing skills not just required for acoustic play, but skills that translate back to the electric. (Among other things, the intense loud sound of the acoustic has made me more comfortable with getting really loose and experimental on the electric. I'm more willing to make bad noises on the one that, honestly, even I can barely hear).

But VSO's? And ISO's in general? They still make me angry. All we can do is educate, however. There is still a place for them. The marginal ones can still be played, or tinkered with until they are playable, thus they are an affordable alternative to what otherwise can be a somewhat elitist endeavor.

But, really? Rentals make more sense. Rent a decent student instrument. Use that to find out if that instrument is for you, and to gain the basic skills in recognizing what is necessary to make a playable instrument. Then even if you want to purchase a cheap knock-off, you will have the skills, and more importantly, the confidence to work with it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

After the battle

I've been trying to learn "Far Horizons" from the game Skyrim and that's led me to muse on a contrast.

In both Skyrim and Tomb Raider 2013 there are lethal encounters with the locals. In Tomb Raider, when the fight ends there's a brief quotation of the character theme; muted and tinged with the melancholy of all you've lost, as with every other piece of music in this particular Tomb Raider, but nonetheless a horn flourish celebrating a moment of triumph.

The only time you hear the "Dragonborn" character theme in Skyrim (outside of bardic performances in taverns) is when you are being attacked by a dragon. What plays at the conclusion to most encounters is something more wistful, even elegiac. It is a piece of music that invites one to contemplate the fragility of life and the shared humanity of you and those you've just slain against this harsh, bleak, starkly lovely landscape of steep rocks and chilly snow.

(It is in fact one of the generic wilderness travel snippets -- the piece I opened this discussion with -- but it is scripted to always show here and I can't believe the emotional impact of that choice was not considered).

Im Tomb Raider  the bad guys are somewhat humanized before the fight; if you sneak well enough you can hear snippets of conversation. Unfortunately there is no conversation allowed during the fight; once guns are drawn there is no negotiation allowed. Following the fight, all that is left is to search the bodies for more ammunition.

In Skyrim, you also search the bodies. Such is the stock mechanics of AAA games. But in doing this you are also led through their campsites and rooms and shelters. Where you find bedrolls tucked into a niche of the rock out of the rain, personal possessions tucked away in drawers, a couple books beside a table, a meal on the fire, a chair set up for no other purpose but to relax and take in a vista of distant mountains. These material goods are so particular and homely they give a mute description of their owners, a more sharply drawn and more universal one than any dialog snippet.

You can not help but place yourself shivering in that bedroll, warming yourself over a rude meal on that campfire (as often enough, you do in the course of the game) and greeting the day sitting in that chair looking over the vast snowy land of Skyrim. It invites you (sometimes literally) to put yourself in the hide shoes of those you were forced to kill. (Of course, in this game there is also no great distance between you and them. Your background is similar, your adventures similar. You aren't some well-equipped American stand-in mowing down foreign hordes, not in this game).

Even the nature of the encounter is different. In Skyrim you largely chose to engage; you can leave the bandit camp alone, or even run away. In Tomb Raider you are largely scripted in. It is an extremely linear narrative and often the next door will not even open until you've performed the sacrifice the game demands. Once combat is joined, of course, most AAA games are alike. There is no parley, no quarter.

Except not even this is absolute; Skyrim has a third-party mod that can be installed that allows your enemy to surrender instead of fighting to the death. And, sure, this is not a creation of the original designers. But the original designers did permit the end users to change the story and make this possible. Tomb Raider will not even allow the player to look in a different direction than that which the script requires.

(The only AAA game I've played in which quarter is possible in the base game is Batman: Arkham City. In that game, psychological warfare is all-important. The Batman is, after all, shaped to be a figure of fear to the cowardly and superstitious. So if you do well enough in striking from the shadows and otherwise appearing as an unstoppable phantom, some of the bad guys will drop to their knees to cower in place instead of continuing the fight. It ain't much, but it beats having to flatten everyone).

