Saturday, September 22, 2012

Day 6: French

Wwhere the hell did all my time go? I have been super busy with work and guests, and since the husband has finished his dissertation, with hanging out with him, but I have finally found time to post! Hooray!

The weather here keeps going back and forth from really sunny to really rainy; a bit annoying in the long run as I still need to buy an umbrella that is also wind proof. Matt and I walked into Shipley today (a little hamlet just down the main road) to go to the market and for the first time since April I was regretting wearing just sandals. It isn't cold enough to turn the heat on yet, but it was definately cold enough for me to start wearing proper shoes. Noooo! Have I ever mentioned my undying hatred for socks? They're like tiny prisons for your feet! I do love to knit them, though.

Anyway, in my attempt to find something new to learn, I came across this post on Lifehacker talking about learning languages. The guy who wrote the article is an opera singer (something I one day aspire to [ya right]) and he has learned four languages with this particular method. I decided to give it a try and see if I liked it or if it needed some tweaking for my own sake.

I decided to start with French because, as a Canadian, it is supposed to be one of my native tongues. Canadian children are subjected to French language lessons from age seven up to age sixteen. This is SUPPOSED to teach those of us whose first language is English how to speak the second official language of our country.

Needless to say, it doesn't really work.

Sure, I have a few friends who are decently fluent in French, and one who went the immersion route and now is a French teacher herself, but for the majority of Canadians it is a nightmare. We sit in class, bored and terrified by turns as the teacher calls on us to answer some random question we have no idea the answer to. It is a waste of time, in the long run, unless you have that fleeting rarity of a competent teacher who knows how to make it interesting, challenging, and fun. I only had one of those, and sadly had to leave Mme. Stringer behind in Ontario in the tiny town I lived in. She was amazing!

Anyway, the first step to this process as described in the article was to understand how sound is produced in general. With that in mind, I checked out this video:

I think I watched it like five or six times just because it was so fascinating to me to concentrate on where the sounds were actually sitting in the mouth. I'm used to knowing where sound in general comes from; as a singer, I recognize where to place the sound in my own mouth to get the best depth and breadth of sound while still retaining recognizable words. However, this video introduced the new (to me) concept of where you place things inside your mouth in order to produce the sounds for the English language, as well as how the muscles in your mouth facilitate that. It's so cool! Mostly because you don't tend to think about it when you're actually speaking. You just speak and the words come out. This has actually helped me a bit with accents as well, since I now understand where the words are placed in the mouth and I can watch people's mouths and thereby understand them better.

That sounded a bit creepy, which was not my intention. Oops. Also, not a big help on the phone.

The second and third videos in that serious are equally neat, but you can find them at the link. He also produced a video entirely about French pronounciation, as seen here, but it's not entirely useful to me, mostly because it's pretty much everything I already know about French pronuniation.

The next step is to put together a list of 400 base words and learn them basically by rote. The original tutorial has a link to the Anki program, which is pretty useful and amazing and, while I'm still working on this as it is hard to memorize 400 new words and I have a terrible memory anyway, it is helping tremendously. You couple these words with pictures of what they are in order to make they associations in your mind. This is the no English allowed section of the learning process.

At this stage you will be increasing these base words weekly in order to provide yourself with more challenges and force your brain to make the associations in the other language. This is the part that is proving the most difficult for me. It is also at this point that you should start including reading, writing, and television shows in the new language to increase your vocabulary and understanding. Putting all this together is a bit crazy, but I'm trying to be diligent about it. Finding the time, however, is the most difficult!

And that's where I run into problems. I think I'm going to need a conversational partner to keep this up with, someone who knows both languages and is willing to put up with some horrible French. The author also suggests spending 7 weeks totally immersed in the country of origin for your chosen language, but who the hell can cut themselves off completely to go touring around France for 7 weeks? I mean, sure, if I was rich or had rich parents, but that's a bit silly for those of us with modest means who like the gleen all their information from the internet. So I will have to find someone to speak to.

In the long run, I think this method has promise, it's just trying to find the time and attention to making it work. This is another ongoing learning thing, and I will be coming back to it in a few weeks for an update.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 5: Neolithic Pottery

Have you seen the weather forcast for around here? It should basically just say, "Holy shit what are you doing outside?! It is going to fucking RAIN fucking BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS. Oh, and thunder and lightening and RAIN, bitches, RAIN!"

Ya, turns out I need something better than a hat to protect myself from the torrential downpours that happen around here. Apparently, it rained a month's worth of rain in less than 24 hours. A MONTH'S WORTH OF RAIN. That's pretty impressive, even for England. I actually went for a walk about an hour ago, came inside, sat down at my computer and looked outside. And it was POURING. How did I dodge that bullet?

