Blog: July 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.

To say nothing of Socks and Fifi

A news story today talks about alarms to alert drivers before they leave kids unattended in potentially-hot cars. As of this writing 61% of responders to their poll think such warning devices should be required in all new cars. The article quotes someone saying that, hey, your car will tell you about your headlights being on, and isn't this more important?

We can take as given the riff on parental responsibility, right? It's not Toyota's fault if your kid gets left in the car, but that's clearly where the suits will be directed when one of these systems fails. That's not what this post is about.

I suspect that most of those 61% don't care about the difference between worst-case cost and expected cost. While leaving a kid in a hot car for an hour is much much worse than leaving your headlights on for an hour, I submit that the probability is much much lower, or there'd be a lot more news stories about it and a lot fewer calls to AAA. The expected cost of the headlights is higher and carbuyers care, and that's why that alarm is standard equipment. No one but the market requires that makers put it there.

Speaking personally, the expected cost over, say, the next decade of my leaving a kid in my unattended hot car is 0. The expected cost of my leaving my headlights on is some positive fraction of $100 for a new battery and several hours of my time, at least one of which comes at a time when I, demonstrably, wanted to be somewhere else. 61% of poll responders would say "tough noogies" to me and wouldn't care if adding this device costs me hundreds of dollars. (I don't know what it costs.)

If that's what those voters truly believe, then they do not go far enough. If the goal is to prevent the deaths of those who can't see the danger or get out of the car themselves, then clearly it's not just about kids. Some adult passengers are unable to care for themselves and could die in hot cars too. I think it's actually more likely that an adult suffering from dementia would be ignored by passersby than that a kid would be. We don't think it's unusual for adults to sit in parked cars. Isn't gramps at least as important as an infant?

I predict that I'll get few takers from among the 61%; they would rightly say "you can't prevent everything". Yes, exactly. And given that, you have to cost-justify, and not just emotionally justify, the burden you would place on everyone else. Here's an idea: if you want a requirement, require that the device be built into the car seat, not the car. It'll be more expensive to do right (and be amortized over fewer buyers), but, well, it's the price we pay for safety, right?

Am I missing a sound argument in favor of requiring unattended-child alarms in all cars, or do all arguments boil down to "a possibility of one child's death is worth the certainty of $X in increased cost for everyone"?

There's lots of discussion in the comments.

Work surprise

It turns out that one of my coworkers has an MA in religious studies, used to be reasonably proficient in biblical Hebrew (with some clues about Aramaic too), and is interested in using that knowledge. Who knew?

So we're going to see if we can figure out some way to structure a one-lunch-slot-a-week session doing...something. I'm thinking that we can't go wrong by starting with straight translation; I'll bring in printouts of some narrative passages from torah (or maybe Joshua, Samuel, or Kings, but I can easily print torah), and read together. Printouts (as opposed to books) are important so we can mark up the Hebrew text to mark roots, grammar thingies, and the like.


(So why did this person not respond to the note on my wiki page saying (in Hebrew) "if you can read this please talk to me"? Because she, like I, does not know modern conversational Hebrew.)

Not exactly a shiva minyan

My congregation has an evening service on Thursdays. (Long story.) Usually one of the rabbis leads it; if neither is available, usually I get a phone call. Tonight there was no rabbi and no phone call (something must have come up), so at five minutes past the start time the consensus was that I should lead it.

That by itself would not be worthy of a post.

Two of my friends in my congregation are sisters, and their father died while I was out of town. I missed shiva, but they came tonight. We talked a little before the service; they said their dad had had as perfect a death as you can, at the age of 93, surrounded by family, and not in pain. They're feeling the loss, of course, but they said he was at peace and that helped.

It's customary for the leader of this service to give a two-minute d'var torah, generally on the weekly portion. See previous comment about having had no notice. Normally I can wing it; if nothing else, every Thursday morning I find some bit of midrash to tell to the morning minyan, so I can usually use that as a starting point if I need to. And I'm starting to develop a small repertoire of "d'var-lets" that I can spin up without falling on my face.