Am I reading too much into this contrast? Perhaps. Skyrim is intelligently designed by a company that knows how to search out a specific and nuanced emotional tone.  Tomb Raider 2013 is a lumpen creation-by-committee where every decent emotional arc sputters out in ludonarrative disconnect against the brainless mechanics and an insulting restriction of any player choice.

(I have to go a little bit further here. This isn't just a contrast between open world and linear narrative. The Half-Life series is also a linear narrative, and restricts exploration just as much. But Half-Life is designed by people who knew what they were doing; it leads the eye and hides the choices rather than forces them on the player. It shows that a linear narrative and even tightly scripted events can take place without making the player feel like a passive observer of the game being played).

Monday, April 17, 2017

Uh-oh, someone's been feeding the bunny

Yesterday's plot bunny is getting fatter and more aggressive.

I diss on the Tomb Raider reboot but I do like the character and her arc. I just don't like what happened when the story was gamified. Not just the stock AAA elements and gameplay, the formulaic action, the ridiculous shoot-em-ups that help to make for a huge ludonarrative disconnect, but the way the other characters and plot threads and gimmicks are crammed in sideways, wrecking whatever narrative flow there is.

So, Endurance. There's a mystery, and it both starts on and involved the "Yamatai" expedition ship. Mystery shrouds the true purpose of the expedition, and its true backers.

And enter our young archaeology student. This is the "Nine Bells" Lara, only she didn't chose to work late nights at a pub because she refused her family's money. She doesn't have that family. There is no Lord Croft, no manor. She is on Endurance without that whole support structure, without a built-in best friend and a father-figure/mentor to sacrifice himself later and a puppy-dog geek and a Magical Polynesian waiting in the wings to join her.

Yes, not even Sam. She was roommates, but they never bonded. Captain Roth and First Mate Grim are distant authority figures, a closed masculine world that laughs off her fears when she dares try to express them. Reyes is their security, primed for violence, similarly unapproachable. And even Sam seems to be up in the First Class Cabins with the expedition heads (despite her lack of strong credentials) and thus similarly unapproachable.

The game, I remind you, got Lara out alone to struggle to survive, then suddenly paraded the rest of the cast by her before yanking them away again -- in hopes you'd care about them when they showed up a second time largely just in time to get killed off. Oh, and you might stumble across various diaries and so forth which expanded on their characters. Which sort of works for a game like Bioshock but is a pretty solid failure when, a) the people in question aren't (generally) deceased yet, and b) you are supposed to know them already and consider them friends!

In any case. In Endurance we'd discover these people tentatively, as Lara has to risk her trust on them based on far-from-satisfactory conversations. And get them to open up to her in turn. Possibly the ally she wins first is Alex, and that one is a mixed blessing.

And, no, not all of them are trustworthy. Grim, Roth and Reyes are definitely far enough outside the curve that it will take a strong shock to make them step back and rethink their life choices. And Whitman is completely across the line. If there is anything like the Himiko plot going on, he knows damned well what the Queen needs and pretty much brought Sam along for the sacrifice.

And as for the mystery? Well, it is probably Amanda's ship. Still. She's probably in uneasy partnership with Natla, with both looking for the best moment for betrayal. And only Amanda's incompetence (she's good, but she's not original-model Lara Croft) has kept Natla from gaining the full powers of the Scion.

Or perhaps another McGuffin. We're so off model already there's no use quibbling that it didn't work that way in the game. (One is reminded of L. Sprague DeCamp's comments about changing the gender, nationality, key dates, and other minor details and voila, the "real" King Arthur was obviously Cleopatra.)

(The comment was aimed at people who apply a similar surgery to Plato's Atlantis).

