Blog: August 2006

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Melton program

A few weeks ago I went to an open house for the Florence Melton school, a Jewish adult-education program. I've heard good things about the program and I enjoyed the (short) sample class that one of the rabbis gave, but I was also concerned that they say you don't need any background to attend.

I shared that concern with my rabbi and asked whether I'm past that already or whether I'd benefit from taking it. He said yes and yes -- that is, I am rather more advanced than that, but there is still significant value to be had. So between that and the fact that the person who will be teaching "my" section of Hebrew this semester is the teacher I don't like, I decided to go for it. First class is the week after next.

(Meanwhile, perhaps I will pursue private tutoring with the teacher I do like.)

Leading a publicly-accessible life

I was recently involved in a conversation about posting to journals (or other internet fora) and how it's important to be careful out there. I don't know that I'll say anything here that's new to most of you, but I'm going to ramble anyway.

Posts to mailing lists, newsgroups (remember those?), journals, blogs, and so on are, potentially, forever. I feel bad for the high-school and college students (and sometimes beyond) who haven't learned that yet and are going to be appalled by what they find in archives in a decade. But, of course, the same thing could happen to me too -- I'm older and I hope somewhat wiser, but that doesn't mean I'll never make a mistake. Being mindful of it, though, is a big first step.

Some people use pseudonyms or try to be anonymous on the net. When I created this journal I very briefly considered using a pseudonym, but I decided to use my real name. One reason is that part of the point of a public journal is for friends to be able to identify me. That doesn't mean I advertise this journal widely, and I try to keep it out of search engines (which doesn't work so well with RSS feeds, so that's probably doomed now). But when people I know stumble across it, I'd usually like them to know it's me. And I don't want to keep a friends-locked journal, though I do have locked entries, because I want to be able to meet new people through this medium.

There's another reason I'm not anonymous. I do not want to be lulled into the false sense of complacency that might come with a pseudonym. It could lead me to believe that I really am anonymous. A pseudonym lets you be casually anonymous -- your identity is not apparent to the passerby -- but anyone who really wants to figure out who you are can probably do so, at least if you post as much and as deeply as I do. Better for me to admit it up front and be careful in what and how I post.

I mostly don't use outsiders' names in my posts. Sure, given my name, my home page, Google, and a few minutes, you can learn the names of my employer, my synagogue, my rabbi, and probably my parents. These aren't secrets, but in posts I tend to refer to "my synagogue" or "my employer" and so on. (Same with my tags.) If my journal entries are Google fooder, at least that way searches on those entities won't tend to lead here. Someone trying to check up on me via Google will get here; someone trying to check up on my boss won't.

I sometimes face a balancing act between wanting to give credit where it's due and wanting to protect others' identities. If I have a private conversation with someone, that person hasn't generally given me permission to broadcast about it. On the other hand, if he said something nifty, I don't want to take the credit for that thought myself. That's why I sometimes write that I heard this interesting idea and here's my reaction to it. This journal is about me, my reactions, my opinions -- and only secondarily about other people's work that inspires me. I think I'm being fair to the other people in my life. I hope they would agree.

An interesting question (thought experiment) is how I would have to change the way I write on the net if I were in a position that was more publicly-accountable -- school teacher, politician, rabbi, etc.

Stray thoughts wile davening

Sometimes while praying I notice things in the text and make mental notes about them, but usually they don't survive until the time when I can do something about them. (And anyway, when I'm praying I'm trying to pray, not study the liturgy or the language.) Nonetheless, a few things have survived in the buffer.

In the morning service we read a passage from the mishna that begins "eilu d'varim", "these are the things" (meaning obligations, here). In Hebrew I would expect to see eileh, not eilu. Is this an Aramaic thing, and does that mean this passage is in Aramaic that just looks like Hebrew?

In "ahavah rabbah" before the Sh'ma, there's a passage that Shlomo Carlebach set to music, beginning "v'ha'eir eineinu". We sang this recently (we usually just read the passage), and as I was following in the Hebrew I heard words I wasn't seeing on the page. Hmm, I said, a Reform change? No, I consulted Artscroll and the texts there are the same; it sounds like Carlebach added words in composing the song. I don't know the song, and naturally I can't remember the words in question, but I'm curious.

