Blog: May 2007

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.

Miriam and Tzippora

In this week's parsha Miriam and Aharon criticize Moshe over his Cushite wife and Miriam gets tzara'at, "leprosy". (Aharon gets off. I'm not sure why that is.) The torah is short on details. Tonight our associate rabbi used this as the basis of a nice little drash on prejudice and dealing with the stranger in your midst.

Something he said in passing clicked with a midrash I read last night to send my thinking in a completely different direction. According to this midrash -- and you should note that for many midrashim there are equal and opposite midrashim, so take them with a grain of salt -- Miriam had been talking with Moshe's wife, Tzippora, when Eldad and Medad broke out in prophecy. Tzippora, according to the midrash, said something along the lines of "ouch, I pity their poor wives", and went on to explain that since Moshe became a prophet he'd been neglecting his obligations to his wife -- he was busy serving God and Israel instead, one gathers. Miriam said "oh, this is terrible" and went off to chastise Moshe for the way he treated his wife, and got punished. It's a different spin from the common interpretation that the criticism was about the marriage (to a non-Hebrew).

This, in turn, got me thinking about the obligations and effects of leadership. At least in the Reform movement, congregations tend to expect an awful lot of their rabbis. My rabbi works way more than the conventional 40-hour week, and he has to be on call pretty much all the time. He takes work home at night. None of this is unusual (again, in the movement -- I can't generalize). Do we, collectively, expect our rabbis to neglect their family obligations in favor of congregational obligations? Is that really fair? Is it just par for the course, or can we do something about it?

Again, speaking only of the Reform movement, there's a lot of resistance, from both congregants and rabbis, to letting lay people do some of the work. I don't know how we get better about that so we don't burn out our leaders. Moshe ended up appointing 70 elders to help him, but it wasn't his idea. How do we get more help for our leaders, and how do we get that help accepted? No answers, just questions.

That's not really the direction I expected this to go when I started writing, by the way. I was just going to comment on the load we place on our leaders and stop there.

Weekend of work

At Pennsic I have a little house, which the rest of my camp stores stuff in and helps me maintain. We knew this would be the year to paint, but it got more complicated. We got a lot of good work done on Sunday and Monday, and it would have been impossible without the camp. I'm tired. :-)

We did a scouting run last Sunday; some of the plywood sheathing had been water-damaged, so we noted where we'd need to replace what size pieces, and he who owns the pickup truck nicely procured the plywood for me. When we got up there yesterday and started prying pieces off, we found that the water damage was more extensive. The 2x4s in all four corners were rotted; we concluded that this was due to the trim we added after the initial construction. Apparently it was trapping water. So that's all gone now, and I'll have to figure out how to make the trim safe. Possibly the answer is "caulk eerything to death". (We've gone through five tubes of caulk without touching trim yet, so you might say I'm adopting that strategy.)

We also learned that the framing lumber wasn't pressure-treated. I just assumed it was. The damage was concentrated in the corners, so we replaced the bad pieces and added some sister studs in places, all with pressure-treated lumber. We also primed it even though it would be covered in plywood, 'cause, well, better safe than sorry.

So we had to buy and cut more plywood because of this, so while we were shopping I also picked up a power inverter. It's rated for 7.5 amps; it drove the 11-amp circular saw but not the 12-amp one. I guess there has to be a line somewhere. :-) (We have two batteries that aren't in cars, that we use to run lights in the camp kitchen and pantry for two weeks, so we used those to run the saws.)

At the end of today we had replaced all the bad wood that we're going to replace. (There are some iffy spots that we might tackle next year.) Everything is primed and some is painted. We'll pick some other Sunday to go up and finish the painting. Coming up with a new trim plan will probably be a winter project.

With luck, now that we have discovered and corrected an ongoing problem, future maintenance will be a lot easier.


Shavu'ot is tonight/tomorrow. Thematically this is one of my favorite holidays; it celebrates receiving torah, and as you might expect, that resonates strongly for me. The actual celebration, though, is usually kind of low-key; the holiday doesn't have a lot of ritual "stuff". Tonight there's late-night torah study, which appeals to this geek. I expect turnout at morning services to be light, and then I'll come home and eat lunch, and well, that's about all I've got planned. I've got to remember to arrange for guests next year!

