Saturday, May 30, 2015

How to Photograph LEGO Minifgures: A Crash Course

I try to challenge myself to post a (decent) photo on Instagram once a day. I am only comfortable with posting a selfie only once in a while -- you could say I'm selfie-conscious. There are only so many pictures of my dog Kate that I can post online without being too repetitive (she can sit still and stare at the camera lens, we get it). The same goes for the Moon. There are only so many photos of food to post, without being an Instagram cliche. I could always photograph other people, which I do, but posting these photos online is a bit tricky -- my Instagram feed is public and I try my best to respect the privacy of the people in my life.

To mix things up on my Instagram feed, I take photos of small toys, like die-cast automobiles and LEGO minifigures. It's very simple to photograph small items, and you don't really need any specialized macrophotography equipment. You just need three things:

1. A camera,
2. A light source, and
3. A subject (or two or more).

A camera: I recommend any recent DSLR with a kit lens (the default zoom lens that comes with most DSLR cameras). It is important to be in control of a handful of camera variables: Where to focus, as well as adjusting the lens length (zoom), shutter speed, aperture, and ISO ("film" speed). A built-in light meter display is also essential to have, so you can adjust your settings to be perfectly exposed, underexposed, or overexposed, according to your taste. If today's premium smartphones have these capabilities, then you don't need a DSLR, after all.

The quick-draw camera holster is optional.

Above all else, it is important that you have control over what your camera focuses. Basically, you'll want the drawn-on face of your LEGO minifigure to be in focus, unless you have some other, more interesting thing to focus on in your shot. Adjusting the aperture also adjusts the range of things in focus. A low F-stop number brings in more light, but the one thing in focus tends to be the only thing in focus. For example, if you photograph a dog, facing the camera with a long-ish nose, and focus just on her eyes with a low F-stop, her nose will be out of focus. A high F-stop number brings in less light (you'll have to adjust other things to compensate) For example, if you photograph that same dog, facing the camera, and focus on her eyes with a higher F-stop, her nose will also be reasonably in focus as well. I tend to photograph my dog with an F-stop of 8.0 to get a decent in-focus range from eyes to nose. But we're talking about photographing LEGO minifigures, so let's move on ...

There are three main solutions to low-light conditions: Increase the ISO setting, increase the exposure time, and add more light. (Adjusting the aperture also affects the amount of light taken in, but it also changes the range of things in focus, as mentioned earlier.) I try to keep my ISO setting below 800 to reduce the graininess of the pictures. Longer exposure times also add noise to the image, and you'll need a tripod and an external shutter release when working with longer exposure times. This brings me to the third solution, light --

A light source: The Sun is free and an extremely good light source (in general and for your photos). Unfortunately, you're on the Sun's schedule, not yours.

Star-Lord is illuminated by the Sun, an actual Star.

I try to avoid flash photography as much as possible. The on-camera flash is not very useful, and side flashes are for proper photographers (not me!). I like painting with light, like lighting for video productions, with a selection of inexpensive flashlights and LED panels.

There's a little too much light hitting the God of Thunder.

Long story short, the sun is fine and free, but be sure to have an inexpensive, handheld LED light panel and some rechargeable AA batteries on hand for indoor and nighttime lighting. It's going to be maybe $20 for the light and about $10 for a pack of rechargeable batteries, maybe $20 with a charger. Spending at least $40 for decent(ly cheap) lighting is not bad at all.

A subject (or two or more): I am not very good at building with LEGO bricks, outside of the instruction booklet. The best I can do is build a blocky TARDIS and a reasonable drum kit.

Doo-wee-ooh. This was probably shot at ISO 1600, so note the graininess of the image.

My five-year old nephew is excellent at building off-manual; he's definitely a master builder like in The LEGO Movie. I am, however, decent at posing LEGO minifigures in various cutesy-type ways.

I really don't buy new LEGO sets in a box, unless they are given to kids as birthday and Christmas presents. (You really can't go wrong with buying LEGO sets for kids -- girls or boys.) I tend to buy minifigures and accessories from a site called Bricklink, as well as the blind-bags they sell at Target (i.e., "Collectible Minifigures, Series __").

Bricklink is a site with various sellers, each with their own store within the site. They take the onerous job of buying LEGO sets, then separating and taking inventory of each piece, and finally selling by the brick, or by the minifigure. They take a profit on each piece, at least the profitable sellers do, and some might set ridiculously high prices on rare parts and minifigures.

Anyhow, on Bricklink, you can buy a minifigure of your favorite superhero/supervillain/character ...

DARK. NESS! NO. PARENTS!

... or buy individual pieces to make your own unlicensed character ...

Khaleesi! Mother of Dragons! LEGO probably won't make a Game of Thrones set anytime soon.

... or even make something that resembles yourself, to take that EPIC SELFIE ...

LEGO should make a medium dark flesh minifigure head ... with facial hair.

