Thursday, May 3, 2018

Samsung Gear VR with the Galaxy Note 8

I recently purchased a Samsung Gear VR headset to try it out. I'm a programmer, so I'm kind of interested in how easy it would be to do a few projects that make use of it.

 So, first impressions...


The headset was pretty much plug and play.  It took a few minutes to get all the straps connected, but then I just plugged in my phone, and then it downloaded all the software over WiFi, and that was it.  Setup was pretty much a no-brainer.

The headset comes with a little controller, which is pretty easy to use, once you've paired it.

You will need a good pair of headphones, preferably Bluetooth, but you can also plug into the headphone jack if your plug isn't too bulky.

If you're going to be on this for a long time, you'll also need an 8' USB C cable to keep the unit and your phone both charged.

Connecting to VR

Before you connect your phone, you absolutely must clean off your screen.  Use some Windex, and then wipe it down with a dry Kleenex.  If there is any dirt or grease (or scratches) on your screen, it will be kind of distracting.

Connecting to the headset is about the easiest I've ever seen.  You plug it into the USB-C connector, snap the phone in place, and the software starts up automatically.  It's that dead-simple.  You don't have to launch a VR app or anything.  The phone just automagically goes into VR headset mode.


There is a sensor inside the headset that can tell when you are wearing it, and when you take it off.  The headset shuts off when you take it off, and starts up automatically when you put it on again.  No fiddling with the power switch or unlocking the device.

When you're done and you want to go do other stuff, all you have to do is snap the phone out of the headset.  The software exits automatically, and returns your phone to its normal mode.

The experience 

When I first put this headset on, I was like, WOW! I couldn't stop laughing. It was totally, completely immersive.

You do need to be sitting down. An office chair would work best, so you can turn 360 degrees. Make sure you have plenty of space around you, because once you put the headset on, you're completely immersed and oblivious to the real world.

You can wear the headset with glasses, which is a good thing.  The only thing to be aware of is that light will get in and reflect off your glasses.  It's kind of distracting

It feels like you're wearing a scuba mask (if you've ever been scuba diving).  Except it's heavier, but it's not too bad, really.  I played with it for about an hour and I hadn't gotten tired of wearing it at all.  It was oddly warm, but that was because there's this padded, insulated, box covering your face.

Your field of view is somewhere between 90 and 110 degrees.  I didn't notice this at first, but it gives you a slight tunnel-vision effect.  Peripheral vision is pretty good, but if you roll your eyes side to side you'll notice pretty quick that you have no side vision.  Again, it's a lot like wearing a scuba mask.  Except a bit heavier, but not too bad.

The picture is not as sharp as I'd like it to be.  It was not too badly pixelated, but I felt like I was looking at the world through a screen door.  Smaller phones ought to have a better picture, but what you really need is a phone with 4K resolution.  The Note 8's resolution of 2960×1440 is somewhere between 1080p and 4K.

I didn't notice any eye-strain until I took the headset off.  Something about the lenses makes your eyes use muscles that they don't normally use.

Actually being inside the device gives you this weird disembodied effect.  You look down expecting to see your hands and your feet, but they're gone.  In fact, there is no sense of self at all.  You're just this weird floating head that can look up, down, left, right, and tilt from side to side.

You can't actually move around in any of the rooms that you're in.  You're pretty much fixed in one POV.  You can look around in all directions, but you stay where you are.

The interface 

I'm pretty good with computers, so the interface wasn't too hard to figure out.

The little controller is really nice. It allows you to look at one thing and point at another thing. It feels a lot like using a laser pointer, but it doesn't actually move through 3-space. Rather, it pivots about a fixed point that lies somewhere in the vicinity of your right elbow.

It feels natural, until you try to move your hand around in front of your face.  Only then do you realize that your controller can only sense motion that sweeps up, down, left, or right, or motion that rolls laterally from one side to the other. There is no way for the controller to know where it is physically in space, in relation to the headset, itself.

Voice commands need a lot of work. The speech recognition is really good, but it's just not integrated into anything. To do a voice command, you say, "okay oculus", which just sounds dorky, especially if you're not the only one in the room.

The command shell needs work. None of your phone's normal apps work in VR--like at all--which is just super weird.  I mean, why not?  You have this huge screen real-estate, so it ought to be a complete no-brainer to give me a home screen and let me use all my apps.


It would be nice if notifications popped up somewhere off to the side instead of right in the middle of my face. Duh.

It would be nice if I could use my phone, and take calls.  It would be nice if I could bring up text messages.

There is a software keyboard that you can use.  It's pretty OK, but there are times when I wish there was a microphone icon, and I could just use speech recognition, which is already pretty good.

You are completely oblivious to the world around you when the headset is on. It would be really nice if you could activate the phone's camera in order to see what's going on in the real world.