Most blessings begin "praised are you" (baruch atah) -- second person singular present. (Technically, I'm told, it's a passive participle, but it signifies an ongoing state, so functionally present tense. Or maybe this is an aspect thing; I'm a little confused about the tense-versus-aspect issue in linguistics. Anyway...) Many of these blessings then continue, or at least conclude, in third person, e.g. "...she'asani kirtzono", "who made me according to his will" -- both the verb (asa) and the possessive ("-o" on the last word) are third person masculine singular. I wonder why that is. I suspect that entire theses, or at least volumes, have been written on why we change from addressing God to talking about God; I wonder what the conclusion is. (I couldn't find an answer in Elbogen, which doesn't mean it's not there...)

(Sometimes the rest of the blessing is a participle, which does not carry tense, only number and gender. You can also sometimes read them as nouns, side-stepping the entire question; for instance, "yotzeir or" can be translated "creator of light".)

Tangentially related (maybe), it looks like I won't be taking a Hebrew class this fall. The person who's teaching the section I would be in has a teaching approach that is not a good match for my learning approach. (Was that diplomatic enough? :-) ) I really liked the teacher we had this summer, but she's only doing daytime classes (during work hours) this fall. So I either wait until spring (not necessarily bad) or find some other way to continue. A fellow congregant is getting private lessons from the teacher I like and suggested (a couple months ago) that I join her, so maybe I'll do that. I could, of course, spend the time on my individual study of biblical Hebrew; I'd like to be more fluent there.

Interesting discussion in the comments (archive).

Tzedek tzedek tirdof

This week's torah portion contains the directive "justice, justice you shall pursue". My rabbi had an interesting comment on this tonight, not about "tzedek, tzedek" but about "tirdof". Why does the torah say "pursue" instead of, say, "establish"? Isn't establishing justice a goal, moreso than just running after it?

He suggests that we are commanded to pursue justice precisely because we can never fully achieve it -- pursue, meaning never let up. There is always more to do. I see shades of eilu d'varim here -- these are the obligations without measure.

The rest of this entry is me talking, inspired by that.

If the commandment were to "establish" justice, we might delude ourselves into thinking we'd achieved the goal. Most of the western world has a pretty reasonable judicial system, at least in the abstract. But the abstract isn't good enough; there's a big gulf between, say, the idea of defendants having competent legal representation and all of them actually having it, or between fair rules of evidence and what actually happens. And it's not only about formal systems of justice; we must pursue justice on a personal level, in the ways we interact with other people and the world at large -- the kinds of "tzedek" that are fully ours to control.

"Establish" sounds like something that can be checked off -- yup, did that, on to the next commandment. "Pursue" does not have that connotation -- we can get closer, but we can't fully get there. Pursuit is an ongoing task.

"Pursuit" raises another issue in my mind, one that seems less positive: when we pursue something, don't we usually do it at the expense of something else? Pursuing an educational or career goal usually comes at the expense of time and comfort; pursuing a person comes at the expense of attention to other people. What does pursuing justice come at the expense of? If complacency, well and good -- but is that it?


Added in response to a comment about whether pursuit comes at a cost -- consider pursuit of happiness:

No, that's not what I meant. I meant that you have a certain bucket of resources -- time, money, ability to concentrate, whatever -- with which you can pursue your bucket of goals -- sustenance, status, tikkun olam, etc. If you dedicate yourself to pursuing one of them, what are you then not doing because you've allocated those resources? Being able to pursue happiness doesn't cost you liberty, but depending on what makes you happy, actually pursuing happiness might.

We all have many obligations. As an extreme example that no credible torah scholar would ever actually condone: we could understand that we must pursue justice with all our hearts and all our being; does that mean we should beggar ourselves to do so, meaning the families we're obligated to support live in cardboard boxes and pray for good weather? No, of course not -- there is a limit, a balancing point. As soon as you grant that there is one, you have to figure out where it is. (This is no different from the many other obligations without measure, of course.)

