Useless skills and trivia save the day

This post is a bit long, but bear with me here. I'm trying to make a point. Whenever I learn a new skill or any time I glean another piece of trivia, no matter how petty and insignificant, I immediately conjure a situation where using this, I save the day. Yes, I know there is an XKCD about this “using perl” (, but I had this thing way before that, possibly before the XKCD guy was born. He may have even copied it from this very post… I mean, It’s possible…

The Soliloquy

The story begins, once upon a time during my postpartum depression (from ex-girlfriend), when I chanced upon a curious set of circumstances trying to get my act together. It's a long story, which I may tell one day, but at the end of the adventure, apart from being detained for sneaking into a nuclear facility and branded with a red hot iron, I had learned Hamlet’s famous soliloquy ("To be to not to be"), by heart. It too was singed into my memory and I remember it, God knows why, to this day. And since this definitely counts as a useless piece of trivia, my psyche naturally imagines how this may be of service to me. And this is what it came up with:

The Start-up – I’m pitching my start-up idea to a group of investors. It’s just me and the other founder of the company. I don’t know why he is needed, I guess I can’t imagine building a company by myself. It’s a large office, empty save for 3 seats that the well-dressed investors are sitting in. There is a white board to my side with stuff scribbled on it. Too bad I can’t see what’s written there or I would know which company to found. We (my co-founder and I) are under-dressed and under pressure. We’re not getting to them and this is our last chance. I’m pitching my final idea, confidently, enthusiastically, and I ask them “is it (the financing) to be or not to be?” I look at their faces and… nothing… not a twitch, not a single nod from the investor’s direction. The situation is dire. A silence spreads through the room, filling in the void left by the last echoes of my voice. Somebody coughs. And then the head investor speaks.

He’s in his mid-60’s, broad forehead, white hair, tanned, formidable. He turns to me and says “You kids think you have it all worked out don’t you? Well, your idea is nice, it really is (again, no reference to the idea and I’m left in the dark regarding this company I’m supposed to invent). And it may actually work, but then again, it may not.” (in some versions he has a slight southern drawl though it does not fit the profile). I'm exchanging glances with my partner; where is he going with this? He’s not sure either. “Is it to be or not to be you ask? I wonder, do you even know where that line comes from?” It just happens I do. “Hamlet, of course”. He’s not impressed. “Indeed, Hamlet. I’m quite a Shakespeare fan myself you know (I did not, why would I?). And though I’m not inclined to pass any of our money your way (shit), I’m willing to reconsider if you would kindly quote a bit more from that famous passage to me”. Now, since this whole fantasy is built around this moment, naturally, I’m not surprised he asked. And yet, I looked shocked because my character in the fantasy should not have known this was coming. How would he? So I’m looking surprised and this pleases the investor which pleases me, the one dreaming this improbable situation, not the guy playing me, which is not having any fun, at the moment. And so I answer: “Are you serious? If I quote the rest of Hamlet’s soliloquy to you, you will fund our project?” “I just might”…

I stand there quietly. Although I know I have this one in the bag, I look confused, since this is what situation-me (as opposed to dreaming-me) might feel. I know (both of us) that this pause is interpreted as defeat by the investor, which did not expect any other response. Who in their right mind (apart from some theater actors) could quote this soliloquy? (and they rarely show up looking for funding in [I presume] hi-tech projects) Then I draw a deep breath and start, slowly at first, as if buying time:

“To be or not to be, that is the question”.

OK, everybody can quote that, nothing new here. I know what he’s thinking, he’s thinking I’m stalling, waiting for some deus ex machina  to come and save me. At least he’s giving it a shot, the guy thinks. These really are nice kids, I don’t know why I’m giving them such a hard time. Maybe I should just let them be and tell them I’m not funding the project and that’s that. But as he opens his mouth to call the challenge off… I keep on going:

“Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

And I carry on, my voice rising and falling with the drama of those beautiful lines. I recite it ‘till the very end, looking them in the eye as I quote:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprise of great pitch and moment, With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action”

Because we are entrepreneurs and they are turning us awry and we’re losing the name of action… get it? Anyway I finish and the silence is complete. No one coughs. What happens next has several versions, depending on my mood, but in all cases we get the money as you had already expected we would.