I sat and watched Netflix for a little while.  Netflix's app puts you on a couch in a living room that looks like a cabin.  In front of you is a 7-foot screen.

I watched a few minutes of Rogue One, and a few minutes of Travellers.

And then the screen-door effect started getting on my nerves.  I can get a much sharper picture just sitting at my computer.

I spent some time watching random videos on YouTube.  YouTube has a split-screen mode so binocular videos show up in 3D.  It also has a 360 mode for videos that are shot in 360 degrees.  You really, really need an office chair for that, so you can spin around.

All the games cost $6.00 or $7.00 to play.  I think my kids would really enjoy Minecraft.  I might buy Minecraft just so I can bargain and say, do a load of dishes or a load of laundry for an hour.

The social aspect

This is strictly a ONE PERSON experience. Once you put on the headset, you will feel completely disconnected from the real world.

You will annoy any friends and family that want to talk to you. You cannot talk to people in the real world at the same time. Yes, you can *hear* them, but they will get a little annoyed after a few minutes of this.  You cannot multitask with this on.  You cannot convincingly listen to people who want to carry on a serious conversation with you.

I think this is a good start, but I think VR has a LONG way to go.  There is absolutely no integrated experience, not like what your phone can normally do, the way all your apps work together.

Honestly, I think the future is in a mixed device that can do both VR and AR.  This could be accomplished either by using your phone's camera, or by superimposing the screen over a heads-up display.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Reading List for 2016

This is published kind of late because I've been so busy with teaching.

I'll give each book a star rating, as follows:

  • 5 stars: I loved it, and I want to read the next in the series.
  • 4 stars: I liked it, but I'm moving on.
  • 3 stars: Meh.  You might like it a lot.
  • 2 stars: Not worth it.  Read something else.
  • 1 star: Avoid this.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Phillip K. Dick
Phillip K Dick is one of those prolific authors who’s managed to get an amazing number of his novels and short stories made into movies.  This is the book that inspired the movie Bladerunner.  Very much worth a read.

Magnus Chase – The Sword of Summer
– Rick Riordan
Riordan has started a new series of god-novels.  This time it’s Norse gods.  I love the way Riordan weaves real-world mythology into his stories.  I had a lot of fun with this book.

Son of the Black Sword
Larry Corriea
I don’t read a lot of high fantasy.  I can only take so much rambling world-building and political intrigue before I lose interest (it’s an ADD thing).  Corriea keeps this story moving along.  You get just enough world-building to keep things interesting before the action sweeps you along.

The Last Apprentice, books 1 and 2
Joseph Delaney
I got this as two-in-one book, and  really liked it.  The main character becomes apprenticed to a spook, which is a sort of bogey-man hunter.  The story takes place in a fictional England-like place, in maybe the late renaissance. 

The Aeronaut’s Windlass
Jim Butcher
This is the first steampunk novel I’ve read.  I like Jim Butcher a lot, and I’ve read most of the Dresden Files novels.  It was a fun story.  Good writing.  Okay plot.  I have a hard time getting into steampunk.  

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments)
Cassandra clare
If you haven’t read this, you really need to.  Clare has a whole series set in this universe.  It’s urban fantasy, demon hunters, with a little bit of magic thrown in.  The plot has a really good twist at the end, even if I did see it coming.  In fact, I kind of wish the main character had connected the dots quicker, but that was my only complaint.  Look forward to reading the next one.

Harry Potter book 1
J. K. Rowling
I’m an avid student of Rowling’s writing style.  This is probably my 4th re-read.  I like the way she introduces the reader to her world one chapter at a time, and weaves each element of the world into her plot.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
Brandon Sanderson
This was a lot of fun.  The main character’s super power is breaking things.  It’s light hearted, and a fast read.  I don't like Sanderson's high fantasy, but I've liked just about everything else he's read.  I thought this was very creative and funny.  I love the way Sanderson can take a really nutty idea and build a believable story around it.  I should study his writing more.  He has a whole series on YouTube about writing.

The Man in the High Castle
Phillip K. Dick
You’ll like this if you’re into alternate history.  What would the world be like if Germany and Japan had won WWII?  This book has been turned into a miniseries on Amazon prime.

The Empty Throne
Bernard Cornwell
I love the Utred books.  I spend a lot of time studying Cornwell’s writing.  He does three things really well.  He writes great anti-heroes, he has perfect character voice, and his battle scenes are truly epic.  Cornwell is my spirit-animal.

The Last Colony
John Scalzi
5 stars.
This is one of the books in the Old Man’s War series by Scalzi.  Scalzi is great at doing epic sci-fi, and at writing aliens that are nothing like us yet appear oddly human, but most of all he does humor and he pulls it off in a way that you can still take the story seriously.