I find that the ethnically-ambiguous yellow minifigures don't photograph as nicely as the minifigures with various shades of human flesh-tone. It must be the nature of color on plastic. "Medium dark flesh" LEGO parts photograph almost like actual medium dark flesh, et cetera, for other flesh colors. Yellow plastic reflects a lot of yellow light (duh) back at the camera, to use scientifically inaccurate phrasing. Yellow LEGO dudes still have that plastic charm going for them, though.

As mentioned before, you can buy all the little, yellow LEGO dudes and dudettes in the blind-bags they sell at Target and Walmart and Kmart and Toys 'R' Us and wherever else. If you're not paying attention, eventually you will buy enough minifigures to throw a tiny, epic rock concert:

Hey, hey, we're the Avengers!

In addition to getting a minifigure (or two or more), buy some minifigure accessories, like guitars and weaponry. Baseplate-type bricks (and baseplates) are handy for keeping your minifigures from falling over. With a baseplate, you'll be able to pose the minifigure with one foot on the ground and one foot elsewhere:

You can change the yellow humanoids into fleshy humans with Photoshop!

Another useful brick to buy is a transparent-clear, round, 1x1 plate. Actually, you should buy several of those clear plates to stack, to create the illusion of flying high in the air ...

All hail the Dog of Thunder.

... as well as obviously suspending other objects mid-air:

Money fight! It's funny because Spider-man is poor.

With these guidelines -- as well as a camera, a light source, and a subject -- you will be well on your way to post interesting, yet ridiculous, images on Instagram.

Go for that epic selfie.

This sums up the entire purpose of LEGO and Bricklink.

Monday, May 25, 2015

All Hail Fandom Television: 'Supernatural' Is Like a Video Game with Expansion Sets

I've mentioned it in this blog before, I really enjoy the TV series Supernatural. It's funny most of the time, it's silly all the time, it's a dark fantasy based in mostly Judeo-Christian mythology/theology, and it has moments of "the feels" (which are usually hilarious).

My own pathway to fandom parallels that of the main characters. The father character, John Winchester, got his sons, Dean and Sam, into hunting monsters, but John eventually exited the series because he made a deal with the Yellow-Eyed Demon. My dad inspired my brother and me to watch Supernatural, but my dad eventually stopped watching the series because it gave him funny dreams.

Or maybe my dad stopped watching because the actual main story ended after the fifth season, and everything afterward is anticlimactic.  How does a show follow (1) defeating the Devil and (2) averting the Apocalypse?

I think my brother and I have continued to watch the show because Supernatural almost reads like a action-adventure/RPG video game (e.g., Diablo III or World of Warcraft) with an almost-endless series of expansion games (e.g., Diablo III: Reaper of Souls or the various ones for WoW).

It actually might be cool if Supernatural were an action RPG with an isometric perspective, with a series of chapters and bosses. The original game would be called, simply Supernatural, and it would cover the first five seasons of the show, with four "act" bosses:

1. Meg the Demon,
2. Azazel the Yellow-Eyed Demon,
3. Lilith the White-Eyed Demon,
4. Lucifer the Devil ... and Michael the Archangel, simultaneously.

In addition to the main fight against demons and angels, the Winchesters would have to fight a bunch of regular monsters, like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. Even though there were five seasons for the main arc of the show, the third season was abbreviated due to the Writer's Guild strike of 2007-2008. So let's divide this show up into four "acts," like Diablo II vanilla and Diablo III vanilla.

Act I is a quest to find John Winchester, like the first season of the show. John's Diary would be the item to identify all the unidentified items. The hardest monsters to beat would be vampires, and demons would be few and far between. The heroes would have to find John, fight Meg, and lose John to the Yellow-Eyed demon.

Act II is a quest to stop Azazel the Yellow-Eyed Demon, like the second season of the show. The Trickster makes his first appearance here, and is probably like a Treasure Goblin in Diablo III. The mini-bosses would be the Special Children, who have powers like Sam. There would be lots of demons to fight as well. The heroes would have to find John Winchester's soul to stop Azazel at the Hell Gate. Starting this act, Bobby Singer would replace John's Diary as the informational non-player character.

Act III is a quest to stop Lilith from freeing Lucifer. We have to skip much of the third season because it deals with Dean dying from his crossroads deal. Since this is a video game, in which Dean is a perpetually playable character, this won't happen. This is a combination of the third season and fourth season, with enemies ranging from the Seven Deadly Sins demons, lower-level angels, the demon Samhain, the demon Alastair, and the boss demon Lilith. The Trickster would also show up in this act, as well. Non-player characters would include the blonde demon Ruby, the brunette demon Ruby, the con artist Bella, and the prophet Chuck. Killing Lilith will actually free Lucifer from his cage, just like the show.

Act IV is a quest to avert the Apocalypse, covering the fifth season of the show. There are a lot of higher-level angels to fight -- the heroes should fight and defeat the Archangel Raphael and the Archangel Gabriel (the Trickster in his true form), as well as the seraph Zachariah. The Whore of Babylon and three of the Four Horsemen would also be enemies that you can defeat. After making a deal with the Horseman Death, the heroes would be able to lock up both Michael (in his Adam Winchester form) and Lucifer (in his Nick form because Sam is a playable character) at the end of the act.