Err, what?

Originally a locked entry.

At the beginning of this year, I had one low-maintenance direct report. In February I got a second one (so far, also low-maintenance). I kind of figured that would be it for a while.

Today I learned that I'm getting another next week and might get a fourth in the next month or two. Yeah, we're growing; I just didn't think it through.

I have to figure out how to make sure my technical skills don't rot. It looks like branch integration for our project is falling to me, so that'll go a long way. :-) (Part of being a tech lead is knowing when to accept the dirty work for yourself instead of foisting it off.) I am also in the middle of a proposal for a major refactoring of our code, and if that's accepted I expect to oversee its implementation.

It all makes me think back to my first full-time job. The other programmers had acquired specialized niches, but I hadn't. I commented on this to my boss, who said "nonsense; yours is glue". In a sense it still is, partially. (I like to think I have other niches.)

Four-cheese pasta

I like the way this improvisation turned out. If I write it down, there's some chance I'll be able to repeat it.

Four-Cheese Pasta

  • 1 pound medium pasta shells, cooked al dente
  • ~2T butter
  • few splashes of heavy cream (0.25C?)
  • several shakes of oregano
  • ~0.25C shredded sharp cheddar (all I had)
  • ~0.5C shredded mozzerella
  • ~0.25C shredded parmesian
  • 8 thin slices aged swiss (~5oz)

Add butter to hot pasta and stir until melted. Stir in cream, then oregano and the shredded cheeses. When mixed well, put in two 8x8" metal pans. Top with sliced cheese and bake uncovered at 375 for 30 minutes (check after 20). The top should start to brown but not get too crunchy.

I used two pans because I'm going to freeze one of them. I don't see why this wouldn't work in one larger pan (9x13?).

I know that ricotta is conventional in dishes like this. I intended to use that, but it turned out ours was on the path to developing tool use and language skills, so I had to evict it from the fridge.

One-word meme

From bunches of people:

One. Word.

  1. Where is your cell phone? pocket
  2. Relationship? healthy
  3. Your hair? brown
  4. Work? challenging
  5. Your sister? busy
  6. Your favorite thing? one?!
  7. Your dream last night? surreal
  8. Your favorite drink? flavorful
  9. Your dream car? practical
  10. The room you're in? felineful [1]
  11. Your shoes? generic
  12. Your fears? controlled
  13. What do you want to be in 10 years? significant
  14. Whom did you hang out with last weekend? friends
  15. What you're not good at? people
  16. Muffin? cherry
  17. One of your wish-list items? servants
  18. Where you grew up? here
  19. The last thing you did? cooked
  20. What are you wearing? clothes :-)
  21. What aren't you wearing? frills
  22. Your pet? cats
  23. Your computer? adequate
  24. Your life? balanced
  25. Missing? grandma
  26. What are you thinking about right now? Shabbat
  27. Your car? replacable
  28. Your kitchen? full
  29. Your summer? unplanned
  30. Your favorite color? depends
  31. When is the last time you laughed? today
  32. Last time you cried? unsure
  33. School? fantasy
  34. Love? treasure

[1] Hey, I say it's a word. :-)

Parsha bit: B'midbar

The rabbis ask why the torah was given in the midbar, the wilderness. One commonly-cited answer is that it was given in a place not claimed by anyone to show that the torah is available to all. Another is that it was to teach us about openness: just as the desert is open to all influences, so must we be open if we are to adopt torah. We must be open to new perspectives and ready to examine and experiment with others' interpretations rather than closing our minds and thinking we know the truth. (Pesikta d'Rav Kahanah 107a)

I'd love to know the context for this one; I saw this passage quoted in another source but don't have the original.

Another game of American Megafauna

Today we played a four-player game of American Megafauna, again playing the basic game using third-edition rules. When Dani and I did this a week or two ago, we finished a two-player game in about three hours. Today, with four players, we called the game after about 5.5 hours. We were on turn 15 (of 25) when that happened.

I don't think we were overly hindered by learning the game; while none of us has played a lot, only one person had not played at all, and she picked it up pretty quickly. It was hard to keep track of the traits of the various species (at peak there were 11 in play), and I was not the only one having trouble reading the chits on others' mats. I think we all tended to cache the most important stuff in memory and ask questions for the rest. Dani was the only person who never asked for speculative help (which of these would win this fight?). Maybe it's a personality thing, or maybe it's that he's played more games than any of the rest of us.