Sharpe’s Fortress
Bernard Cornwell
I got a whole bunch of these books from my father-in-law, who found them at Deseret Industries.  This is the series that Bernard Cornwell is best known for.  These books are historical fiction, and are set during the British colonial period.  This particular book is the last of the books that covers the British campaign in India.

Sharpe’s Trafalgar
Bernard Cornwell
I couldn’t get enough Sharpie.  This one takes place onboard a ship, as Sharpe leaves India and returns to Britain.  This is one of the most brutal naval battles in history.  This victory cemented Britain’s place as ruler of the seven seas up until the time of world war 1.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
J. K. Rowling
I had such hopes for this one.  I want more of the Potter universe, and I like the characters, too.  But what I really want is a new story line.  The story follows Harry’s estranged son Severus, and involves time travel, and a thorough re-hash of the first seven books.   Uuuuugh!  I hate it when an author gets successful and starts writing stuff that plays purely on the nostalgia.  This story works if you’re a teen-ager and you’ve just binge-read the whole series.  It doesn’t work if you’re expecting the characters to move on to a new adventure.

Mere Christianity
C. S. Lewis
I’ve been reading this off and on.  I still haven’t finished, but I’ll mention this book for two reasons.  First, this book is short and you certainly can read it casually, but to truly understand Lewis’s message this book needs to be studied.  Second, because I recommend that you read this book, and seriously study it yourself.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Pondering the Christmas Story

I've had a number of thoughts this Christmas, and given the spirit of season, I felt it appropriate to publicly share what I've come to learn.

When we consider the Christmas story and what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the story we hear today is romanticized quite a bit.  I think the reality of the events were much more challenging, and looking a little deeper at things it strikes me that this was a tale of considerable hardship.


I can't imagine what this would have been like for Mary.  I think her situation is summed up best with her words, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"  In today's time we may not think an un-wed pregnancy it a serious thing, but to those of Jesus's day it was an act of unspeakable shame.

How would Mary explain this to her parents?  Everyone would have a lot of tough questions, and Mary wouldn't have any answers.  We know from the story in Luke that Mary arose and went "with haste" to visit her cousin Elizabeth (who at the time was six months pregnant with John).  She stayed with Elizabeth for three months.  If she wasn't showing by the time she got back, she wouldn't have long before she had to confront her parents and let them in on her secret.

I can imagine Mary's news caused quite a scandal.  I imagine there was a lot of yelling, a lot of doors slamming in anger, a lot of tears, and a whole lot of heartbreak.  The question on everyone's mind would be, who is the father? I think Mary would have tried to deny that Joseph had any part in this, but who would believe her?  If the father wasn't Joseph, who could it be?

I'm going to assume that Mary's family kept this all hush-hush, and discretely reached out to Joseph's family.  If it were my daughter, that's what I would do, regardless of the situation.


I find it quite a bit easier to put myself in Joseph's place.  I can relate to being a young guy, being engaged, and being giddy with love for someone, and really really looking forward to the day we get married and I can take her as my wife.

I'd have been on cloud 9.

Where was Joseph when he heard the news?  Was he just stopping by Mary's house for a visit?  Or did he hear it though the grapevine?  Either way, he'd have been crushed.  If I were in his place, I would have been deeply hurt, and I would have been supremely ticked.

I imagine sooner or later he would have to face down Mary's parents.  I couldn't imagine walking into their house with a pall of suspicion hanging over me like that.  I couldn't imagine facing their accusing stares, and trying to deny that I had any part in this matter.  I'd be horrified.  The engagement would be off, of course.  It's not my child.  There'd be a lot of tense words on both sides and in the end I'd leave upset, wanting desperately to get away and find somewhere private where I could bawl my eyes out.

And then came the dream.

We're so used to glossing over this part, and we don't really give it much thought.  Things get a little personal here for me.  I've had dreams before.  I've never been visited by an angel, but I know what it's like to wake up and feel completely blown away by what I've seen.  The first thought that goes through your mind is, was that real?  The second thing that goes through your mind is, did it truly come from God?  I can speculate a whole lot of other stuff that must have gone through Joseph's mind, but sooner or later it would get to the point where he had to do something.  Does he ignore it?  Does he trust it?  What was he going to do?  Yeah, I've been there.

You see, Joseph's problem just got a whole lot bigger.  Before this dream, he'd planned to put this whole matter to rest privately.  The gospel of Matthew says that Joseph didn't want to make a big spectacle of things.  Most people agree that this demonstrates how Joseph must have loved Mary.  Regardless, the engagement would be over, and Joseph would move on.  In a few years he'd find another girl and start all over.