The bunny just fed again. Richard Croft -- as revealed in Tomb Raider: Underworld -- made a lot of progress in finding Mjolnir for Natla. So there's no problem at all with a Croft having worked for Natla and having left interesting clues around for our new protagonist to discover. Mansion included. Ah, but was there an original child of Richard and Amelia? What if she never left Nepal? What if, in fact, young Lara went to Avalon and a heartbroken Amelia had to struggle out of the mountains alone? And Richard dying in his attempts to find her instead? 

So now we have a mysterious figure who both aided and fought Natla, and a reclusive widow in a massive manor filled with dark secrets (seriously -- have you PLAYED that damned house?) 

The question is, of "our" Lara actually "that kind of a Croft?" Aka the original kid, thrust through time and space by the travel stones?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Plot Bunny of the Day

So in the Stargate, SG1 episode "Watergate" (no relation) it is revealed that the Soviets have their own DHD, which they grabbed off the Germans in 1945.

It is a bit of a weakness of the series that the US sat on their stargate until Catherine finally got them to restart it. Especially after the episode "Tantalus" revealed that Ernest Littlefield's group had successfully opened it in 1945. (And this without the ten years and four supercomputers Samantha Carter claimed had been necessary in 1998).

So...instead of a Manhattan Project, a crash project to open the Stargate. Because the Germans got theirs opened first (maybe they got the entire Giza gate -- and never you mind that outside of Indiana Jones movies they don't get to do what they like in Cairo in the 30's). Which means the US might have had to somehow discover the Antarctica gate...

But anyhow. The fun is having that same polyglot group of crazies, Feynman and Fermi and so forth, only working on wormhole physics. And Werner von Braun's group getting to explore the universe like they wanted, but without rockets. Of course the physics of the gate means that Tantalus and Abydos are the most likely successful contacts anyhow. Which ends up with one side joining forces with Ra and then things really get crazy.

But let's shake it up a little. Instead of the usual suspects for heroes and villains, have the US play Ra like an analog of Stalin, handling him with what they think is a long enough spoon at least until the Germans are out of the picture. Except they don't know about the Goa'uld parasite. And it is left up to a third party to try to save more than one world from the madness.

Some really motivated Italians, perhaps? Why is it that the role of being the only heroes who can fight well enough always goes to the ones who, historically, had the kick-ass armies in the first place? But, alas, that's too much research. As is the obvious Bear in the room (Soviet Russia, that is.) Or even further afield, China (who had enough on their plates already, and besides, let's keep this to the Western Front). Ah, but given the fun of pitting the Manhattan Project against von Braun's rocket group, who else but to throw in the mix are those doughty and reliable underdog heroes, Bletchly Park and Alan Turing and so forth...I speak of course of the Brits.

The other bunny of the day is even odder. So when the reboot Tomb Raider 2013 was made Crystal Dynamics re-used some assets. The rusty, tramp-steamer-looking Endurance which Whitman's archaeological expedition charters re-uses the model of the two big fancy cargo ships Amanda has in the final game of the previous canon (aka Tomb Raider: Underworld).

But...what if it is the same ship? Ten years, rough seas and a few more changes of ownership (plus Lara did a number on one of the ships anyhow. Sunk it, actually, but who's counting).

And once again let's skip the stupid island so conveniently filled with soft targets and spare clips for the various machine guns lying around like a cheap first-person shooter. Instead, assume the previous canon is true. At least as far as Amanda and Natla (though, pretty obviously, Natla didn't actually destroy the world in this chronology). Lara might or might not be real; it would be interesting to have her as a reclusive countess with stories about her past that sound downright mythic.

But she's not our protagonist. Our protagonist is stumbling across, on that same ship, evidence of a story that already happened.

Which is not to say it isn't a story that's been concluded! Lara might not be holed up in Abbingdon and not talking to anyone, but Natla is still out there and dangerous as ever. One might reach at this point for "Young" Lara, the inexperienced college student of the reboot. But that ship has already been around the world a few times. Instead, try someone else for the starring role. But keep the other characters.