But we can't use this as an excuse to do too little, either. No fair saying "I can't pursue justice fully so I won't at all". We have to do something, we'll never be able to do everything, and that's ok. My comment about "at what cost?" is about figuring out how much is the right amount, about where that balancing point is. Which in some sense is futile; we don't sit down with spreadsheets to figure out how to go through life. Mostly we wing it, but winging it can lead us to slack. I sure don't feel like I do enough to pursue justice.

Sokath, his eyes uncovered [1]

One of the things that's hard about learning English from the outside (and, I presume, hard about other languages) is how much of common usage is idiom and analogy. This thought came to mind during a meeting today with exchanges like the following (in fairly rapid succession):

Developer: What about $problem?
Tech Lead: We'll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Developer: Are you saying the build manager is God?
Developer 2: Watch out for the lightning bolts.
Developer: We'll burn that bush when we come to it.

Product Manager: Ok, we'll include your feature in the product but only as a secret alpha-release utility.
Developer: So it's in the product, but I can't fix bugs.
PM: Right.
Developer: I feel like the white trash with the half-built cars on the overgrown lawn.
PM: True, and you're in my neighborhood now. Maybe I should rethink that.

Maybe you had to be there.

1 - Reference

Murphy attacks, is deflected

I never power down my machine at work; I log in on Monday morning and reboot on my way out on Friday. But I was going to be away for almost two weeks, and I know that sometimes IT departments get cranky about leaving machines on and unattended, so I did the responsible thing and shut down before leaving for Pennsic. I know, I know -- I'll never do it again.

This morning I went in, pushed the button -- and nothing happened. Hmm, I said -- is that button merely a "soft" reboot, and for this I need to do something more drastic? After a hard power cycle there was still no activity, so off I went to find an IT person. (I have no idea what happened. Minimal diagnostics implicated the motherboard.)

Our corporate overlords have a policy of not maintaining our pre-existing machines (and maybe not even their own; I can't tell). When a machine breaks, their answer is to replace it. Ok, said I, do we have a buffer -- a machine I can take now? Well no, we don't order until there's a specific need, and it takes a couple weeks. (We don't even have loaner laptops any more.)

Think about that for a moment. A 70,000-person company has a policy of idling their employees for significant periods of time. At least officially; clearly it was time to use unofficial means to solve this problem.

"Fortunately" (and I never thought I'd use that word in the context of this event), two developers just left; their last day was Friday. Clearly I should appropriate one of their machines, either temporarily (while waiting for a new machine) or permanently (forget the new box; this'll be fine). It took me a while to get everyone who might have a stake in those machines to say ok, but finally I got permission to take one.

I was not looking forward to the process of clobbering the old environment and setting up my own. Configuring a clean machine takes a couple days (at least) to get everything right; tweaking an existing machine takes longer unless you start by wiping the disk, and I no longer have access to OS disks.

But this is where Murphy blinked. Our friendly support guy (contrator, not actual overlord) -- who did me a favor he didn't have to do here -- popped my disk in as a secondary drive, but it didn't work on the first try (probably missed some jumper settings). When he opened it back up, I asked if he could swap the drives and just boot from mine. That should work, I said, modulo some device drivers, right? He said "maybe" and gave it a shot. He had the bright idea of moving the graphics and network cards at the same time (which reminded me that I had a "good" graphics card, an upgrade from the standard issue, and keeping that would be helpful). Voila -- that worked. I haven't tried to do anything with the CD drive, and I didn't notice whether it's a burner or just a reader, but that can wait. The important thing is that I don't have to re-configure everything. Instead of costing me days, this cost me hours, due largely to a contractor willing to go beyond the rules and a conveniently-timed departure.

I did send off mail to the head of our group suggesting that we really, really need to keep a spare machine or two around for such emergencies. A former co-worker limped along on a failing machine for three months before his departure because that was just easier than dealing with getting a new one. That sort of thing shouldn't be necessary. Hardware is cheap compared to developers.

A past employer got this sort of thing right. They settled on a standard hardware configuration and gave everyone removable hard drives (that is, you didn't even have to pop the case). If your machine died, you took your drive to a spare and were up and running again in 10 minutes. Smart.