But it felt wrong. At least half the people there tonight were mourners, including the sisters, and I didn't want to just talk about Moshe preaching to the people or retelling the revelation at Sinai. So I improvised massively: I started by talking about what I studied last week at Hebrew College, used that as a basis for talking about Moshe's achievements through faith and despite adversity (and that they started late in life), and that this kind of leadership is inspirational, and then I talked about how we can all emulate Moshe to some level if we want to and it's inspiring to see parents or grandparents serving as models for us by doing so. It didn't come out as well as I would have liked, though the two sisters both thanked me and said this sounded just like their father, so that's good.

Comforting words do not come naturally to me, so after the fact I feel like I was playing with fire. Hmm. I guess it's good I didn't have time to think about it.

Ophthalmologist: new practice

My ophthalmologist left her old practice and set out on her own. This morning was my first visit in the new digs. Hey, new gadgetry!

An assistant read the prescription from my current glasses and then crafted a new one. (I hadn't asked for a refraction, but I wasn't charged for it so that's fine.) She now has a gadget similar to the one at NeoVision; I stared into the thing at an image (this one was a house in a field) and watched its focus change as the machine auto-adjusted to my eye. I love that thing; it's much less frustrating (and I imagine more accurate) than 15 minutes of "which is better, A or B?" (while they change lenses too quickly for me to focus and evaluate). They still do that to refine the prescription, but I had to evaluate no more than half a dozen configurations (so I could feasibly get them to slow down).

All that said, my ophthalmologist said "I'm not an optician; if you have one you like you should go there". I don't have one I like, but I'll keep looking. But now I know that I'm likely to get a good prescription from her if I need to -- one at least as good as what NeoVision did, anyway.

The eye chart has also been updated. Who thought there was much they could do there? But the lighting was more uniform and I think the resolution was better. (It was a display, not a projected image.) The remote control suggested to me that it could be infinitely programmable (though I didn't ask), which is refreshing. (I fear memorization giving false positives.) For the first time that I can remember, the post-slash number for my weaker eye was a two-digit number (20/80). The stronger eye also produced a better reading than usual. I know there's a great deal of variation in how those numbers are generated and interpreted (20/20 is not the universal standard you would imagine), but I have to assume that the improvement is due to the tools and not to a change in my vision. (It could be the new glasses; I didn't think to bring the old ones along for comparison.)

A small thing, but she was also able to give me printed, rather than hand-written, prescriptions. I'll bet pharmacists wish more doctors would do that. :-) The down-side of the same underlying cause: there was no physical chart for me to browse while waiting for the doctor after the preliminaries. (Hey, it's data about me and funded by me (or at least on my behalf); I should be able to look at it, right?)

I have no idea what she charges my insurance company. (My deductible, of course, has not changed.) My out-of-pocket cost actually went down; while she's farther away (= more gas), I no longer have to pay $5 for parking (and it was nowhere near $5' worth of gas). So, a win on everything except time, and the time hit isn't that bad (Fox Chapel).

Mas'ei: idols in our midst

I read torah (and thus gave a short d'var) the Shabbat before last, but I didn't get a chance to post this before leaving town. So, here it is a little late and a little less polished than when I gave it.

The associate rabbi had, unknowingly, set this up somewhat with the question of the week, by asking what idols we saw in our own lives. (A little heavy for the Shabbat morning question, but people always have the option to pass.)


Parshat Mas'ei instructs the Israelites concerning their entry into the promised land. Among things, they are to strike down all the idols of the people they've driven out, as if wiping the slate clean. This doesn't tend to fit too well with a pluralistic, multi-cultural outlook; we would hardly destroy the crosses on the church next door, would we? This sounds kind of like the Taliban destroying the 2500-year-old statues in Afghanistan. We don't sanction that; we cringe. For many of us, this text doesn't resonate.

The context the torah describes is different from modern-day America. Israel is not a melting-pot of cultures; it is one people. Non-Israelites must follow the same laws as Israel if they want to come along. This is not a case of "your religion for you, my religion for me"; the torah commands Israel to destroy the idols in their midst, and it makes this command to people who bowed down to idols not that long ago.

But let us not dismiss the text as "that was for them, not us". There are lessons for us in this text too. There are idols in our midst. What are they?