But now?  Joseph had a huge choice.  Does he trust the dream?  Because if he marries this girl, everyone is going to think one of two things.  They're either going to think, well of course the baby is Joseph's, we weren't born yesterday, you know?  Shame on you!  Either that, or they're going to think, Joseph, you foolish schmuck!  She's been two-timing you and now she's got to pay the price.  You should leave her to her fate!

I don't know much about the circumstances of Jewish marriage customs.  I'm going to assume that since Joseph had the opportunity to annul the divorce privately that the matter had been kept quiet.  What I'm also going to assume is that Joseph went through a great deal of soul-wrenching.  Getting married is a pretty wonderful thing, but marrying a woman who's preggers with someone else's child is quite another.

I imagine Joseph's family was pretty shocked when he told them what he planned, and why, especially considering how this could look.  It's not easy to trust a dream.  Again, personal experience.  People's first reaction is to think you've gone off the rails.  Then they start questioning every little thing, trying to understand, or second-guessing the way you interpret it.  You end up feeling stupid, and wishing you hadn't said anything and just kept the whole thing to yourself.

And then there's the part where you have to follow through with what the Lord told you to do, and endure years and years of second guessing your own actions, and wondering why things had to be this way, and wondering when or if you were going to see the things come true that the Lord had told you.  It takes a lot of faith and a lot of internal strength, especially when no one has a reason to believe you.


The account in the New Testament of Jesus's birth is agonizingly short on details.  A thought came to me as I was writing this that perhaps God made sure the details were sparse so that the peoples of each culture that read it could flesh out the story in their own way and liken it to them.

The biggest question on my mind, though, is why were Mary and Joseph alone?  At least we assume they were alone.  Had they been disowned?  In today's day we find it unthinkable that Mary, being so far along, would have been completely un-accompanied by family.  I find it unthinkable that Joseph, being of the lineage of King David, and journeying to the city of David would have been unable to find family to put him up and make his wife comfortable.

We just don't know.

For me, this situation would have been heartbreaking.  I've seen my wife pushed to the very edge, and I've had to pick her up and carry her along through life's trials.  I know what it's like to raise a family, starting from nothing.  I can't imagine how it must have been for them.  I imagine that in Joseph's position there are many times when I would have thought the situation seemed hopeless.

In my life I've come to trust the Lord that he always opens up a way.  That's pretty much all you can do.  Trust that God knows your troubles and that if you approach him in prayer he will help you find a way to make things work out.  I'm reminded of the words to a song by Casting Crowns, called Just Be Held:

So when you're on your knees and answers seem so far away
You're not alone, stop holding on and just be held
Your world's not falling apart, it's falling into place
I'm on the throne, stop holding on and just be held
Just be held, just be held
It's amazing to think that the One who rules heaven and earth actually cares about my problems, however small, and has time to answer my prayers.

Merry Christmas, and God bless you!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Election Year Lingo

Every election year, and especially during presidential elections, I find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah, I remember that word."  It's like running into an old friend at the supermarket and catching up.  Then I'll think, "Such an awesome word, I need to use it more."

And then November comes and goes, and with it goes all the bile, the invective, the hyperbole, and the pugilistic rhetoric.  It disipates like a toxic fog after a good rain, and these words fade from memory only to be re-born in my vocabulary in another four years.

So, here it is, Tom's list of big pretentious words, specially crafted for the election year:

BALKANIZED – When a large group of people who were once united becomes separated into factions that are hostile to one and other.

CAUCUS – A citizen’s meeting of members of a political party, for the purpose of choosing delegates to represent them at a larger convention.

DELEGATE – A person who gets elected by a group of people to go and vote for them.

DEMOCRACY – A system of government where EVERYONE votes on all decisions.  The US is NOT a democracy, it’s a republic.

DEMAGOGUE – A political leader who makes use of popular prejudices, or false claims and promises, or augments based on emotion rather than reason, in order to gain power.

DOGMA – (Also, dogmatic) An authoritative principle, belief or statement of opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true and indisputable, regardless of evidence or without evidence to support it.  Often, political arguments which are largely propped up solely by religious belief.

FACTION – A sub-group belonging to any larger group of people, whose common goals or beliefs differ from those of the larger group.

HISTRIONICS – Behavior that is overly emotional or dramatic.

HUBRIS – Excessively (often foolishly) prideful

HYPERBOLE – Any language that is extravagantly exaggerated.

IN-FIGHTING – Bickering or quarreling between two or more factions with a much larger group, which would normally be united. (e.g.: “political in-fighting within the Nationalist party).

INCUMBENT – The candidate who is up for re-election (i.e.: the guy/gal currently in office)

INVECTIVE – Abusive speech, often laden with profanity.

OLIGARCHY – Government by the few.  Any form of government where a small group exercises un-checked control.