Anyway, check out the pics from The Guardian and this other article about how horrific it is.

What was I going to talk about? Oh right, neolithic pottery. A couple of months ago, when my husband was still trying to figure out exactly how to make his experiment work, one of the amazing people we've met here, Mike, offered to let us come over to his place and make replica neolithic pots. I didn't have anything better to do, so I thought why not? This should be hilarious as we academics try our hands at artistic things. So, Matt and I, and our Greek friend Marina, took the train to Skipton and headed over to Mike's to sculpt clay into some form of vessel.

I should point out that only Mike and Marina had any idea what they were doing. And it was frigidly cold out, so with the wind whipping around us, trying to stand in the only sunny spot in the garden, we shivered our way through forming this greenish grey clay into something resembling a neolithic pot.

It was so much frickin' fun.

Here we are, shaping some greenware clay dug from Mike's mum's garden into pots. As you can see, I have no idea what I'm doing.

Here is Marina, telling me how I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm kidding, but look at her awesome bowl! Basically, you had to take a chunk of the clay, work in some temper (either other crushed up pots (grog) or sandstone that had been ground really fine), and use your hands and some water to mold it into whatever shape you fancied.

One of Matt shaping his bowl. There were a few books Mike had (one in Danish) that had lots of pictures of ancient bowls and beakers that we were trying to imitate.

Look at how lovely they are!

So we actually had to leave them for a couple of weeks in order that they completely dry out, and seeing as how it had started to rain by the time we were done, and the humidity sits at around 80-95% here, it's usually a good idea to leave pottery for a month or more to make sure all of the moisture has evaporated. The ones with the neat designs are Mike's, and the more simpler ones are mine and Matt's. I didn't want to decorate it too much, as this was my first try making pots and I wanted to get the technique down. Matt also put a square handle on one of his to see if the technique he figured out would actually allow the handle to stick on during firing. Mike fed us an awesome lunch and we headed home.

A couple weeks later we came back for the firing.

Here's our lovely host standing over the brazier. Mike and Matt were in charge of feeding planks of wood into the brazier in order to keep the temperature relatively constant.

Inside, you can just make out our pots. Unfortunately, because of a variety of factors, most of them broke when they where fired. Only Matt's square bowl and one of Mike's cups survived the whole process and was usable. We conjectued about whether it was the raised brazier, or the wind, or the length of time they were left in the fire, or how much or what kind of temper we put into them. It was a bit sad, but definately a learning experience. Plus, it was tonnes of fun actively trying to replicate something that people were making thousands of years ago.

Mike's awesomely decorated mug. He waxed the inside with beeswax and now it's water-tight.

I hear he's using it for beer now.

Matt went back a few weeks later to give it another try and came away with this lovely beaker. He's probably going to send it to his mum. :)

This was such a neat experience. I'd never really thought of the process of making these types of pots, even though I'd been to several lectures on them and knew a bit about them from Matt blabbing on and on about his thesis. I would definately recommend this book and this other book for some pretty pictures of what neolithic pots are supposed to look like. The Ancient Technology Centre did the same thing on a larger scale. Oh, and this website for how the ratio of temper to clay is supposed to work and why. It also has step by step instructions on putting it into your clay.

Thanks so much to Mike (and Claire!) for inviting us into your home and for these awesome photos.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day 4: Yellowstone Supervolcano

There is this thing that happens every so often to me and I loathe it. Not like, just dislike it because it is irritating, I hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. And that thing is being sick. It is the worst feeling in the world. Your throat hurts, your muscles ache, and your head feels like a giant marshmallow except that instead of leaking delicious sugary fluids, it leaks water and mucus.

If my head leaked sugary fluids, I could probably make a living as a freak show attraction and that would be bad ass.

Anyway, the point is I am stuck inside on perhaps the most lovely weekend I have seen so far in England, and it is making me as irritable as this cold is making me lethargic. To that end, I have yelled at my mobile twice now because it is beeping at me telling me it needs to be charged, but I am too lazy to get up and plug it in. Shut up you stupid thing I know what you need!

Anyway anyway, this inevitably leads me to surf the net much more than I usually do, which is quite a lot. And I was reading comics, most notably this one and suddenly remembered I have a blog I could be writing and complaining about how sick I am and so forth. However, I was at the same time reading Wikipedia, playing the Wikipedia game, as you do, and started reading about Yellowstone National Park and the fact that it has a supervolcano underneath it.

Supervolcano? Holy shit what is that?

