“Eustace Clarence Scrubb, or as we like to call him: Useless Clarence Scrubb”

click to go to the tumblr where I found this image

I used to think I was the only one who did this.

I almost always smell a book before reading it.  Old books, new books, shiny-paged books: you can tell them apart by their scent.  Really old books contain more than just that familiar old book smell though; the fungi that grow on such books are likely a source of hallucinogens.  So crazy old academics?  Maybe they’ve just spent a little too much time in the library.

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard the above (the link is just from a quick google search to make sure I hadn’t made the fact up).  When I first began thinking about writing this essay, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what I would define as ‘useless’ knowledge.  Isn’t all knowledge valuable in some way?  Isn’t it always useful?  After all, the fact above is interesting and affords me some sense of pleasure in knowing and relating the information.  This is still a use, if not a particularly great one.  Therein lies the key to my dilemma.

According to certain youtube sources one can define knowledge as either informational or educational.  The former is a collection of facts that may give you an understanding of a very small aspect of some broader subject.  While it would take a lifetime and more to understand any subject completely, educational – or ‘useful’ – knowledge provides the context for that information such that one can comprehend a the subject complexly.  Maybe this is obvious to you, but at first it wasn’t to me.

For instance, my recent obsession with Korean dramas means that I know (roughly) how to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’ in Korean, but lacking an understanding of pronunciation, grammar or any other vocabulary I can’t actually use that knowledge to speak to a Korean.  It’s useless in a real-world setting.

This is a from a drama called 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (weirdly translated), and one of the best I've seen.

Korean dramas fulfill my desire for cheesy romance founded on extremely unlikely yet hilarious (and sometimes, ok pretty much always, really angsty) plotlines.

As I said before, useless knowledge often offers hints to the whole.  I know that the word ‘evil’ used to mean ‘uppity’ and ‘nice’ meant ‘mean’.  If I knew nothing else about historical linguistics, I would understand from this fact that language changes over time.  I wouldn’t understand how it changes, why it changes, or why this is significant, but perhaps simply being interested in this fact would prompt me to seek out its background.  Even if it doesn’t, I know more about language than I did before.

I was in Tech I this past semester.  I loved it.  Especially the Newton project.  A lot of the things I learned about Newton during the project would be categorized as useless knowledge.  It’s not really important to know that he and Hooke disliked each other, or that he was not very nice to Leibnitz.  But Newton seems less like a historical figure and more like an actual person to me now.  Consequently, his discoveries and work hold more interest (for me).

I think the danger of informational knowledge is that you may begin to think you understand something totally when you really only know a very little bit about that subject.  The internet is rife with examples of such people.  And, in writing this essay, I think I’m beginning understand the idea that the more you know the less you actually know…maybe.

NB: The name of this post is a quotation from some children I know.  It has to do with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  It doesn’t totally make sense for this post, but I don’t really care.

I understand everything.

I don’t know if I really understand this topic better than others, but I think that I find it more interesting than some people.  I certainly do it more than a lot of people.  And really, I understand this particular essay as an opportunity to write about something I’ve often thought about and, yes, have written essays about in my head when I’ve been bored.

This year I probably baked more bread than I bought.  Although I was already somewhat experienced in bread-baking, I didn’t really start to love it until this year.  I found I did some of my best thinking while kneading a loaf of bread.  But the best part by far is the science behind it.  I’m more of an artsy Arts and Science student, so my understanding isn’t really that technical; even though I know the basic idea behind what’s happening, it still always seems a little bit like magic.

While the bread rises, the yeast feeds on the sugars in the dough and releases carbon dioxide as waste.  By kneading the dough, one develops the glutens; which is to say that the protein structure of the bread is altered.  The proteins join together and lengthen the dough, creating an elastic dough which expands to contain the carbon dioxide rather than allowing it escape.  Thus bread is made of yeast-burps (or farts, and I can’t believe I was brave enough to ‘publish’ that).

To get to that point, there is some voodoo involved.  Rarely do recipes give an exact flour amount, rather they give a range of something like 3-4 cups (for a single-loaf recipe).  Cup measurements are often eschewed in the professional baking world, since weight measurements are more consistently the same.  Thus three cups may be enough one day, and another day four may be necessary.  Temperature and humidity can also affect the amount of flour needed.  Other inexact terminology such as ‘lukewarm water’ may be used, but now recipes will often provide a temperature.  I think 110 degrees F is appropriate although I don’t know for sure, I usually feel it with my index finger.