Let us not talk about all of American culture; that's too broad. Let's narrow the focus. What idols are there within our Jewish community?

When we mark a simcha such as a bar mitzvah by focusing on the party and not the religious milepost, we worship the idol of conspicuous consumption. Come the high holy days, when we worry more about attending a beautiful performance and less about letting the services touch our souls and move us, we worship at the altar of superficiality. When we focus in our congregations on some demographics and not others, we risk the sin of exclusion, of giving the impression that some people just don't matter. But let's narrow the foucs: what idols lurk in our homes?

When we scatter to our various activities instead of sitting down to dinner as a family, we worship the idol of disdain or dismissiveness. When we would rather watch TV or surf the web than spend time really talking with our spouses, we worship at the altar of uncaring. When we focus on children's grades and not on their learning, we commit the sin of short-sightedness. But let's narrow the focus: what idols are present in ourselves?

When we focus on the goal of success at any cost, we worship the idol of vanity. When we do what we want, or what is convenient, at the cost of helping others, we worship at the altar of selfishness. And when we do what is easy instead of what is right, we commit the sin of denying our principles.

At its simplest, an idol is anything we value above God. Idols are not just golden calves and statues of Ba'al in the ancient world; they are also misplaced priorities and values in the modern world. Instead of dismissing this torah passage, let us learn from it: we risk idols in our midst, in our communities, in our homes, and in our selves. What can we do to strike them down?


(Aside: that Shabbat we read the second of the three haftarot of rebuke in the weeks leading up to Tisha b'Av. That almost certainly influenced me, at least a little. But actually, I was a little hesitant to do this one, as I am not a prophet, a rabbi, or someone in a real position of authority.)


Friday night we gathered for services, dinner, and some singing. Some of the local students brought family members; others did not come. There were also some faculty members from the school there. There were probably about two dozen people total.

We started with kabbalat shabbat and ma'ariv. The Reform movement, at least in my experience, heavily abridges kabbalat shabbat; this is in part to make room for Friday-night torah reading and sermons without being butt-numbing, I'm sure, but I think the psalms in general and the ones in kabbalat shabbat specifically do not tend to resonate for most Reform Jews. I wish we would reconsider with singing. Reading psalms might be boring, but singing them can be quite uplifting. By the way, the one Conservative synagogue where I've attended several times on Friday night also abridges this part of the service, though not as heavily. So it's not just Reform.

Anyway, we sang all those psalms, and of course L'cha Dodi, all to tunes I didn't previously know but could figure out, and it was really nice. Ma'ariv was comparatively short and businesslike. We ended with kiddush, which was about the time I realized that we had not been given the chance to individually light candles, so I looked at the ones that were already lit and said the bracha over them before proceeding.

We prayed from Siddur Sim Shalom. I hadn't previously noticed that there's a small collection of z'mirot (songs) for Shabbat in there. After dinner we sang through some of those; again, I didn't know the melodies, but I was able to fake it. I also didn't previously know the texts, but singing is usually slower than reading (it was here) so I was able to mostly read along. I'm still a slower reader of Hebrew than I'd like to be, but I'm a lot better than I used to be.


We were on our own for Shabbat morning. Read more…

In transit

I'm writing this from LaGuardia, where it's past the official boarding time and the plane isn't here yet. I suspect we'll be late.

Last night after Shabbat Magid came to visit and we went to JP Lick's for conversation and ice cream. (This seems to be canonical; I've gone for ice cream and conversation several times this week.) We sat at a table outside (the weather was good, not too hot nor sticky) until an employee kicked us out and we noticed that it was 12:30. Oops. :-) I don't mind; I hope Magid didn't have any early-morning plans.

Several times over the week when classmates have asked me what I was planning to do that night (or what I'd done the previous night), I've said things like "have dinner with friends". People have commented on my having local friends as if it's unusual; they always want to ask where I know them from. Usually I've said something vague like "college" (technically true of some of my SCA friends, though we didn't necessarily attend the same schools) or "mailing lists". In the age of the internet, is this still that unusual? While it's not true that I know someone in every city, the last several times I've taken a trip, I've had a connection to at least one person on the other end -- even though that hasn't been the purpose of the trip. But, all that said, I found I wasn't ready to broach the SCA or LiveJournal with my classmates.