The base game has four families of creatures, two mammals and two reptiles. I ended up playing a reptile (not the one I played in the other game). I was told that it was the best prospective carnivore in the game (not so great on herbivores). I ended up mostly playing a carnivore strategy, but was hindered by some populous species getting "roadrunner DNA" early on that I couldn't counter until late in the game. All of Dani's herbivores were nocturnal from early on, and it wasn't until about turn 12 that another chance at that emerged. (Nocturnal prey can only be eaten by nocturnal predators.)

I had a strong start, helped by winning the bidding on the first additional species to come into play. (Each species is token-limited; score is based on total tokens.) But then things started going worse for me as they went better for others; that is the way of worldwide evolutionary trends, I suppose. When we quit I was in a downturn; I had a plan for fixing it over the next two turns, and I think it would have worked, but I was definitely struggling. However, because I was pretty far in the lead from the early successes, people conceded to me. If the game had gone to the end it probably would have been closer; they were catching up.

I like the game, but we've got to find a way to speed it up or shorten it. 6+ hours is too long for this game. I don't think reducing the number of turns is the right answer; events in the world need a chance to play out. I have a sneaking feeling that some sort of notational or visualization approach would help speed things up, but I can't right now imagine what it would be, short of software.


This week's parsha describes the rewards and punishments -- mostly punishments -- that we will experience, depending on whether we keep God's commandments. Whenever we talk about reward and punishment, we inevitably end up at one question: why? Why do bad things happen to good people? If there is a system of divine reward and punishment, how do we reconcile that with what we see in the world? It doesn't seem to work the way the torah describes it.

I'm not going to talk about that. While the question has prompted a lot of discussion and commentary, I think "why?" is the wrong question. We can't know, and I think our efforts are better spent on a different question.

The torah tells us pretty explicitly that God will send the punishments described in this portion. But what are these punishments? Crop failures, war, disease, and others. We don't need God to make all those things happen in the world; we're pretty good at making some of them all by ourselves. Let's not blame God for everything bad that happens to us.

There are bad things that are completely beyond our control, and there are bad things that we can't control but we can mitigate. And there are many, many bad things that we actually could control collectively, but we don't. Maybe instead of worrying about divine actions, we can start by worrying about human ones.

A whole tikkun-olam sermon is trying to write itself in this space, but it's not my intent to focus on specific issues here. Whether we're talking about crime in Pittsburgh, hunger in America, or depleting natural resources in the world, there are negative effects that are pretty clearly man-made and that we have to work together to address. God might make these things possible, but we aren't guiltless.

The torah describes this parsha's punishments as happening in stages -- if you don't listen to me I'll do this, and if you still won't keep my commandments I'll do that, and so on. From this Rashi derives seven stages of sin, starting with not being willing to learn and ending with denying God's existence. At each stage, the consequences get more severe.

I said before that "why do bad things happen?" is not the right question to ask. The right question, in my opinion, is not "why?" but "what are we going to do about it?". Rashi described seven steps to punishment; maybe we can turn those into seven steps to reward instead.

The first of Rashi's stages is failing to study. He's talking about torah; we can talk about torah and science and human behavior. Learning is a necessary foundation to acting in the world. It makes having free will worthwhile.

Rashi's second stage, which follows from the first, is not performing the mitzvot. The ethical mitzvot are not optional, and they include things like pursuing justice and not standing by the blood of our neighbors. These core mitzvot help us see our connections to each other.

Rashi's next three steps follow in turn: being disgusted by those who keep the mitzvot, hating the learned, and preventing others from fulfilling mitzvot. Instead, let us honor those who lead the way in ethics and good behavior, learn from them, and help each other to act.

Rashi's final two stages, the ones that lead to the worst punishments, are denying God's commandments and then denying God's very existence. The more I learn, the more I build connections with others, and the more I stop and think about it all, the more evident God's role in the world is to me. I'm not talking about a God who micro-manages; I'm talking about a God who set things in motion and gave us the tools to act, or not act, as we choose. I experience the greatest rewards when I am aware of God's role in my life.