After these four boss fights, the heroes Sam and Dean would probably be at "Level 60" in skill and power. In a traditional dungeon crawler/action RPG (e.g., the original Diablo), there are at least three character classes:  Melee fighter, missile shooter, and magic caster. Let's say that the larger Sam is the melee fighter class (wields Ruby's demon-killing knife), the smaller Dean is the missile shooter (shoots the almost everything-killing Colt), and Castiel is the magic caster, inexplicably at the start of the game. (The character Castiel first appears in the fourth season of the TV show.) It's a video game, after all; it is allowed to make less sense than an already nonsensical TV show!

Act V: The first expansion, covering the sixth season, would be Supernatural: Mother of Monsters. Team Free Will, consisting of Sam (Melee), Dean (Missile), Castiel (Magic), and Bobby (item identifier but otherwise a non-player character), will have to find a way to stop the expansion bosses Raphael the Archangel, as well as Eve and her entourage of Alpha Monsters. Diablo expansions tend to add a new class of character for every expansion, so for this one, we get to also play as Crowley, who summons Pets (demons and hellhounds).

After killing Eve, the heroes would cap their experience at "Level 70."

Act VI: The second expansion, covering the seventh season, would be Supernatural: Rise of Dick. Team Free Will will have to fight a new class of monsters, leviathans, and they will lose Bobby. The expansion boss is the head leviathan, Dick Roman. Just like Diablo III losing Cain and replacing him with a book, Rise of Dick will replace Bobby's identification function with John Winchester's and Bobby Singer's journals. Charlie the Hacker (Traps) will be the new class of playable character.

After killing Dick, the heroes would end up in Purgatory, and their experience would cap at "Level 80."

Act VII: The third expansion, covering the eighth season, would be Supernatural: Close the Gates. This adventure would take Team Free Will from Purgatory to Heaven to Hell to Earth. The main boss to click and kill would be Naomi the Bureaucratic Angel, but the true end of this plot would be to combine elements to perform a super-spell to close the Gates of Heaven and Hell, upon the suggestion of the angelic scribe Metatron. This would be a trick because casting the spell would end the game and expel all the angels from Heaven.

Let's recap the player classes available in this hypothetical game:  Sam (Melee / Knives), Dean (Missile / Guns), Castiel (Angelic Magic), Crowley (Demonic Pets), Charlie (Electronic Traps), and a new playable character, Kevin the Prophet (Holy Magic Melee ... or something like that). Since the boss fight doesn't sound as "epic" as the other acts (Naomi, really?), let's add Benny the Vampire to the character list. Let's say that Benny can do what both Sam and Dean can do, but not as well.

After expelling all the angels from Heaven, Team Free Will's experience would cap at "Level 90."

Act VIII: The fourth expansion, covering the ninth season, would be Supernatural: Scribe of God. This adventure would be to track down and defeat the megalomaniac angel Metatron and reopen the Gates of Heaven. Along the way, the heroes will pick up a powerful "item" called the Mark of Cain, as well as the First Blade. I can't think of a new character class for this expansion. Perhaps it might be Werewolf Garth the Hunter (Missile and Hulking Out in Werewolf Form) or one-shot characters from the eighth season, like Aaron and his Golem (redundantly more Pets). Okay, let's just go with Garth. In any case, there are two bosses for this expansion: The Knight of Hell Abaddon (but you'll need the Mark of Cain and the First Blade first) and the angel Metatron.

After killing Abaddon and imprisoning Metatron, Team Free Will's experience would cap at "Level 100."

If I can briefly return to talking about Supernatural as a TV show: I watched Season 10 knowing full well that Sam and Dean were hunting and fighting at the figurative Level 100+, so most of the danger didn't really affect the main characters. It was the supporting characters that had to face much of the danger. Okay, let's get back to the expansion packs.

Act IX: The fifth expansion, covering the 10th season, would be Supernatural: Mark of Cain. In the show, the Mark of Cain affected Dean Winchester ... but not that much. It was supposed to turn him into a heartless killing machine, but they probably couldn't show that sort of potential ultra-violence on network TV. For the sake of a video game, let's say the Mark is a mostly-MacGuffin item that summons and creates way more monsters to the player(s) to kill, for some reason. Basically, the plot of this expansion game would be to assemble items (the Book of the Damned and a code-breaking computer) so the witch Rowena could cast a spell, kill the demon Cain, kill the (Franken-)Stynes, and kill your buddy Death (for some reason). The new character class would be Claire Novak (Thief) -- she'd be, like, a sneaky assassin-type character class.

Let's review all our character classes:

1. Warrior (Sam Winchester)
2. Ranger (Dean Winchester)
3. Mage (Castiel)
4. Summoner (Crowley, Act V)
5. Trapper (Charlie, Act VI)
6. Warrior-Mage (Kevin, Act VII)
7. Ranger-Warrior (Benny, Act VII)
8. Doctor Jekyll-Mr. Hyde (Garth, Act VIII)
9. Thief (Claire, Act IX)

Of course, every player character must start from Act I of the original game, so it would be interesting to see Charlie fight the Yellow-Eyed Demon -- this is a game, afterall. It doesn't have to make that much sense.