I think this is actually more interesting. Stephanie, say, might be discovering there's a darker side to archaeology. And she has to reach out to people who have the skills she needs now, but people who don't have that existing relationship to her. Like Conrad Roth, who in this chronology is friends only with Angus Grim and isn't already staged as a mentor and trainer and dead father figure to the protagonist de jour.

(Actually, in a way it is even more hilarious to make Roth the hero. He'd very much fit the archetype of a certain kind of masculine adventure fiction; he's practically an early Alister MacClean protagonist. So he'd be retired, going to seed, his only contact with military adventure being the stories he shares with his mate Grim. Content to captain this ship around even if the current charter are a bunch of idiots. Until they discover more than they can handle and he has to step up to the plate.)

(And there's everything such a character could want. A young man -- or young woman -- to take on as protege, at least a couple options for romance, an abrasive academic who thinks he should be in charge, a gentle giant and a tough cop as solid right hands and a geek for tech support.)

These are wild plot bunnies, of course. I'm not petting them. I'm pretty much done with those two silly universes anyhow (at least, I will be in another four to six chapters).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A conflict problem

As the current story is wrapping up I've become more and more aware of how much interesting conflict I didn't put in it.

I'm going to blame not having an overall plan. When I wrote the first scene I was aiming for 6-12,000 words. My only aim was to bring two casts together and have a little fun at the way they clashed. I had no overall story arc or goal.

Thing is, even as I came up with puzzles and opponents, the resulting story remains as exploratory as the process. Basically, my characters are searching for clues. There's none of the groundwork there even if I did come up with some great moral choice or interpersonal conflict or some nice paralleling of the internal and external. No-one is planted to be a lover or betrayer, to change loyalties at a key moment or discover hidden depths in themselves. No element is designed in to suddenly strike home at the protagonists.

And, really, I could have. If what I have now were a first draft, I'd take apart the materials I have and I'd find those conflicts. Lara has several potential arcs here. For instance, I could have planned to bring her into internal conflict by contrasting the guns-blazing cultural heritage-destroying Tomb Raider she is now versus the academically trained lover of discovery she had been. Have others bring up this conflict (perhaps with their own contrasting methods). Personalize it in the form of Amanda, who may have shared the innocent love of discovery but went even further into power-hungry looter. Bring the unnamed tomb in Bolivia where it all changed to a more central part of the narrative. Etc, Etc.

In a different direction, I could have brought the Tears of Horus even closer to the central narrative and tied it to internal themes; both to Lara's reluctant admission that she is willing to kill and destroy in order to complete her mission, and (even stronger) her entire lifestyle as a quest for freedom -- which clashes most horribly with the mind-controlling properties of the Horus Draught. This could have been a bigger moment and a much harder struggle as she pits her very vision of herself against mental bonds she can't fight.

Heck, even on a smaller scale; I sort of set up but never plotted to complete a legendary battle between her and Teal'c. And one could, with enough distance (and/or hindsight) to plan, bring this into an epic fight with the reader rooting for both sides equally.

Nor do my created characters, the Genesis group, really have a purpose in the narrative (they may have had one that I forgot in the long months that passed between each chapter). And there are so many possible conflicts and arcs and changes of heart and revelations of purpose that could have been wrought with them.

Fortunately, I am comfortable viewing the entire thing as a rambling monolog on history, archaeology, retro-technology, philosophy of science, and whatever else struck my fancy.

But when I think about it, my other two novel-length attempts (one abandoned, one completed but never published) also suffer from what I am thinking now is a conflation of the protagonist's problems with the writer's problems. In both, the protagonist is primarily investigative. Exploring, or simply reacting and trying to stay alive. In Shirato, at least, that was conscious and thematic; Mie spends most of the book trying to act according to internalized social mores and, when she finally breaks free of those social constraints she almost loses everything in a sort of madness.