So, what can be said about this little vision of mine? Childish? Absolutely. Pitiful? Quite possibly. Unreal? Well, not necessarily. Please understand that though this scene may seem far fetched, the chances of me actually using the soliloquy somewhere may not be as slim as you may think. There have been times, only a few but a distinguished few, when seemingly useless skills proved very useful indeed. Here are two such stories.

The BA savior

I’m an avid climber. I've been climbing for the past 10 years and it’s by far my favorite pastime. Also, I got my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Physics from Tel Aviv University. The setting – it’s my fourth year at the uni and I have but one duty left to finish my degree – handing in my final project in a programming course. We were to complete the project as a team, me and two of my closest friends (Omer and Yaron). We’ve been working on it on and off for months, trying to create software which will track objects in 3D using regular webcams. To run and test the program properly we needed equipment not present in the regular computer lab. Luckily, one of us (Yaron) was a research aid in one of the labs and the lab had the hardware necessary. Everything was pretty much done; we just needed some final touch-ups and debugging to make it work. The last possible day to hand in the program is Tuesday, it’s Monday night now and we were in a serious jam… Now, of course it is a stupid amateur’s mistake to leave anything that has to do with computers for the last minute. Don’t ever, ever, leave programming assignments to the last moment because unexpected delays are the most expected thing. Anyway, we were sure we had it covered, but to access the lab we needed Yaron and a magnetic card his professor possessed. Yaron was in the States and was coming back Monday evening, i.e. the night before the submission. The submission was scheduled for Tuesday morning and there would be no extensions, since the submission had already been extended twice on our account due to Yaron and Omer’s excessive indulgence in reserve duty. If we were to miss the deadline, we would have to wait another year and take the course again; a serious setback. It had to be handed in and done with… our future was at stake! So we scheduled a meeting for Monday evening at the university, the plan was to pull an all-nighter at the lab and be ready for the submission in the morning. Flawless. Almost. We met in the evening in front of the lab, Yaron was fashionably late but charming as always. It was around 10pm when he elegantly swiped his card through the slot and… nothing happened. No beep, no buzz, no door opening…nothing. A short interrogation on the doorsteps revealed that this was not the right card. The right one was in the possession of his professor, currently abroad and no other members of the lab could be turned to. Shit! Yaron – God damn it! Times such as these are a test of will. Will we beat up Yaron? On the one hand he’s pretty strong and can cause serious damage; on the other hand we were out of options. But wait! what’s that up there?! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s an open window! Not to our lab, but to the hallway, two stories above. Did I mention I am a climber? I did. Well, like all heroes summoned into action, what needed to be done was clear to me; I must use my climbing skills and save the day. The route starts out with 2 meters of stemming to reach a series of good crimpers along the façade between floors. Then it’s a long reach to a bad sloper, which happens to be the small balcony below the open window. With my right hand on the sloper and a heel hook (I heel-hooked, I swear) I reached with my left to the top and opened part of the window – a precarious move given the height and the lack of protection. I then gently balanced myself on the balcony, opened the window, slithered inside and opened the entrance door. We then used Yaron’s key to gain entry into the lab. I grade it at 6b/V3/R-X. We then pulled our all-nighter and made the submission on time. Our program, it just happens, did not work and crashed every time, but we were lucky enough and the professor, distracted by our haphazard appearance, forgot to ask us to run it. We passed.