Let's review all our big bad bosses:

Act I: Meg (Blonde)
Act II: Azazel
Act III: Lilith
Act IV: Lucifer and Michael
Act V: Raphael; Eve
Act VI: Dick
Act VII: Naomi
Act VIII: Abaddon; Metatron
Act IX: Cain; Death

For single player games, there should be the option to fight alongside a non-player character or two, at least for a limited time in each act:

Act I: John Winchester
Act II: Ellen and Jo Harville
Act III: Ruby the Demon (Blonde and/or Brunette forms)
Act IV: Gabriel the Archangel
Act V: Balthazar the Angel
Act VI: Meg the Demon (Brunette)
Act VII: The dog that Sam ran over
Act VIII: Gadreel the Angel
Act IX: Sheriffs Mills and Hanscum

At the end of the ninth act of the video game, the Mark of Cain is removed, but Rowena betrays everyone and becomes super-powerful with the Book of the Damned, just like TV series. The removal of the Mark unleashes an ancient evil called the Darkness.


Act X: I can't speculate how the 11th season of the show will pan out, so I really can't speculate how a hypothetical action RPG video game expansion called Supernatural: Into the Darkness should be like.

From what I've seen in the ninth season finale, I like the potential of this slight retcon to the series mythology. Apparently, before God created light, as in "Let there be light," he and his Archangels fought an ancient evil called the Darkness. God locked away the Darkness and created the Mark as a lock for the Darkness. God then placed the Mark on Lucifer, who subsequently went mad and evil over the course of eons. Lucifer passed the Mark onto Cain, before he was locked away in the deepest part of Hell. Cain subsequently went mad and evil over the course of millennia, before a short hiatus of his madness, due to love. Cain passed the Mark onto Dean, who turned into a demon for a while, before being cured, and sort of went kind of mad and a bit evil over the course of a few months, before apparently killing Death and having the Mark removed by Rowena's spell.

The 11th season big bad(s) will possibly be Rowena (like Adria in Diablo III) and the Darkness.  It should be fun to watch. And now I'm pretty spent, just imagining and speculating how cool it would be to play a Supernatural video game -- and I don't play video games that often.

If I had the know-how and the time, I would at the very least create a non-commercial dungeon crawler with 8-bit, Legend of Zelda graphics set in a simplified, Supernatural-like world. Yes, this blog post is extra long, but I am passionately writing about a thing of little to no consequence, so please bear with me.

This Zelda-like Supernatural game would only be one player. Initially, you could choose to be either Sam or Dean, with the other taking the Impala to the checkpoint/save point in each "dungeon" level. You can switch characters whenever you find the Impala. Each playable character has a strength scale total of nine, divided among melee hits, missile shots, and overall life. Sam's blade hits are worth 4x damage, his gunshots are worth 2x damage, and he has 3x life. Dean's blade hits are worth 2x damage, his gunshots are worth 4x damage, and he has 3x life.

The first dungeon would be the first season. The ghost of an on-fire Mary Winchester would tell the boys to find their father John. The boys are armed with machetes and salt guns. Halfway through the dungeon, the boys find John, who tells them that he knows who killed their mother. They must find an exorcism book to access the boss fight. At the end of the dungeon, they exorcise the demon Meg, but Azazel briefly appears and kills John.

The second dungeon would be the second season, at least a simplified version of the second season finale. The dungeon is a pentagram, and the boys will have to destroy the seals of each point of the pentagram, in order to access the Hell Gate, where Azazel awaits. A Special Child is the boss of each point of the pentagram. Sam and Dean will have to also find the Colt to kill Azazel. Since Dean's gunshots are stronger (the video game way to indicate accuracy, I suppose) than Sam's shots, it would be advisable to use Dean for this fight.

The third dungeon would be a combination of the third and fourth seasons. Castiel is now an unlocked, playable character. In this dungeon, Castiel is the only one who can kill angels. Castiel's blade hits are worth 3x, his blue angel fireballs are worth 3x, and he has 3x life. The demon Ruby tells the boys that they must unlock five seals, with five or more mini-bosses, to stop the demon Lilith from taking over the world. Ruby gives them her knife to make demon-slaying a bit easier. Some of the rooms with seals have angel wards, so Castiel can't enter some parts of the dungeon. Ruby actually tricked the heroes into unlocking the five seals and killing Lilith (the sixth seal), in order to release Lucifer from the cage.

The fourth dungeon would be the fifth season. This level would pretty much be like the second and third dungeons: Unlock/destroy five seals and fight the main boss. Bobby Singer gets the player started on the quest. In this case, the five seals are War, Famine, the Whore of Babylon, Pestilence, and the seraph Zachariah. You must find Death in order to get powered up with all four Horsemen rings. The boss fight will be in a cemetery against both Michael and Lucifer. The Impala will also be there, so you can switch characters in the middle of the fight. At this point, everyone wields angel swords, that can kill angels.