OSTENSIBLE – Anything done to show off for the sake of appearance, but really has a different underlying motive.

PLURALITY – A winning vote that is more than all other votes, but constitutes less than 50%.  Any winning vote that is not a majority vote.

POLEMICS – A strong written or spoken attack against someone else's opinions, beliefs, practices, etc.

PONTIFICATION – To express one’s position or opinions dogmatically and pompously as if they were absolutely correct.  To speak in a patronizing, supercilious or pompous manner, especially at length.

PUGILISTIC – Having a fighting quality (from PUGILISM, i.e., boxing)

RECALCITRANT – Stubbornly defiant of authority.

REFERENDUM – A direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment.  Figuratively, popular a vote of approval or disapproval for a political philosophy or policy.

REPUDIATION – The act of refusing to accept.

REPUBLIC – A system of government like a democracy, but where large numbers of people elect representatives to go and vote and make decisions for them.

RHETORIC - language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable

SATIRE – Language that exaggerates an idea, person, government, or other group of people, and mocks in a humorous way, and portrays it as foolish, weak, ineffective, bad, etc.

SCAPEGOAT – A person or group of people who gets unfairly blamed for something that others have done

SHIBBOLETH – Words or sayings used by members of a party to identify themselves as supportive of a given cause, and often regarded by non-party members as empty of real meaning.  (e.g.: “pro-choice”, or “big government”)

TRUCULENT – Aggressively self-assertive; beligerent; combative.

VITRIOLIC – Extremely bitter or crossive in quality, especially virulence in feeling or speech.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Medieval Gems for Writers: Wearing a Sword on Your Back

The digital watch is not period.
I’ve recently found a Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) group to practice with. They study techniques with the two-handed longsword, and the hand-and-a-half (AKA "bastard") longsword.  One day at practice, we got into a discussion about how practical it was to wear a longsword on your back like you see in movies and in video games.  As it turns out, I have some real-world experience with this. 

A few years back, I put together a costume for Halloween and Salt Lake Comic Con (and any other excuse I could find to nerd up).  I have a real two-handed longsword with a scabbard and a belt that can be used as a baldric.  I’ve even got a riveted chain-mail shirt for that extra touch.

Wearing the sword on your side gets awkward.  It swings around a lot.  Sitting down is always an adventure, going down stairs requires caution, and when walking through crowds of people you're always afraid of bumping someone.  It’s something you only want to wear if you’re going to a fight.

To get it out of the way, I found that strapping it onto my back works rather well.

Now I can sit with it, run with it, go down stairs with it, and I can walk through crowds and busy marketplaces without it banging into things.  This arrangement works really well, with one big problem. 

You cannot draw your sword.  I don’t care what the movies say, it can’t be done—in fact, it’s quite ridiculous when you actually try it.

The first problem is simply reaching back to grab the pommel.  I mean, look how far back the handle is:

You can reach it, but man that’s quite a stretch.  Even worse, the strap moves all over your shoulder, so the hilt is never in the same place.  It's nothing like wearing it on your hip where with muscle memory you know right where it is.  You have to reach way back, and you have to grope around until you find it.

I’ve seen people keep things strapped to their back in movies.  They make it look so easy, and they look so cool (e.g., Deadpool, whose crossed hilts are actually fixed securely to one spot on his back),  The reality is nothing like that.

Reach waaaay back there.

But the real problem comes when you actually try to draw the sword.  Essentially, the blade is too long and your arm is too short.  This just doesn’t work.

Got it! Not quite. . .

To pull it out I have to grip the blade at the ricasso (which is often left un-sharpened for half-sword thrusts and other techniques).
Hang on. . . I got this. . . Yeah!
Wearing the sword farther down your back does not work.  It just makes your sword that much harder to reach (I can barely grasp the pommel).  The sword is simply too long.  

And what do I do once I’ve slaughtered my enemy and I need to sheathe the sword?  Well, forget about it.  It’s just easier to take the whole thing off, and then sheathe it, then throw it over your shoulder once more.

Re-sheathing your sword?  Not a chance.
To get around all this, you might wonder why I don’t just take the whole thing off my shoulder and then draw my sword.  Well yeah, that works, but there are two problems.  First, that’s really slow.  Second, what do I do with my scabbard?  I suppose I can throw it over my shoulder once more, but that’s made all the more difficult because now my hands are full.  Another option would be, just tossing it to the side or handing it to my squire for safekeeping.

So yeah, it’s plausible, but it’s slow and awkward.  If I’m expecting trouble, it’s a lot easier to just keep it at my side.


Wearing a sword on your back is snug and comfortable and practical—unless you’re expecting trouble.  If you want to draw your weapon quickly, then don’t wear your sword on your back.  There’s no practical way to draw your sword, and you won’t be able to sheath it when you’re finished.  Keeping the sword farther down your back doesn’t work, either.  That just makes it harder to reach, and the blade is too long, anyway.