It is a massive caldera that, according to Wikipedia, is "capable of producing a volcanic eruption with an ejecta volume greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles)". The USGS states that it is referred to as a category 8 on the Volcanic explosivity Index, which is the most ridiculously awesome name for an index ever. They can produce such a massive explosion that the ejecta would blot out the sun, not just for days, or months but YEARS of time. There is some conjecture that this is what caused mass extinctions in the past. And there are six of them.

A while back there was a BBC docudrama (what a terrible word) that conjectured what would happen if the one at Yellowstone erupted. It was interesting and because I am terrified of end of the world occurrences, I of course watched it. It was heavy on the drama, but had an ominous narrator telling us how everything would work. Pretty scary stuff. But how much of it was real?

There's a pretty informative article written by the USGS answering questions that arose from that movie, and it basically states that while most of the information is correct (!) but that there is only a 0.00014% chance of a catastophic eruption like the one that happens in the film. They go on to patiently explain how there are advances in technology that allow them to monitor and predict when an eruption can occur weeks or months ahead of time. It does a good job of allaying the fears of the general public, which is good. The BBC website goes into a lot of fearmongering, explaining how this little-known terror has slept under the earth's crust for the last 640,000 years and that it is long overdue for another explosion! Scientist don't understand how dangerous it is! From the article, "And the sleeping giant is breathing: volcanologists have been tracking the movement of magma under the park and have calculated that in parts of Yellowstone the ground has risen over seventy centimetres this century." That's probably my favourite line.

So the USGS says that there's little chance of it erupting in so devastating and spectacular a way and the BBC says watch out! We're in for it soon... SOON! However, when reading more recent articles, as those are both dated to the 2005 era, it's been noted that in 2008 "the land surface within the caldera moved upwards as much as 8 inches (20 cm) at the White Lake GPS station", but has slowed over the last few years and does not appear to be about to explode, at least according to the USGS, who I am willing to believe in this instance.

In the end, I must be reminded that there are five more of these potentially world-ending volcanos all around the world. Oh my.

For now, I'll have to keep an eye on the one close to my home province and hope it doesn't blow up anytime soon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Day 3: No-Knead Bread

Bread. So good, so lovely, so filling! And it goes with anything. Cheese, jam, veggies, meats, soups, stews, even pasta. It's a versatile companion to a huge variety of foods and I love it, with its hard outer crust and its pillowy soft interior. Om nom nom...

However, I have always wanted to figure out how to make bread in a manner that doesn't involve a huge amount of effort, but still gives me a lovely loaf. My husband makes a FANTASTIC loaf already, adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice but I wanted something I could whip up when he's busy. Like right now, for instance, when he's left me a Widow while he finishes his assignments for the semester. After trawling the internet, I finally found a recipe that works for me and produces a decent result. I mean, it's obviously not perfect yet, but I'm working on it and the next one should be better. I wish I'd taken more in-progress pictures, but here is the recipe and the finished project.


500g flour (I used about 350 Strong White and 150 Strong Wholemeal)
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
10ml salt (I know this seems like a lot, but it IS needed)
330g warm water (according to the original author of this recipe [SA forum user therattle] this is a 66% hydration)

1. Stir dry ingredients together in large bowl until they are thourghly mixed.
2. Add water and mix together.
3. Cover with cling film and put in a warmish spot for 12-16 hours.
4. Scrap down sides of bowl with a spatula, dump out onto floured work surface. Dust flour over top of dough ball.
5. Grasp the side of the dough and pull it out, stretching it a bit before pulling it onto the top of the ball. Do this all the way around, then flip the ball over so that the "seam" is on the bottom and the smooth underside is now the top.
6. Oil a piece of cling film and lay it on top of the loaf. Let it sit. It should double in size (takes about 1.25 hours).
7. Just before the time is up, heat your oven to 230C. Put a shallow pan in the bottom rack. Place your dough on a tray (one that you have preferrably covered in cornmeal and not parchment paper like I did). Dump about 2 cups of warm water in the shallow pan before putting the tray containing the loaf in the centre rack of the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 190C and bake for 15 more.
8. Take loaf out of the oven and place on a wire rack to cool, for at least 30 minutes, before devouring.

Here is the finished product!

And here is why you don't use parchment paper, thinking, oh it totally won't stick, I have never had that problem in the past (yes I have):

That's the bottom of my loaf. So sad!

Some notes about this whole process that I should include are that the hydration thing made no sense to me, so I read through this website and this one and now have a rudimentary understanding of how it all works. I'm no expert (obviously) and I don't plan on becoming some artisional baker, but there are A LOT of slight differences in water and protein levels that can change texture, appearance, even how it tastes. I will definately be experimenting with those in the future. For now, I have learned a valuable lesson about what not to use parchment paper for and that I can make a decent loaf of bread with little effort and lots of patience.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Day 2: Drop Spindle Spinning

Having drooled over all the beautiful handmade yarns available on Etsy, I made a decision a while back that I would learn to spin my own yarn. I looked into buying a spinning wheel because that seemed the best way to go about it.