The fifth dungeon would be the sixth season. Crowley is now an unlocked, playable character. Grandpa Campbell, for video game reasons, tells the team of its next quest. Crowley also wields an angel blade like Castiel, but his blade hits are only worth 1x. Crowley can summon hellhounds, which attack in random directions, and are worth 5x damage. He has 3x life. Crowley cannot enter rooms warded against demons. This level is the same deal as many of the previous dungeons:  Kill Raphael, kill the Alpha Shapeshifter (who becomes the previous bosses), kill the Alpha Djinn (his sub-level is a dream world), defeat the Alpha Vampire for information how to kill Eve, kill the Phoenix for his ashes, and finally, kill Eve.

The sixth dungeon would be the seventh season. Charlie is now an unlocked, playable character. Charlie can hack into locked rooms. Her blade hits are worth 1x damage, her multi-purpose traps (devil's traps for demons, holy oil for angels, borax bombs for leviathans, etc.) are worth 6x damage, but she only has 2x life. Kevin the Prophet, for some reason, triggers this quest. In this level, you have to find the items to kill Dick Roman, as you ascend the tower of Roman Industries.

The seventh dungeon would be the eighth season. Benny is now an unlocked, playable character. His blade hits are worth 3x, his gunshots are worth 3x, and his life is 3x. For some reason, the first half of the dungeon places Team Free Will and the Impala in Purgatory, and they must fight their way out. Escaping Purgatory somehow destroys the balance of the realms, so Metatron tells you all to gather elements for a spell to restore the balance. It's a trick. Since there's no big bad for this dungeon, Kevin is also a playable character: Blade hits are worth 2x, the Word of God strikes in random places with 6x damage, but he has 2x life.

The eight dungeon would be the ninth season. Garth is unlocked. He is a special case of character. In non-werewolf form, his hits are worth 0x, his shots are worth 1x, and his life is 8x. In werewolf form, his hits are 6x, his shots are worth 0x, and his life is 3x. Unfortunately, he also attracts hunters when he is in werewolf form. This dungeon is a quest to find the Mark of Cain, as well as the First Blade, kill Abaddon, and defeat Metatron. I'm running out of ideas, so I suppose the angel Hannah gives this quest.

The ninth dungeon would be the 10th season. Claire is unlocked. She is also a special-case character. She can only melee hit enemies from behind, with a total of 7x damage. Her shots are worth 1x, and her life is 1x. Claire might be overpowered, but a bit useless. The dungeon quest is given by Rowena, to find the Book of the Damned and a code-breaking app for the book. Along the way, you have to fight Cain, the Styne family, and Death.

The tenth dungeon would be the 11th season. You'll have to fight Rowena and the Darkness, or something to that effect.

And I think I'm done. The TL;DR (too long; didn't read) version is that I speculated how a Diablo-like Supernatural game would be like, as well as a Legend of Zelda-like Supernatural game. If someone were to make something like this, and distribute it for free on the Internet, I'd play the hell out of this game. If the rights holders licensed and produced a game like this, and sold it for a reasonable price, I'd also play the hell out of this game.

Someone, do something.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fix Your Broken Things and Save Money

A few weeks ago, like any other day before then, I turned on my trusty powered speakers. The left speaker sounded as great as it ever was. The right speaker let out a nasty hiss and was essentially useless as a speaker.

Yesterday, I got around to fixing that speaker. The problem was caused by two blown capacitors. Other than dealing with the manufacturer's liberal use of glue, this was an open-and-shut repair job: Unplug the unit, unscrew the back panel, pull out the insides with the circuit board, unsolder the busted capacitors, solder new capacitors, return the insides, re-screw the back panel, replug the unit, and test it out -- so far, so good (knock on wood).

For today's blog post, I want to quickly highlight a few important tools to have to fix broken things around the home and office.


1. Google/YouTube/The World Wide Web. In exchange for advertising and using your personal information in their various algorithms, you get a whole lot of information. Use it. Okay, evaluate whether the info is BS or not, then use whatever is helpful. You can literally save hundreds of dollars from finding good how-to advice. For example, a leaky faucet might just be a broken faucet cartridge, which costs about $5 for a new one. The alternative would be to buy a new faucet, which would cost around $50 for a cheap model, not to mention that it's more complicated to replace an entire faucet.

A broken temperature dial on an old car might have an easy fix: Open up the center console and use zip ties on any wayward wires. It's literally a $2 fix. Otherwise, the dealer can track down a replacement unit, and charge you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for parts and labor. You can Google almost any solvable problem, especially in the realm of do-it-yourself repair. You just need to search using the best keywords possible.


2. Safety goggles. Yes, you'll need both Google and goggles in your toolbox. Safety first!


3a. Screwdriver(s). Until the Doctor lends you his sonic screwdriver, and regular one will do. A Phillips driver, a flat-head driver, and perhaps a selection of Allen (hex) keys -- standard and metric -- should get you started. You'll eventually need other kinds of screwdrivers, wrenches, etc., and while we're at it --

3b. Cordless drill. You'll get drill bits and driver bits. A good drill/driver isn't quite a sonic screwdriver, except that it can get loud. If you don't have an immediate, regular need to create holes on surfaces, maybe you can hold off on this purchase until sometime later.