From Rashi's seven steps to punishment we can derive seven steps to reward. It begins with study and ends with connections with each other and with God. Not only can this lead to reward, but it can also be reward.

We can walk in either direction. As the torah later tells us, "I set before you life and death, blessing and curse". Let us pursue the path of reward and blessing.


I commented later, elsewhere:

I had a lot of trouble writing this d'var torah, and threw out several different approaches to it half-written. I stumbled on the Rashi commentary on, I think, Wednesday, and that gave me an idea. But by then I was running low on time, so I felt the results were so-so. It could have benefitted from another evening of writing. So I was pretty surprised by the number of people at the minyan who complimented me using words like "great". I wonder if I'm developing an image that can carry me when it's not deserved. Do people view my torah commentaries more positively than strict merit would suggest because they're mine and they've heard me say insightful things in the past? That would be a little disturbing. (Also, I suspect, par for the course for rabbis -- you have fans and non-fans, but among the fans I see this sort of thing happening. Now I seem to have fans. Weird.)

Game: American Megafauna

Dani and I played a two-player game of American Megafauna. This was my first time playing. It actually worked ok for two players; most multi-player games don't. That's a bonus.

On one foot: you are playing one or more species (a phylum, loosely) 250 million years ago. The board consists of biomes with different characteristics; you acquire DNA that lets you adapt in compatable ways. For example, a biome might require water-tolerance (amphibian) and give extra points to insect-eaters. Or a biome might support anyone but give extra points to creatures that can reach the tall trees. Depending on what cards come into play, you can bid for DNA or for the chance to spin off new species. Random events can throw wrinkles into your plans, most frequently by altering biomes. Scoring is based on the number of counters you can keep alive on the board.

The game has five sets of counters -- not identical, so we chose two at random. I played lizards (purple), and Dani played "dog-face" (yellow, mammal). The game has a basic reptile/mammal split, so I suspect it worked well that we played one of each.

You start with one species and from that can spin off more, inheriting the base characteristics. My base lizard was almost immediately amphibian, so all my derivatives were too. One derivative was aquatic (required water to live in); the others were more flexible. Initially there weren't a lot of marine biomes on the board, which was a problem, but new biomes and climate change helped me out.

Dani, meanwhile, went in for carnivores, at least some of the time. Carnivores don't actually eat other players' counters; it's about balancing species, not individual chits. Carnivores have to be supported by herbivores, but that comes at no cost to the player of the herbivores. That said, most of the herbivores in our game ended up developing armor, making it unprofitable to be a carnivore. (Anti-armor -- you know, stuff like big sharp fangs -- was under-represented in our game.)

Mechanically, each species is represented on your playing mat by a card (about 2x2 inches) and a pile of little cardboard tents to represent acquired characteristics. You can have any characteristic more than once (this means a stronger presence). I don't know what's typical, but we had species in play with a dozen of these little tents, which is more than fits on the card. Because orientation of the card also matters (it indicates your size), this made it a little hard for me to see what was going on on Dani's mat and vice-versa. This was tractable for a two-player game, sitting next to each other; I don't know how well it would work for me across the dining-room table. I was keeping stuff in memory more than looking. If the markers were plastic rather than cardboard, some sort of stacking scheme might have helped with that.

Our events were not well-randomized, though we shuffled thoroughly. So I don't have a sense yet of what that should look like. We had one catastrophe, on the last turn, that caused five of the six species then in play to go extinct. I gather that lesser catastrophes exist.

Our game took about three hours, including teaching, which is a comfortable length. (It means it can play in an evening and not just on a weekend.) The plastic tray that Dani bought helps with chit management, but at the expense of things not fitting well in the box. Speaking of the box, it opens on an end rather than having a conventional lid -- bad choice IMO.

Dani played a draft of the third edition last year at Origins, but that edition has not yet been published. He bought the second edition and its expansion, and downloaded third-edition rules, that that more or less fits together. (That this is so suggests to me that the third edition won't be published as a packaged game.) The rules support a basic game and an advanced one; we played the basic.

Overall, it's a neat game with an unusual concept, and I'd like to play it more. I don't think I have a great feel for it yet, but I like what I've seen so far, aside from some of the physical aspects.