So question: would this work with a much shorter blade?  Absolutely.  I did a quick search and found a you-tube video of a guy dressed as Deadpool who had no trouble drawing both blades--but again, these were short-swords.  They weren't full-length katanas.

And with a short-sword I’d have to ask, “why?”  The whole point of wearing a sword on your back is because it’s huge and you want to get it out of the way.  A short sword wouldn’t have that problem, and it would be so much easier to wear it on your side.

I’m sure there’s twenty ways to debate this.  I look forward to your comments below.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Reading List for 2015

It’s amazing how much I’ve read this year, considering how little extra time I have.  In January I started teaching a course on algorithms and data structures for Brigham Young University’s Salt Like Center.  In addition to that, I began teaching a third-year course in Web Programming for Utah Valley University.  Between these two courses I’ve completely quit writing (not without a good deal of remorse), but somehow I’ve managed to continue reading and studying the craft.

Stonehenge, Bernard Cornwell

I love the way Cornwell writes, in particular I love his Sharpe series, and his Last Kingdom series.  Both of these I could just devour if I had the time.  Cornwell is one of the few authors that I wish I could be like.

Cornwell doesn’t write fantasy.  He only does historical fiction, so when I ran across Stonehenge, I thought this was the closest that I’d ever get.  Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to expectations.  The protagonist was kind of a weenie.  I was looking for another Uhtred, or another Sharpe, someone who at least takes control of what was going on around him.

Anyway, moving on…

Cornwell is still my hero, and in my Pantheon of Great Writers he is second only to this next author.

Pet Sematary, Stephen King

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, but this is the first time I decided to try something that is straight-up horror.  In the introduction, King claims that this is the story that disturbed him the most.  Taken from a real-life near tragedy, he began speculating what would have happened had the unthinkable occurred.  The story is about an ancient Native American burial ground, where if you bury anything that had recently died, it will come back to life.

I’ll be honest.  I’ll read anything by Stephen King, just because it’s Stephen King.  Did I think Pet Sematary was scary?  Not sure.  I certainly liked it.  Have I read scarier stuff by King?  Oh, heck yeah!

Everything’s Eventual, Stephen King

So, I finally finished this book.  Like I said last year, I like to keep an anthology of short stories around so I have something to read when I’m between novels.  This book was full of superb stuff.

  • 1408: Probably the scariest thing I’ve read by King.  2/3 of the story is just set-up, where the owner of a hotel is trying to convince a ghost-hunter not to stay in room 1408.  By the time the main character actually enters the room and closes the door behind him you’re already keyed up.  I wouldn’t say that it was pee-your-pants scary, but it definitely spiked my adrenaline.  I went on a walk with my wife that evening, and I was jumping at shadows.  Delectable stuff!
  • Riding the Bullet: I absolutely loved this story.  It’s kind of hard to explain the plot, but it was one of those stories where the main character has a close encounter with the supernatural world, and consequences ensue.  This is a must-read.
  • The Road Virus Heads North: This was pretty darn scary, and superb fun at the same time.  The concept is brilliant.  

The Martian, Andy Weir

I have not read a book in 30 years that affected me emotionally as much as this story did.  A friend at work recommended it, and our whole team read it, and then we all went to see the movie as a work-event.  Weir really did his homework, and it paid off.  This is probably the best book I’ve read all year, hands-down.

Darth Plagueis, James Luceno

I was told that this book was considered cannon, and that it was somehow related to the upcoming Star Wars movie…or maybe I was mistaken.  Anyway, I’d say this is typical Star Wars fare.  I’ve read better and I’ve read worse.

Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn

This was another Star Wars novel.  The guys on my team at work recommended it.  I must not be that turned on by Star Wars.  For some reason I have yet to read a Star Wars novel that feels authentic to me.  I’m not sure what I mean by authentic.

Ringworld, Lary Niven

I spied this on the shelf at the library, and grabbed it.  It was a lot of fun, if you don’t think about it too much.  It’s a good read.  If you like science fiction classics, put it on your list.

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

This was probably the second-best book I’ve read this year.  It reads like a memoir.  This book is good more for its political commentary, and for the way it makes you think.  The main premise is this: what if in order to become a citizen of your country, or be able to serve in public office, you had to serve in the military and leave with an honorable discharge?  It’s a fascinating idea.  I don’t think the author intends to be taken completely seriously; rather, I think the author wants you to understand the military and the cost of freedom.  It was a really good book from that standpoint.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

I’ve read The Hobbit a lot, but this is the first time I really studied it.  I ran across a passage in the intro, by Peter S. Beagle (author of The Last Unicorn), where he points out how the story leaves you with a powerful feeling of nostalgia.  I remember that feeling the first time I read The Hobbit for the first time, exactly 30 years ago, in fact.  As I got to the end I felt a strong sense of loss, because the characters had been so real to me but I knew it was just a story.