Pennsic in pictures: our camp

Here are a few pictures of our encampment, Polyhymnia: Read more…

Pennsic 35

I went up to Cooper's Lake on Thursday of the first week and came home on Friday of the second week. This seemed to be just about the right amount of time. Some people in our camp stayed the full two weeks, but most arrived on Thursday or Friday of the first week and stayed through the final Saturday. (We were supposed to finish tear-down this morning, but halfway there we got a phone call saying not to bother -- they'd finished without us. Oops.)

The weather was very good; we only had significant rain once (naturally, at dinner time on my night to cook). Next year Pennsic will be a week earlier, and July is pretty consistently hotter and more humid than August, so it may be a while before we have such good weather again. (The decision to move Pennsic was made for some good reasons and some bad ones, but either way, the implementation was poor. Fortunately, that did not generate a lot of grumpiness at Pennsic this year.)

On the first Friday I met up with MBarr and his fellow campers, who kindly brought me challah from New York. (Zomick's, which I can't get locally. Yummy!) No one was prepared to host Shabbat dinner for everyone, so we all went our separate ways. I had dinner with a lady from Israel (now in New York) named Toshiko. She comes from a traditional background (some non-Lubavich Chassidic, I think). She has a Japanese persona and did a nice job of dressing up a modern tent to look less modern.

Harold and Becky (and Aaron) joined me for Shabbat lunch. (I thought we were getting someone else too, but I think our wires got crossed.) We didn't get to talk as long as I would have liked due to time constraints, but it was an improvement over last year. They will be at Darkover this year, so I hope to get more time with them (and, particularly, adult-conversation time) there.
Aaron is now old enough to not require constant attention, and he was well-behaved at Pennsic (when I was around him).

Saturday night Arianna held a memorial/reception for Johan. There were a lot of people there; alas, it was fairly dark, and I was having trouble recognizing people except by voice. This was also true at the kingdom party Monday night, so in both cases, I didn't stay long. Part of this is just that outside at night is generally dark (even with some torches), but part is certainly my vision. Drat.

There was an arts and sciences display with a lot of nifty entries. There weren't as many from our kingdom (AEthelmearc) as I'd expected, but there were several. I was glad to see a wide range of skill levels; the novices weren't afraid to exhibit alongside those with much more experience. I talked to someone who's growing herbs for cooking and plants for dyeing; she's currently growing hops but doesn't like beer and wants to get rid of them, and it turns out she lives two hours away, so I'm putting her in touch with the head of our brewing guild. It's nice when things like that work out. :-)

Random observation: the map in this year's Pennsic book didn't label the roads. That's less than helpful. I hope they don't do that again.


Over the course of about three days, some of us hatched a plan to hold an event on Purim next year. It started with someone observing that (1) the people who always invite me won't be hosting for Purim this year as they'll be out of town, and (2) Purim is on a Sunday this year. I've been wanting to cook another SCA feast for a while, but the vast majority of events are on Saturdays. Someone else in my camp would like to autocrat again and really doesn't care if it's on a Saturday or a Sunday, so she latched onto the Purim idea and we both ran with it. The candidate site is owned by someone who was at Pennsic, so the autocrat was able to confirm availability (and he's into the idea of doing it, and wants to organize some games for the kids). I've already had one volunteer to help cook.

The event might not be approved by the officers because -- finally! -- we have several event proposals vying for the February/March timeframe and we don't know who might be willing to move. I hope we can do it, though. We're going to talk to the local commedia del'arte troupe about presenting the Purim story, which could be a real hoot! (Commedia del'arte is improvised theatre with stock characters who can be adapted to many situations, sort of the way Bugs Bunny can show up in a number of contexts but is always Bugs Bunny.)

Random camp wackiness

At dinner one night early on, someone offered for dessert a pound cake with Amaretto drizzled over it. Someone complained that insufficient Amaretto had been poured on, and I passed the bottle and suggested a "dipping sauce". This -- both the cake/alcohol thing and the "dipping sauce" in particular -- took on a life of its own, and we ended up doing similar things for several nights running. I agreed that we could do this for my night to cook provided that a parve cake was procured (as I was serving meat); angel-food cake works just fine too. :-) (On several other nights I just ate dessert first, because dinner was almost always meat.)

