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.