Rising time of the dough is less dependent on the baker, and more on the ingredients and atmosphere.  Heat and sugar encourage yeast growth, while salt and fat inhibit rising.  The more intense bread bakers say that slow-rise breads are superior to quick rise.  Slow risen-breads are often made using a colder temperature at rise, and/or a pre-ferment such as a poolish.  Depending on your preference, forcing the yeast to work at a slower pace either changes or enhances the flavour of the final product.  Think sourdough: a classic pre-ferment which has a distinctly different flavour from other breads.  Myself, I like to make slow rise breads for the challenge, but I’m not always patient enough to commit to the multiple-day process.

bread must rise again...just like Jesus

Earlier this year, I attempted to bake sourdough bread for the second time in my life.  The first wasn’t a total failure, nor a complete success.  Still, of all the breads that I have made, sourdough is probably the coolest.  Essentially a starter of flour and water is used to catch wild yeast in the air.  For about a week one feeds the starter more flour and water so the yeast colony grows large enough to be made into bread.  It’s like having a pet.  It’s also like growing bacteria in petrie dishes.  Something my 9-year-old self found very intriguing.  The most fascinating thing about this process is that in different regions of the world there are different kinds of wild yeast living in the air.  This means that depending on where the starter is made, the taste will vary accordingly.  So San Francisco sourdough is really only the true thing if it was made in San Francisco.

I could go on and on about the different types of bread and methods of making it, and the pros and cons of each.  But I won’t.  I will say (write?) that despite its imprecise ingredient list, bread is not that difficult to make successfully.  Certainly, beginners should start simple, such as with this recipe from Betty Crocker, but most new skill sets must be learnt from the bottom up.  And in this case, I have to say the reward of fresh, warm bread from the oven really outweighs any hard work or failure along the way.

finished product

Two Things

Thing #1:

I’m way behind on this essay-a-week thing.  I promise to be all caught up by Monday at midnight (according to the central time zone, ’cause that’s the one I live in).  Maybe no one else cares that I’m late, but I do.  By posting this, I’ll feel more obligated to actually post essays 3 and 4.  That’s the theory anyway.

Thing #2:

Found this on the interwebs today, loved it, wanted to share it.

“Great final papers are born of adrenaline and stink of desperation. Great final papers are the things you create because you don’t have quite enough time to fake your own death.”

Found via tumblr, originally from Maureen Johnson’s blog (a YA author whose books I have not read, but have heard of).

Excuses, excuses

I was going to write and post the third essay today, but then I bought this.

Needless to say, I will not be writing an essay today.

(All rhyming in this post was unintentional)

Essay the Second

I had a difficult time thinking of a topic.  There are plenty of things I don’t understand and am not smart enough to understand, but I either didn’t want to write an essay on that topic, or in writing about it I lost the desire to finish the essay.  The only topic I actually liked all the way to the end is more of a something-I-used-to-not-understand-but-during-the-past-year-began-to-understand sort of topic.  So that’s what this is about, something I used to not understand, and didn’t want to understand, but am now beginning to appreciate.

I don’t read as much as I used to.  I wish I did, but TV all too often pulls me away from books.  When I do read, I tend to gravitate toward the Young Adult genre.  I also read children’s fiction, some non-fiction (Bill Bryson’s non-travel books, travel books, food-related travel books) and the occasional adult novel.  Notably missing from my list of favourite genres are classics*.

When I was about 12, I decided I should begin reading Literature**.  I was smart in comparison to my classmates, and as such felt I had to live up to that image.  I began with Oliver Twist, because in my mind Dickens was THE classic author.  It took me the whole summer to read the book and I hated every minute of it, but I persevered and finished the book.  The same thing happened again and again whether I read the book for ‘pleasure’ or for school.

I often thought that critical evaluation of novels was extremely pretentious.  Half the meaning gleaned from the works was, in my opinion, complete nonsense since it seemed to go way beyond the author’s intent.  Until this past year.  It was Lit that changed my mind.  Through the lectures and writing the essays, I found that critical evaluation of Literature is valuable, even if the interpretation of the reader is not exactly what the author intended.  Because I’m being lazy, watch this excellent video, since its exactly what I planned to say.