4. Soldering iron and solder for soldering, and a solder sucker or desoldering braid for unsoldering. It's not scary at all to change circuit board components or fix faulty wiring. Just don't burn your house down. I couldn't have repaired my broken speaker without having this equipment around. (I am fortunate in that I am a guitar enthusiast, and many guitar modifications require all this soldering stuff.) I just had to buy a 10 pack of replacement capacitors for about $10. In case my other speaker develops the same fault, I already have everything I need to fix it.


5. Cutting tools. It's a good idea to have a craft knife (i.e., X-Acto knife) for small things, and a variety of saws for larger things. And scissors. Never underestimate the utility of a pair of scissors. Just don't maim or dismember anyone, including yourself. I couldn't have removed the busted capacitors without an X-Acto knife to carefully hack and slash through the manufacturer's ridiculous use of glue.


6. Hammer(s). For now, cover the basics: A claw hammer, a rubber mallet, and Mjolnir.

I think that pretty much covers the basics, as far as the minimum amount of tools to fix a bunch of broken things. I suppose pliers, glue, Spackle, paint, clamps, extra screws, nuts, bolts, and stuff like that would also be useful. Of course, you'll inevitably expand your bag of tricks, err, tools, err, box of tools -- like we all do. I realize that it takes an investment to get a tool collection started: About $5 for goggles, about $30 worth of screwdrivers and hex keys, about $50 for a light-duty drill, about $30 for soldering stuff, perhaps $50 or so for cutting tools, and maybe $15 for a selection of hammers. So basically, you might expect to buy $180 to $200 worth of equipment that you might not already have, not counting how you can access the Internet for information (computer with ISP plan, smartphone with data plan, the library, etc.). Of course, you'll buy more tools on top of the initial $200.

I could have given up on my broken right speaker, ditched both speakers, and buy a new set of sound monitors. That would have cost about $200 for a similar placement, and even more for a quality upgrade. Instead, I used what I already had (the initial investment from long ago) and bought $10 worth of parts. That was it. For the next problem, and there will be a next problem, the chances are good (but not guaranteed) that the fix would also be relatively inexpensive.

Plot twist! In addition to fixing broken things, these very same tools can be used for modifying things, as well as creating new things. Shocking!

I hope this helps! Cheers!

Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King + Lucille = Less Was ... Still Is More, R.I.P.

The legendary B.B. King passed away this past Thursday. Musicians who are more qualified than I have eulogized this incredible bluesman. I should have written this on Chord du Jour, and I might repost it there in the future, but the best way I can write about B.B. King is to look at one of the most distinctive features of his guitar playing: The aptly-named "B.B. Box."

Even if you've only heard a handful of B.B. King songs, keep in mind that King played his notes on his guitar "Lucille" sparingly, utilizing a signature vibrato technique to make his notes and melodic phrases ... sing. King apparently wasn't interested in strumming chords; he let his backing band do that. King's solos and lead licks, however, played to the chord and therefore these mini-melodies often had a chordal quality to them.

To put this in perspective, the basic rock/blues style of guitar playing will only play to the key, not the chord. If the chord progression is in E, major or minor, then the guitarist would likely improvise using the E blues scale, regardless of the chord changes underneath (as long as the overall key is E):


B.B. King, as many have observed, played within the B.B. Box, which is a certain zone on the thin strings of the guitar, up or down the neck, depending on the key of the song. I am being wildly inaccurate and overly simplistic in my analysis, but King basically fretted four or five notes -- and bent a string to get to other notes he wanted to play.

A typical 12-bar blues chord progression in E starts with the E dominant 7th chord, E7, for four bars.


It is perfectly acceptable to play the E blues scale over the E7 chord. It is also valid -- and harmonically logical -- to play the E Mixolydian mode over the E7 chord. Some guitar experts say that B.B. King played the major pentatonic or a fragment of the major diatonic scale over the first chord of the 12-bar blues. For simplicity's sake, let's say he went for a bit of the Mixolydian mode. In our example, it's the E Mixolydian mode:


The blue-colored notes represent the B.B. Box, or at least an approximation for the situation. Only five of those six notes should be fretted; it would behoove all of us to bend the B string a full step from the F-sharp note to the G-sharp note, and give it some B.B. King-style vibrato for good measure.

The next chord for E blues is the A7 chord, for two bars.


At this point, B.B. King tended shift the B.B. Box into something more bluesier, namely, the blues scale. In our example, it's the E blues scale:


The blue text indicates the state of the B.B. Box for this scale. Instead of bending to the G-sharp note, which gives the scale a major key flavor, bend to the G note instead, to give the scale a minor key flavor. (Even though it's not in the above chart, you can bend one half-step from the F-sharp note to the G note, to make it easier for your fingers.) There is a chromatic run from the A note to the B-flat note to the B note. The B-flat note is what is usually known as the diminished fifth, or the blue note in the context of the blues scale. In other words, when the band is playing A7, either play the E blues scale and/or an E almost-Mixolydian mode with a G instead of the G-sharp ... if that makes any sense.