This is a powerful mode for a reader, too, as it allows the reader to discover the characters, the universe, and the MacGuffin of the day in a natural manner. They share along with the protagonist an increasing understanding of what is going on, what the stakes are, and what might be done about it.

So the fault may not just be one of lack of planning. It might just be that I'm a guy who avoids interpersonal conflict (or really any situation that might give rise to strong emotion -- an unfortunate habit I got into in high school and never grew out of). So my protagonists tend to Mary Sue in at least this one way; they get a freedom to explore, to chose what to investigate and where to go next. They don't tend to find themselves in tangles (emotional or not) that have no clear way out.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Shell Game

Well, I got my day off. Didn't feel up for work today.

Holocron serials #02 and 03 are moving along. I had to paint up a new shell in order to record the steps on my revamped mini-studio (a piece of blue paper tacked to the wall and running under the subject as a no-horizon backdrop, and a high-CRI fluorescent bulb in a clip light).

So I've posted up the first sheet of assembly instructions:

And the first payment is in on a successfully shipped Holocron. No word yet on the one I sent to Japan, though.

In any case, there's an annoyingly short list of steps before the first kits can ship. Annoying because it is just so difficult to work in enough constructive hours to actually do those last couple of steps. I really feel I have to finish one more of the "complete" Holocrons both to make sure all the current parts are cut to the right length, and to record the steps properly for the remainder of the assembly instructions.

As far as I can tell there's just a few wires left to solder (USB breakout board and the tail for the sensor lead). And maybe include a few pre-cut pieces of double-sided tape. And figure out how to wrap everything so it is properly protected in shipment. And I think I have enough parts cut for four kits.

Oh, and make sure I'm uploading the latest version of the software. And doing a complete function check of the assembled electronics module.

Unfortunately I still have rent paperwork to do today. And I should really finish those taxes. And this cough is distracting me enough it is hard to concentrate on anything technical. After all, if I felt well enough to program and solder and sand and paint and record shipping data I'd be at work being paid for my time. I mean, more than $90 a kit.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

I need a day off from my weekend

I have half-soldered holocron modules spread over my desk. With more circuit boards coming from OshPark sometime next week. Another $150 of acrylic is current by the front desk at TechShop waiting for me to come out and cut it on the lasers there.

My plan today is to solder until the rain ebbs a little, then spend as many hours at the shop as I can get tool reservations for. On Sunday, back to painting and assembling, and take new pictures so I can post up assembly instructions for the kits I will be shipping out next week.

Oh, but of course I have a rehearsal to attend and a short meeting with the director for what I strongly intend to be the last play I work this year. And rent paperwork, and I need to finish the business portion of my taxes for last year. So there's a lot I'm hoping to get done over this far-too-short weekend.

So far, I haven't even put on my shoes.

Well, that went well. I soldered up all the current batch of circuit boards, but it took all Saturday. (The weather never did get better so just as well). Woke up today with a stomach bug and it was the afternoon before I could sit up without wanting to throw up. So mostly worked on the instruction sheet, did the worst of the sanding and priming on serial #04 and took lots of pictures while I did it.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How Strange the Change...

It is so nice not to have a show to work twice a week and two shows on weekends. I feel so relaxed -- even with putting holocrons in boxes (I spent five hours last night at the laser, getting home too late to even eat diner) I feel relaxed.  I feel like I can finally finish some of these dangling chores and clear the work table a little.

So, of course, I'm yanked off in a new direction. Started this morning. See, I've been bringing my
violin to work to practice during my break time.

Which is coming along well. Messed with the theme from the 1978 Battlestar Galactica (fingering is straight-forward enough I could almost play through on the first attempt) and the "usual snippet" from Polovtsian Dances (rather less so). By ear, that is. I've got my music stand back and I'm a member at MuseScore now but my sight-reading still needs a lot of work.

Anyhow, carrying an instrument on your back as you approach the time clock will start a conversation here and there. One of my co-workers is buying a keyboard soon, another is trying to spend more time with his (a familiar problem).