So this time I re-read the story, and I underlined and bookmarked every part where I felt that sense of nostalgia.  And I think I’ve got it, or at least I can kind of see what it is that I’ve been yearning for in Fantasy for so long.  It’s the same reason why I like The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell.  I feel the same kind of nostalgia.

I could write a whole blog-post on what I’ve learned.  Maybe I should.

Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

This was a lot of good fun.  It wasn’t nearly as goofy as the title sounds.  I’ll read just about anything by Scalzi, he’s such a good humorist, and he delivers another solid story.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

This book is very much in the same vein as American Gods, which is probably everyone’s favorite Gaiman novel.  I love Gaiman’s sense of humor.  There aren’t a lot of authors with his kind of wit.

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This was a hilarious read.  Two of the very best humorists in fantasy team up and write about what would happen if the apocalypse came about, and then bungled, and then fell completely apart.  Put this one on your list.

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

Good spy novel.  A guy wakes up and has amnesia, and finds out that he’s really a world-famous international assassin…or so it would seem.  I think Ludlum was the one who gave birth to the whole waking-up-but-don’t-know-who-you-are trope.  If I hadn’t seen this overused a hundred times by his successors, I’d be more impressed.  Even still, I think this book is a great read.

The Sandman, book 1, Neil Gaiman

I’ve read a lot of Gaiman this year, haven’t I?  This is another story in the vein of American Gods and Anansi Boys, where the old gods (in this case, the Sandman) would cope in the modern world.  The Sandman has lost his powers.  The world is suffering, and he has to go on a magical adventure to get his powers back.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Medieval Gems for Writers: Manners in the Middle Ages

One of the more common myths about the middle ages was that people had no manners.  To illustrate, several years ago my wife and I attended a medieval style banquet at The Excalibur, in Las Vegas.  We ate whole chickens with our hands.  For drink I had a large tankard of root-beer.  We were told to throw our garbage on the floor or leave it on the tables.  It was fun, but it left me wondering how much of it was true.

Did people in the middle ages really eat like pigs?

Well it turns out that they didn’t, and there’s ample proof, too.  The diligent scholar can find lists of manners and customs from many different ages.  Apparently books on courtesy were popular during the later middle ages (I can just imagine being invited to the prince’s ball, or somesuch, and having to read up on how to behave myself).

The first two quotes in this blog post come from a book I ran across several years ago, online.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I’ve managed to find it again.  The book’s title is fairly long.  It starts out: Early English Meals and Mananers: John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, etc, etc, etc.  It’s a compilation of several works from a much earlier date.

If you’re feeling bold, you can find the book here.

The first section that I’ll quote is titled, The Boke of Curtasye.  It was printed circa 1460, at the height of the high Middle Ages (this is the time-period that most fantasy writers are interested in).  Both Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci would have been alive.  

The whole thing was written in Middle English, in the form of a poem, and was typeset in black-letter making it very difficult to read for anyone but the serious scholar. The text that I’ve quoted below is from a modern English translation, which can be found in the margins. Here are the first few lines, roughly translated:
Who so will of courtesy learn
In this book he may it here!
If thou be gentleman, yeoman, or knave,
Thou needs nurture for to have.
Not sure what any of that means. Apparently people have struggled more than 500 years to come up with good rhymes. Here is the margin translation:
On reaching a Lord's gate, give the Porter your weapon, and ask leave to go in.
If the master is of low degree, he will come to you; if of high, the Porter will take you to him.
At the Hall-door, take off your hood and gloves.
If the first meal is beginning, greet the Steward, bow to the Gentlemen on each side of the hall, both right and left; notice the yeomen, than stand before the screen till the Marshal or Usher leads you to the table.
Be sedate and courteous if you are set with the gentleman.
Cut your loaf in two, the top from the bottom; cut the top crust in 4, and the bottom in 3.
Put your trencher before you, and don't eat or drink till your Mess is brought from the kitchen, lest you be thought starved or a glutton.
Have your nails clean.
Don't bite your bread, but break it.
Don't quarrel at table, or make grimaces.
Don't cram your cheeks out with food like an ape, for if any one should speak to you, you can't answer, but must wait.
Don't eat on both sides of your mouth.
Don't laugh with your mouth full, or sup up your potage noisily.
Don't leave your spoon in the dish or on its side, but clean your spoon.
Let no dirt off your fingers soil the cloth.
Don't put into the dish bread that you have once bitten.
Dry your mouth before you drink.
Don't call for a dish once removed, or spit on the table: that's rude.
Don't scratch your dog.
If you blow your nose, clean your hand; wipe it with your skirt or put it through your tippet.
Don't pick your teeth at meals, or drink with food in your mouth, as you may get choked, or killed, by its stopping your wind.
Tell no tale to harm or shame your companions.
Don't stroke the cat or dog.
Don't dirty the table cloth with your knife.
Don't blow on your food, or put your knife in your mouth, or wipe your teeth or eyes with the table cloth.
If you sit by a good man, don't put your knee under his thigh.
Don't hand your cup to any one with your back towards him.
Don't lean on your elbow, or dip your thumb into your drink, or your food into the salt cellar: Thant is a vice.
Don't spit in the basin you wash in or loosely(?) before a man of God.
This list is amazing. Don’t cram your mouth like an ape. Don’t double-dip. Don’t pick your teeth. Don’t get the table cloth dirty. You can’t even put your elbows on the table (makes sense if you’ve ever been crammed in next to someone who does). My favorite is, don’t put your knee under someone else’s thigh—that would make anyone uncomfortable.