Early in the first week, two camp-mates decided that a third person's straw hat was in need of replacement, though he asserted that it was perfectly functional. They bought him a new hat, painted his badge on it, confiscated the old one, and waited for him to notice. Later one of the perpetrators lost her hat, so the "victim" procured a new one for her. (I suggested that his old one was still available, but she rejected the idea.)

Heard late in the second week: "Look, we're growing penicillin!".

Go not to the elves for counsel...

One night someone came to our camp looking for directions to the bus station in Pittsburgh. That's a perfectly reasonable request to make of someone from Pittsburgh; it's apparently more of a challenge for a group of people from Pittsburgh. A comedy of errors ensued, which can be sumamrized thus:

Someone: The bus station is at [intersection], right?

Someone else: No, they moved it. It's now on [street].

Someone: Ok, you want to take 79 to 279 to Pittsburgh. Follow the signs for the airport and don't take 579, and --

Someone else: No, don't do that. It's much easier to [...]

(Huddle among half a dozen people ensues. Someone to questioner: "Don't listen to any of this yet; we'll get back to you." Questioner shows signs of doubt.)

Someone: Ok, here's what we decided. Do follow the signs for 579, and then follow the signs for 376. But don't take 376; instead you need to get off at [...]

Someone else: And here's something important. When you get lost and accidently go through the tunnel, about 50% chance, here's how to recover.

I do hope the poor guy found (1) the bus station and (2) his way back to Pennsic. :-)


Judith of Northumberland, a prominent dancer and dance instigator from Drachenwald (Europe), was given notice that she will be elevated to the Laurel in a few weeks. (This is the SCA's highest award for arts and sciences.) They held a vigil for her at Pennsic so that more of the SCA's dance geeks and Laurels in general could talk with her. I knew her electronically but don't think I'd actually met her before, so that was nice. One amusing bit: they don't really do Playford dances in Drachenwald, because they don't need to. (Whereas over here, Playford is the bone we throw to keep out the truly-out-of-period dances...)

She is also getting married soon, and had already been planning to host one of the evening balls to celebrate. The ball was limited to 15th-century Italian dances, which are some of my favorites. She had arranged for musicians who played a variety of instruments. Domenico (one of the primary sources for this repertoire) makes a point of instructing people to vary their dancing based on the instruments being used, so I tried to do that. It was a lot of fun. I got to dance Rostiboli Gioioso with Lyev and a piva with a very energetic and fun dancer from Concordia (whose name I have failed to retain). There were a lot of good dancers at that ball.


Sunday night I Sebastiani, (say it together) "the greatest commedia del'arte troupe in the entire world!", gave a fun performance. The cast was smaller than some of their shows in the past have been, but that's fine -- it made it easier to track what was going on and who was scheming which schemes. There were many funny bits which I've now forgotten, alas. The "interludes" between acts were fun, too (music and dance).

I Sebastiani does "high-brow" commedia; I Genesii, a local troupe, does a raunchier form. (I believe this is an earlier- versus later-period distinction; I don't know if it's also geographical.) I Genesii made a point of advertising their show as not suitable for kids. I'd call the show PG-13 rather than the R they were implying, though; they have definitely done much raunchier shows in the past. I enjoyed this year's show; there has been a lot of turn-over in the group and it seemed that some people were still getting used to their roles (and their interactions with others), but there were some very good bits there. Cadell did a very nice Capitano, and the actors playing Columbine, Arlequino, and the new Virginio seemed very comfortable and in-character.

Virginio deserves special mention. There used to be a young lover named Cinzio; they're no longer using that character, but Virginio fills that niche. (And yes, the name is chosen to be evocative.) Cinzio was a little more targetted (wooing particular women) and perhaps a little more worldly; Virginio seems to be in love with the idea of being in love and is very much the young puppy. His white-and-pink garb and habit of skipping around the stage (he never walked, only skipped) completed the character. The plot revolved around a letter he wrote to his true love, whomever it might be -- addressed "to whom it may concern", and asking the bearer to meet him in the garden at midnight. You can see all sorts of ways for this to go wrong, right? It did. It was fun.