I don't spend a lot of time with my keyboard partly because it is a Behringer controller; no internal sounds, no external speakers. To run it I have to connect it to the laptop, boot up Reaper, then stretch a headphone cord across the room. Every now and then I think I should throw a speaker and some kind of synth module in a box so I just have to throw a single switch and the piano is playable. Right now the only impulse instrument I have is a ukulele I keep on a hook by my chair.

So today I opened my Maker's Notebook and scribbled ideas for a simpler keyboard setup. I still have
a couple rack-mount synths, but 19" is large for the "box with a speaker" I was envisioning.  I do have a Korg P3, but there's a lot to be said for having other than a basic piano sound. An even smaller box would fit a Kurtzweil micropiano, which has some of the best keyboard sounds in a book-sized synth (and really nice piano). But the things are still $200 American on the used market. Hrm. Keep scribbling.

Plus the Behringer keyboard requires external power when using a MIDI cable, so that's more wires to play with. A USB box would be just one cable...  Say; a Raspberry Pi can handle software synthesis and even be trained to handle MIDI-over-USB. So could throw that in a box and...

But by now I'm thinking of the sounds I spent so many years practicing keyboard with. The sounds of the Yamaha DX21 (a cut-down version of the DX7; no velocity, only four operators instead of six...and that's all Geek to you, right?)

So I hunted and yes there is a free multi-platform FM synthesizer pre-loaded with those great old
DX7 patches. Called DEXED and you can find it with a short Google. By this time, as you can gather, I'm pretty far from my original starting point. (Incidentally, the pi-in-a-box is totally doable but requires some hairy programming steps to boot into musicality without having to hassle around with passwords and so forth every time).

But by this time I was off-track. Found myself listening to samples of DEXED on YouTube, then DX7 samples, then reproductions and homages of some of the synth-heavy 80's hits. And that leads me to some clever videos explaining the chord sequences used by many Hollywood composers (as well as the familiar discussions of orchestration and so forth that somehow never seem to show up on my YouTube "you may also like" page no matter how many I watch.)

And, yeah, this seems completely out in the woods now, but one of the things I was intending with the violin was to get back into composing a little. And that instrument is now close to the point where I can actually make use of it.

And probably I'll just prop a rack module and powered monitor under the Behringer and gaff-tape a power strip to the keyboard stand. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and a fancy box with a Pi-based FM synth and a scratch-built speaker system at some point in the indeterminable future must fall to the utility of having a keyboard I can go to now when I hear a musical motif in my head and want to try it out.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tech Levels

Four pounds of Keokuk chert arrived in the mail this week. The first two Holocrons shipped as well, and I'm making some small changes to the Eagle file so I can run off some more PCBs.

That's about ten thousand years of technology between those extremes. Plus I'm still practicing violin daily, an instrument which appeared in more-or-less modern form in the 16th century. Oh, but the circuit board is for a Holocron, which depending on how you look at it is either technology of the far future, or comes from "long, long ago" (in a galaxy far, far away). Except as a prop, it is only as advanced as laser cutters and the AVR chip introduced in 1996.

This weekend I mixed the final performances of an original musical based on a 19th-century fairy tale famously animated by Disney in 1937 and introducing the first of what would be a long line of Disney Princesses. This time I had a Yamaha LS9 to work on. Still no time for sound check, but I knew how to handle that now. (This was also a "blind" show in the sense that there was no proper FOH position. I mixed from inside the light booth and had to go by memory and judgement and indirect cues instead of being able to properly hear the show).

Of course I haven't used that board for at least three years. One gets rusty. I've just been asked by my work to do a little machining and I'm pretty conscious of being rusty there, too. It doesn't matter in the least what era a skill comes from, whether it is laying out traces in a CAD program or knocking chips off a rock with a deer antler. What matters is how much time has passed since you did it last.