This is not to say that I’ve suddenly discovered that I like classics.  Sure there are a few that I do like, but I still find them generally boring to read.  I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but I’d sooner read Twilight than, say, Great Expectations.  The book may be awful, but it’s still entertaining, if only for its ridiculousness (I will never get over the fact that the vampires sparkle.  Really Stephanie Meyer?  Really?!).  What is different is that I now understand the value of critical reading. Since this is a method I have more often found applied to the study of classics than other genres, it means I have also also found meaning in reading classics.  I guess all that’s left to say is: well played Browning, well played.

*A broad category, I guess, but you know what I mean right?
**For those that aren’t Terry Pratchett fans, I’m talking about sophisticated novels that instantly confer 100 smarty-pants points on anybody who reads them.

Who I am: Awesome McAwesomePants

Yeah, that’s right.  I think I’m awesome.  Actually, no.  This essay was difficult to write precisely because I don’t think I’m that great (at least, I don’t think I’m particularly great at writing or singing, but I do like to think I’m intelligent, in an average sort of way).  Luckily, I woke up with some sort of gastrointestinal bug yesterday, so I had a perfect reason to procrastinate even more on writing this thing.  But I’ve finally finished it, because I said I’d write all of these essays.

When I think about who I am, or who any person is, I think of personality.  Specifically personality tests.  I like personality tests.  The most sophisticated personality test (holy repeated phrase Batman!) I ever took was the Myers-Briggs.  For those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs is as serious as personality tests get.  In order to have an ‘accurate’ solution, it has to be administered and marked by a trained individual.  Your personality designation is a set of four letters, each of which is one of two possibilities for a total of 16 possible personality types.  I’m sorry if that description confused you, wikipedia can explain it more fully.

What am I? INTJ, which in its long form is: introverted, intuitive, thinking and judging. I’m not going to describe the meaning of each aspect in detail, but broadly INTJs are big picture thinkers – planners – for whom logic is much more important than emotions in decision-making.  They live inside their heads.  They are also fairly confident in their personal abilities, yet fully aware of where their limits lie.  INTJs often seem reserved and aloof to others because they are very private people.  Hence why writing this essay is such a painful exercise for me.

Mr. Darcy: likely an INTJ as well.

This description of me is fairly accurate.  But here’s the thing: personality tests really only measure how a person will act in a certain situation.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article on this once, where he essentially said that personality is fluid.  Our personalities change with our surroundings and are influenced by whom (who?) we are interacting with.  Gladwell quotes one psychologist, Timothy D. Wilson, who explains this difficulty as a disconnect between our concept of self and our unconscious self.  The unconscious aspect of personality is laid down in childhood by genetics and setting (good ol’ nature and nurture), and makes itself known in snap decisions, while calculated behaviours are a manifestation of our concept of self.  So the description of an INTJ only tells you how I understand myself.

While my concept of self may tell you a lot about who I am, it won’t allow you to confidently predict my actions.  Tests like the Myers-Briggs assume that people are one-dimensional, that they are either one thing or another.  But this is obviously not true.  I am categorized as a judging personality because I like to plan my day/month and derive a sense of comfort from that.  But I am partially a perceiver as well, because I like to delay decisions and leave my options open (which is totally my reasoning behind choosing artsci).  Perhaps on the day of the test I was in more of a judging mood, or perhaps I’ve changed since then.  All I know is, no one can be defined so simply.

I often find incorrect results more interesting than correct results.  They are hilarious, fascinating and sometimes downright puzzling.  What would you think of me if the only things you knew were that my best celebrity matches were David Schwimmer, Topher Grace and David Hasselhoff?  Add to that the knowledge that the movie I am best suited to be in is apparently Fight Club and you get an interesting, but likely inaccurate, idea of who I am.

My soulmate?

So I guess my answer to the question who am I? is that it depends.  If you keep reading my essays, you’ll get to know my blog self.  Since I’ve never had a blog before, I suppose I’ll be getting to know my blog self as well.  A self who apparently has much difficulty ending essays, so just pretend I wrote something witty and insightful to wrap this thing up.