We showed up early for I Genesii and caught the end of a performance of middle-eastern dance. There were many dancers (not all on stage at once except for the final piece), and at a wide range of skill levels. Dani and I were speculating that this was a group of people who'd taken a series of classes at Pennsic and this was the "graduation", but I later looked it up on the schedule and it's a dance troupe called Desert Moon. (I think they're from the East -- can any of my readers say more about them?) I was particularly impressed by one dancer -- tall, on the thin side, blonde, left-handed -- who seemed to have mastered moving precisely but not mechanically. I don't really know much of anything about middle-eastern dance, but I've seen bad "belly bunnies" and this was not one of them. I wonder who she was.

The Debatable Choir performed Monday night, doing a program of songs about songs and singing, including "Cantate Domino" by a quartet singing one on a part. (It's nice to see that song back; it's pretty.) I think this was the first Pennsic for a couple of choir members, but if they were nervous, it didn't show.

The Pennsic Choir, directed by Arianna, performed a program of Spanish music Thursday. Dani's comment was that they sang eight Spanish songs in five different languages -- some were in Latin, and then there was Catalan, Galician, and I'm not sure what else. The Pennsic Choir is impressive because it's not a regular group; it's 50 or so people who rehearse two hours a day for a week at Pennsic and then perform. They do get the music in advance and some people actually work on it before Pennsic, but some don't. They did some challenging pieces, too, and sounded good while doing it. They didn't say anything about next year's director or program; I wonder if that means they haven't decided yet. (This year's plans were announced at last year's concert.)

Several times in the marketplace I ran into Istampitta, Master Avatar's group. I was glad to see them -- they're from Texas, so Pennsic is a bit of a distance for them. They are very good, and I hope Pennsic will be one of their regular stops. As the name suggests, they do mostly medieval (rather than renaissance) music, mostly instrumental (but I heard a song or two from them).

They had three CDs with them. Two of them looked familiar, but I couldn't tell whether that was because I already owned them or because the art was familiar. That's the danger of using period art for album covers. :-)
So I bought the new one that I couldn't possibly have yet, and I'll have to check the shelves for the other two. (This is complicated because there is another group named Istampita and I have two of their recordings...)

Other people

My friend Baron Steffan didn't come this year, though I saw his lady (who has more vacation time than he does). It's been a long time since he and I were able to sit down and talk, and I miss that. He's the person who really helped me sort out my early feelings about Judaism.

Dof and Thora were also not there this year, though I didn't find that out until fairly late. (I'd visited their camp and not found anyone in.) They, too, are people I only see at Pennsic, alas.

I did get to spend some time visiting with Woodwindy and her lord, and I met Loosecanon there too. That was fun. Woodwindy and her lord have been building up a small Andulusian enclave within their barony's camp; this year they had some new walls with carved stucco. (Ok, not really -- but it looked right.) They have a nice little fountain in their courtyard, too. Fun stuff!

Friday morning I recieved a visitor, a man from Brooklyn at his first Pennsic (first event?) who was attracted to the star of David and mezuzah on the house. We had a pleasant conversation (almost entirely in English; he's fluent in Hebrew), and I once again realized that I could have had more of a conversation in Hebrew if I were just better/faster at context-swapping. Gotta work on that. I directed him to the Ostgardr camp (people local to him).


My cats are getting old; they should have years left in them, but especially with Erik, I'm mindful that every time I say goodbye to them could be the last time. So especially before leaving on a long trip like for Pennsic, I try to give each of them some snuggle time.

Fortunately, everyone weathered Pennsic just fine, and they even greeted me when I got home instead of shunning me until dinner time. I had three cat-sitters trading off, and I was amused to find a little "cat diary" that one of them had started and the others had continued. I got to read a day-by-day description of what was going on. Thanks, guys!

More Pennsic pictures (out and about)

Here are some pictures of assorted sights throughout the camp -- just some random, usually-non-representative, things that caught my eye. Read more…