The second list that I’ll quote comes from the same compilation. This section is titled, On Rising, Diet, and Going to Bed (from Sir John Darington’s ‘Schoole of Salerne,’ The Perserbation of Health, or a Dyet for the Healthfull Man). It is dated 1624, which places it in that grey area between the high middle ages and the renaissance.
On rising, empty your bladder and belly, nose and lungs.
Cleanse your whole body.
Say your Prayers.
Walk gently, go to stool.
Work in the forenoon.
Always wear a precious stone in a ring; hold a crystal in your mouth; for the virtue of precious stones is great.
Eat only twice a day.
Don't drink between dinner and supper.
Don't have one fixed hour for your meals.
In Winter eat in hot, well-aired places.
Fast for a day now and then.
Eat more at supper than dinner.
After meals, wash your face, and clean your teeth, chat and walk soberly.
Don't sit up late.
Before bed, rub your body gently.
Undress by a fire in Winter, and warm your garments well.
Put off your cares with your clothes, and take them up again in the morning.
Finally, I have to mention The Babees’ Book or A Little Report of How Young People Should Behave. This work dates to about 1475. It is several pages long, and written in a patronizing style as if the reader were a young child (a “babee”, as it were). I’ll include a portion of it here, so you get the idea:
Now must I tell you shortly what you shall do at noon when your lord goes to his meat. Be ready to fetch him clear water, and some of you hold the towel for him until he has done, and leave not until he be set down, and ye have heard grace said. Stand before him until he bids you sit, and be always ready to serve him with clean hands.
When ye be set, keep your own knife clean and sharp, that so ye may carve honestly your own meat.
Let courtesy and silence dwell with you, and tell no foul tales to another.
Cut your bread with your knife and break it not. Lay a clean trencher before you, and when your pottage is brought, take your spoon and eat quietly; and do not leave your spoon in the dish, I pray you.
Look ye be not caught leaning on the table, and keep clear of soiling the cloth.
Do not hang your head over your dish, or in any wise drink with full mouth.
Keep from picking your nose, your teeth, your nails at meal-time so we are taught.
Advise you against taking so much meat into your mouth but that ye may right well answer when men speak to you.
When ye shall drink, wipe your mouth clean with a cloth, and your hands also, so that you shall not in any way soil the cup, for then shall none of your companions be loath to drink with you.
Likewise, do not touch the salt in the salt-cellar with any meat; but lay salt honestly on your trencher, for that is courtesy.
Do not carry your knife to your mouth with food, or hold the meat with your hands in any wise; and also if divers good meats are brought to you, look that with all courtesy ye assay of each; and if your dish be taken away with its meat and another brought, courtesy demands that ye shall let it go and not ask for it back again.
And if strangers be set at table with you, and savoury meat be brought or sent to you, make them good cheer with part of it, for certainly it is not polite when others be present at meat with you, to keep all that is brought you, and like churls vouchsafe nothing to others.
Do not cut your meat like field-men who have such an appetite that they reck [sic] not in what wise, where or when or how ungoodly they hack at their meat; but, sweet children, have always your delight in courtesy and in gentleness, and eschew boisterousness with all your might.
When cheese is brought, have a clean trencher, on which with a clean knife ye may cut it; and in your feeding look ye appear goodly, and keep your tongue from jangling, for so indeed shall ye deserve a name for gentleness and good governance, and always advance yourself in virtue.
When the end of the meal is come, clean your knives, and look you put them up where they ought to be, and keep your seat until you have washed, for so wills honesty.
When ye have done, look then that ye rise up without laughter or joking or boisterous word, and go to your lord s table, and there stand, and pass not from him until grace be said and brought to an end.