The chord progression returns to E7 for two more bars, so return to the Mixolydian mode, major key notes and all.

The next chord in E blues is B7, for one bar.


Play the E Mixolydian mode or the E blues scale. Mix it up. Just play.

The progression returns to A7 for one bar. Play the E blues scale again.

The closing chord and turnaround for the 12-bar blues in E tend to be E7 for two bars, including perhaps some A7-Bb7-B7 riffage (approximately) at the turnaround to the next 12-bar sequence. Play either E Mixolydian and/or E blues -- just make it sound good.

For reference, let's look at the B.B. Box "zone" for E Mixolydian and E blues side-by-side:


When he played the B.B. Box, B.B. King did so much with so little. He didn't have to shred 16th and 32nd notes to make a statement; he either bent the string to the minor 3rd or to the major 3rd, depending on the chord. He shook a note around at the end of a phrase. And Lucille sang the blues, every time.

My humble tribute to this legendary guitarist is but a simplistic analysis of just a small part of B.B. King's mastery of music. B.B. King sang and played the blues, and his very existence and influence will forever be a part of time itself, never to be erased, and never to be forgotten ... and so, the thrill remains.

R.I.P. B.B. King.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review of 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'

It must have been either the summer or fall of 1994 when I purchased a VHS copy of Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, a quasi-documentary, compilation concert video by Nirvana. Basically, the film was composed of bits of home video and found footage, intertwined with live performances from their various concerts. It was almost exactly like the Smashing Pumpkins' Vieuphoria, also released in 1994, a long-form music video, with weirdness combined with concert footage. I was an impressionable teenager at the time, so I thought that's what bands did, and acted, and so I adopted the weirdness-mixed-with-musician-ness in my own personality.

Of course, nobody understood. Nobody ever understands ... sigh. (I've comes to terms with this, so you the reader need not worry.)

Fast-forward to 2015, with the release of the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO. The first thing that struck me, as I watched the film, is that I've seen a lot of this already. Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! used a lot of the same footage. In any case, where Sold Out!! focused on the band as a whole, Montage's focus is on the life of frontman Kurt Cobain, from his birth to roughly Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance in late 1993, with mentions of his winter 1994 overdose and spring 1994 death near the end of the film.

I would like to take this opportunity to evaluate this film with what I wrote about earlier, with an addition. My evaluations of "art" now have three dimensions: (1) Art vs. Audience, (2) Art vs. Other Art, and I would like to add now, (3) Art vs. Artist.

The obvious audience for this film are Nirvana fans from the 1990s, who all have since outlived Kurt himself. I can only imagine my experience of this film with this context in mind. With that said, I don't think Montage has taught me anything new about Kurt Cobain. This film pretty much follows the narrative in Michael Azerrad's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, at least how I remember the book, when I read it twenty-some years ago. It's cool to have the non-controversial Kurt Cobain come to life, so to speak, in this documentary film. The best surprise of the film is being introduced to the Nirvana-Screaming Trees collaboration of Leadbelly's "Ain't It a Shame." Of course, that track has been around -- on YouTube -- for years, but it had slipped past my radar until now, basically. I think Nirvana fans, in general, will like this. It's probably also somewhat accessible to fans of music and music history, the Sold Out!!-type weirdness might be off-putting to wider audiences, though.

Art vs. Audience: Montage is somewhere between accessible and inaccessible. If 0 = inaccessible, and 10 = accessible, Montage is a 5.

Montage is a documentary film. Unlike "conventional" documentary films (I took a documentary criticism course over a decade ago, so I've learned that there are various kinds of "conventional" documentaries), Montage seems to have several stylistic choices, from A-roll interviews with B-roll footage, to audio footage with animation, to Sold Out!!-style montages of heck. It's kind of all over the place. I was so wowed by the animated sequences, I thought an animated documentary might have been a solid, sole stylistic choice.

Art vs. Other Art: Montage is relatively unconventional, due to its stylistic inconsistency. If 0 = conventional, and 10 = unconventional, Montage is an 8. These numbers really mean nothing.

Brett Morgen directed Montage. He also directed the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. When I took the aforementioned documentary criticism course, one of my classmates wrote a paper on The Kid Stays in the Picture. I have never seem that particular documentary (I wrote my term paper on a documentary on Elvis impersonators called Almost Elvis). Other than Montage, I am unfamiliar with Morgen's work, but both Wikipedia and IMDb give him a relatively sizable filmography.

Art vs. Artist: Montage is one of many films by Brett Morgen. I can't say whether or not it is departure from the filmmaker's previous work, or if this is Morgen's consistent style. This is my bad as a reviewer/blogger. If 0 = consistent, and 10 = departure, then by default, and my fault, Montage is a 5, for now.