Ha ha, what was I thinking? While lovely, and functional, and amazing in terms of producing yarn, spinning wheels are so SO expensive! Even the really neat ones made out of PVC piping are pricey. Time to look for a cheaper alternative!

I had heard of drop spinning from my sis-in-law and thought that maybe that may be for me. A simple little dowel and wheel thingy with a hook at one end, and the spinning mechanism was controlled by hand, which meant that there would definately be a learning curve, but it wouldn't be anything I couldn't handle. So I went ahead and ordered one from a local(ish) supplier from Wales, Hilltop Cloud. Looks neat, right? Some of the wool roving is really cool because it comes from a type of sheep that spends part of its life eating seaweed and is called the North Ronaldsay Sheep. It's apparently pretty difficult to get a hold of any outside of the Orkney area, so I felt particularly lucky.

The first step is always Youtube. The lady I ordered the kit from had some good instructions, but not nearly enough pictures, and as I am a very visual learner, I decided Youtube would probably be a good way to learn. So many options! I decided on a couple of videos like this one:

And this:

The lady doing the videos is very knowledgable and they were easy to follow, although the reality of it is that she makes it look super easy, and it takes a bit of practice to actually get going to where she is. I spent a lot of that first day dropping the damn spindle and getting frustrated when I couldn't get it to spin properly. Two and half hours later, I was starting to get the hang of it, but my arm was so sore I couldn't feel my fingers. But I had turned this:

Into this:

Not bad for a first try, right? Now I just have to finish spinning the rest and ply it together. Ya, let's see how that goes!

I also headed into York a couple of weeks ago to take a spinning class at Grace & Jacob to not only see what other people were using, but to make sure I was doing it right. Turned out I'm not too shabby. Practice makes (reasonably) perfect, I suppose. There's another class next Saturday I'm going to try for, depending on time and job, and life (of course) where I hope I can learn to ply properly. That store is really gorgeous by the way; wish I had a sewing machine to take advantage of all the fabric! Someday, I'm sure.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Day 1: Driving

It has been seven months since I last drove a car. I consider myself a relatively good driver; I've never had an accident (aside from the time the wind whipped the door out of my hand and into a post) and there has not been a time (since I attained my full license) that I've felt unsafe, or my passengers have felt unsafe. That said, this has all been on a car with an automatic transmission. I did learn to drive on a standard (or manual) transmission, but that was quite a few years ago. Here in the UK, there are far fewer automatics and far more standards, and last night I terrified not only myself, but my passengers. It was not a good feeling.

Let me back up a bit.

When I decided to move to the UK to follow my husband on his adventure to university, I gave up my car, my one true freedom. I really, really liked having a car. It gave me the ability to go just about anywhere I wanted and also allowed me to see more of the city I lived in and the Island I lived on. While I try not to be materialistic, that car was AWESOME. A red Toyota Yaris sedan that I named Cinnamon. Not really a get up and go vehicle, but definately a point A to point B with a stop at C, D, and E. Oh and the trunk (or boot to those in my adopted country) was huge. I used to joke about how you could fit two sets of golf clubs or a body in there.

Anyway, nostalgia aside, I asked one of my friends to give me driving lessons a few weeks ago so that I could experience that freedom again. The not having to worry about when the last train or bus leaves so I can get home on time type of freedom. So, out of the kindness of her heart, and with what I assume is a sense of cheerful foreboding, she started to teach me. Two days ago. I have never felt so incompetent.

I had been driving for five years up to this point, and felt pretty confident behind the wheel. But now? I have to learn all over again how to simply drive a car. Where the headlights are. How to turn on the windshield wipers. Which pedals to use and in which order. It is a nightmare. I couldn't sleep last night because I was obsessing over two major problems I had last night:

1. Tried to turn the car onto a semi-major road, stalled several times, blocked an intersection, and found out I was trying to drive in third gear. All while being honked at, driven around, and generally left to feel miserable.

2. Also tried turning the car onto a road, from a hill, stalling several times, and then when I got the car going, nearly killing everyone because someone was coming the other way.

There is definately some more learning to be done here, but my confidence is a bit frayed at the edges now. I am hoping that with practice I will get better, but it seems like everyone is out to run me over or drive around me. Where is the patience for new drivers in this town? I can't imagine doing this at the age of sixteen.