Italian Comunicazione

This story is even more quaint than the one before. And even less probable, and yet, 100% true. My wife and I spent our honeymoon in icy Iceland. You may find it an improper, not to say improbable place to spend one’s honeymoon, but Iceland, other than being constantly chilly, was one of the most romantic and spectacular places I have ever been to. Iceland can be summed up as “sparse blond population atop an active volcano out at sea”. It also harbors some of the most splendid trekking to be had. We saw arctic foxes running around black lava-sand beaches, navigated through deep fjords and lots and lots of fog and rain (and some especially large northern jelleyfishies). We walked atop crunchy lava-flows, obsidian ridges and down to florescent-green valleys and vast ash-strewn wastelands. The scenery color looks as if some amateur played with the saturation and left it on a non-realistic tint. There was the weird green moss, which practically glows with radioactive sheen, and the earth is alive, spewing hot steam into crimson streams. Where am I going with this? Where will my useless skill become paramount? Soon my pet, soon. While exploring a section in the north east called Myvatn, we found two lost Italian souls in need of some guidance and coerced them into renting a car with us and touring the region. Francesco and Roberta (that was very confusing at first, since the canonical pair would have been Francesca and Roberto) were a very friendly couple from Bari and we spent a week climbing volcanoes and bathing in little blue lagoons with them. However, their English (and our Italian) was somewhat limited, so we kept the conversations short and to the point , gesticulating and using simple words like" Wow" and "Bellissima". One day we were walking through some brush to see a large rift caused by an earthquake. On the way we encountered a variety of mushrooms (toadstools actually), sprouting up bellow practically every bush. Now, as a kid, I used to be a big mushroom fan, going on long trips with my dad, picking, identifying and then eating the mushrooms we found (the edible ones of course). I was such an avid little mushroom picker, that I could identify the taxonomic family of practically every mushroom in Israel. Not only that (here it comes…), I knew the Latin names of the majority of them. Now, this, is the essence of useless trivia. It is the epitome, the uttermost pith of trivia and uselessness combined and it’s ghastly geeky. I admit this wholeheartedly and yet, I knew the Latin names all the same. In fact, I know them still, though almost 20 years have passed since those mushroom picking days. Those names snuggle comfortably in a corner of my mind, like tenants in an old building, who never pay rent and no one cares ask them for it. They just stick around, using up several Kb of storage space, not too bad and yet, worthless. Or are they? So we were walking down this path in Iceland on our honeymoon with this Italian-car-renting-couple, and we see the first group of mushrooms sticking out of the ground. I was delighted to see them out here, like meeting old acquaintances on a deserted road. I bent down, tipped one of them over, gave it a good sniffing and declared – Russula! Si! – Francesco exclaimed. Si! Russula. And so started my one and only meaningful Italian conversation. It just so happens that Francesco is an avid mushroom fan himself, having gathered and eaten Italian mushrooms his whole life. It just also happens (this is less of a coincidence) that Italian is from the Latin family of languages and not much changed, at least, not the mushroom names. In fact, they are identical. You see, Francesco did not know the Latin names, he just knew the common Italian names (maybe these are the ones according to which the Latin names were coined?). During that whole day, Francesco and I were tiptoeing around delicate Lepiotas, dreaming of dishes with the Agaricus, Lactarius and Boletus we found and warning each other gravely to stay away from the Amanitas. Oh, for me, it was a dream come true. Now, what are the odds?

2 תגובות בנושא “Useless skills and trivia save the day

  1. מקסים! הבעיה שקורה (נדירות) שאתה פוגש משקיע שאוהב דווקא מחזות של ברנרד שאו, או מטייל יוגוסלבי שמתעניין דווקא בעכבישים. אבא

להשאיר תגובה

הזינו את פרטיכם בטופס, או לחצו על אחד מהאייקונים כדי להשתמש בחשבון קיים:

הלוגו של

אתה מגיב באמצעות חשבון שלך. לצאת מהמערכת /  לשנות )

תמונת Twitter

אתה מגיב באמצעות חשבון Twitter שלך. לצאת מהמערכת /  לשנות )

תמונת Facebook

אתה מגיב באמצעות חשבון Facebook שלך. לצאת מהמערכת /  לשנות )

מתחבר ל-%s