In conclusion, if you're like me, after watching Montage of Heck, you'll access your Nirvana MP3s (Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero, MTV Unplugged, Live from the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, Nirvana's greatest hits album, B-sides from overpriced imported CD singles, and whatever else you may have -- ripped from now-stored away CDs), set the playlist to random, and blog about Nirvana. Because of the film, I am listening to Nirvana's music with my long-lost teenager's ears, and not the cynical, ever-aging ears of one who has outlived Kurt Cobain. It's good to be reminded of the alchemy created by screaming vocals, clever melodies, sloppy guitar (I would describe Kurt's non-melodic guitar solos as "sloppy jazz," the blues scale but not quite right), straightforward bass, and heavy drums. That was Nirvana.

Post-script: Sunday was also Mother's Day, so I hope you all had a wonderful Mother's Day. Cheers!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

#MayPac Aftermath: Money-Style Boxing = Granny-Style Bowling?

Overall, I enjoyed last Saturday's so-called "Fight of the Century" between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. True, the fight itself was not as exciting as the days-months-years of build-up, and the aftermath of the fight has the potential of being more exciting than than the fight itself. In any case, the "superfight" was an excuse to eat copious amounts of Michigan pizza and drink lots of cold Philippine beer. Mayweather is from Grand Rapids, I believe, but the closest I could get was Domino's (Ann Arbor) and Little Caesar's (Detroit). I don't think San Miguel beer is from the same exact region of the Philippines as Pacquiao. The attempt is close enough.

Fight night was enjoyable because the company was good, and that's all one can really ask for, when it comes to sporting events.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. has to be congratulated not only for his unanimous decision victory on Saturday, and not only for continuing his perfect record of 48-0-0, but also for solving the complicated math problem that is boxing.

He solved boxing, as if boxing were a Rubik's Cube waiting to be solved -- rather, every Rubik's cube problem solved with one technique. Mayweather's run-defend-counterpunch-points technique consistently wins decisions. However, this style is only appealing to a specific subset of boxing fans, boxing "geeks" who appreciate the technique and finesse of winning on points.

Unfortunately, mass audiences don't care about this, and often find Mayweather's style to be boring. Mass audiences want blood in their $100 pay-per-view bouts. Saturday's fight was bloodless. It seems to me that Mayweather's perfect counterpunching technique is like bowing a perfect 300-point game, using the oft-maligned, underhanded "granny-style." It gets the job done, but it's not exciting. Neither Money-style boxing nor granny-style bowling are accessible to larger audiences. (Then again, bowling isn't really a spectator sport, isn't it? Well, neither is bloodless boxing.)


Money-style counterpunching, by default, only has a niche appreciative audience. Maybe that's why Mayweather usually has taken on a bad guy, "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase public persona to sell tickets and PPVs. (His actual, personal history of domestic violence is another matter altogether.) We've all been conditioned to dislike the Million Dollar Man, and we all want to see the Million Dollar Man lose, so many buy into the marketing technique. It's what sold events in the past, but maybe the act has gotten old and won't sell anymore. Additionally, social media video streaming apps apparently ate away at some of the PPV revenues, but more on that later.

In any case, Mayweather's victory over Pacquiao has sort have been tainted by the revelation that Pacquiao tried to fight with a torn shoulder injury. Due to these complicated and debatable turn of events, Mayweather seems to be open for a rematch against Pacquiao, who will be out for about a year after shoulder surgery.

My brother Jon has proposed an interesting path for Mayweather's final fight(s). Floyd should keep his belts. For his final Showtime fight in September, Mayweather should challenge Kell Brook for the undisputed welterweight championship -- Brook has the IBF title, and Mayweather currently has the rest. Assuming that Money-style boxing wins on points again, Mayweather will be the undisputed welterweight champion with a record of 49-0-0. Floyd could then drop any and all titles, at his discretion.

From what my brother has told me, Mayweather has a stake in the new Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) series on broadcast network television. Being the undisputed champion of a weight class, it seems, will give Floyd some indisputable "magic" to generate a welterweight championship for PBC. From the title, PBC could generate other weight class titles, making PBC a full-fledged boxing association.

Mayweather should then extend his career to defend his newly-minted PBC title, to break Rocky Marciano's perfect record streak. Maybe this could be the rematch in May or September 2016 against Manny Pacquiao. Another MayPac PPV probably won't earn as much as the first fight, and streaming quasi-piracy technology will eat into PPV profits. Both Mayweather Promotions and Top Rank might maximize their profits if this rematch was broadcast on network television, with Super Bowl-priced advertising.

Personally, if this hypothetical PBC title situation comes to fruition, I want Mayweather to get 50-0-0 against another fighter. Money-style boxing should break Marciano's record, so Floyd should enjoy his perfection for about six months. With two uninjured boxers, we can only hope for an improvement in the quality of fight for the rematch. Then, as many Manny fans want, Money would hopefully end his career at 50-1-0 or 50-0-1.

Then again, it would be likely that Mayweather ends his career at 51-0-0 ... on points.

****

Post-script: Money-style boxing might have been more exciting, if neither points nor judges were part of the game, and if swords were involved, as demonstrated by Bronn in Game of Thrones.

Post-post-script: Happy Cinco de Mayo -- a uniquely American drinking holiday, like St. Patrick's Day and, perhaps in the future, St. George's Day. Cheers!