To continue the theme, when we finished up today around 12:30, I gambled and called Goldsquare (who I'd failed to connect with earlier in the week). I had a 4:00 flight and was calling from Newton, so this was dicey and boiled down to "are you free right now?". Which he and his sweetie were, and we had time to have a bite in Brookline before they kindly dropped me off at the airport. I enjoyed meeting her and catching up with both of them. (Though I hadn't met her, I felt like I knew her at least a little via his writing.)

6:04 and my 6:15 flight is just starting to board. More later.

Later: left 45 minutes late, arrived on time. Either they pad the schedule drastically or we caught one heck of a tailwind. :-)

Thursday and Friday summary

Again, summary now and more later (I hope): Read more…

Wednesday summary

I'm short on time right now, so I'll summarize what we covered now and fill in details later.

Wednesday morning:

  • Study with a partner (and not just on your own) is essential, and it's a core value of this school.

  • II Samuel chapter 21 is the rather disturbing story of how the Gibbeonites get revenge for a wrong done to them by Saul. (King David ends up handing over sons of Saul knowing they will be killed.) Yevamot 78b-79a discusses this in some detail. It's fascinating, and I'll come back to it later.

  • We looked at a modern text on the obligations of Israel to its Arab citizens that hearkens back to the original situation the Gibbeonites were in.

  • We looked at another modern text (by a rabbi who is an adviser of President Bush) applying this same talmudic passage to war and responses to terror. Looking at this and the previous in sharp contrast was interesting.

  • Another theme: halacha is a centuries-long process of seeking ("halacha" from "walk"); it is not just a static handbook.

  • We had some time so we started looking at the story of Serach bat Asher (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael on Beshelach)

Wednesday afternoon: guest lecture from Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the rabbinic school, titled "Leadership in Response to Diversity and Change".

  • Two fundamental questions of leadership: "why me?" and "who knows?".

  • Torah passage where Moshe asks God to appoint a leader after him (Pinchas): enumerates some criteria.

  • Bamidbar Rabbah elaborates on "lord of the spirits".

  • Midrash Tanchuma on Pinchas is about diversity in others (including those being led).

  • Leadership is not inherited here; it's a meritocracy (unlike priesthood). Meritocracy can be better for supporting change; inheritance can be better for maintaining the status quo.

  • Themes of connecting with individuals versus serving groups. (Oh boy do I see that tension in my congregational experiences!)

  • Leader as midwife.

Other notes

The Tanakh I brought with me (JPS Hebrew-English, the larger of the editions I've seen) is the perfect size for supporting my iBook on the dorm desk (to get the screen closer to my eyes and the keys up a little). This feels almost, but not quite, sacreligious. :-)

Thursday night about half of the students (and one of the faculty members) went out for dinner. I had hoped everyone would come, but most of the students are local and thus have other obligations (spouses, kids, etc). It was a nice dinner with those who did make it.

That's turning out to be a key difference between this program and my experience of Sh'liach K'hilah. In SK, no one was local: almost everyone stayed in the dorm on campus, the days started early in the morning and ended late at night, we were with each other most of that time, and there were basically no outside distractions. The group had a real chance to get cohesive. Here, two-thirds of the students disappear soon after classes end at 4 or 4:30, only a few of us are staying in the dorm, and while I'm enjoying my interactions with most of my classmates as individuals, the group isn't really gelling strongly. That's not better or worse, just different. On the plus side, it's giving me time to spend with local friends. :-)

After the dinner tonight I met up with Siderea (yay!). We walked around the area near the Hynes T stop, including 15 minutes in the Boston Library (it was near closing time). It's a neat place -- a library with a strong secondary identity as a gallery. Tonight they had a nifty exhibit of miniature books (I mean really tiny; they used coins as size indicators in some cases). Some of the miniature books came with miniature magnifying glasses, which was a nice touch. Some of the books were a little larger and I could imagine one actually holding them and reading rather than just showing off. After we got kicked out of the library we walked around the area some and then spent a while sitting in a cafe talking geekery. :-)

Part of the T is out of service, so for the last few stops heading back to the school we got kicked off the train and transferred to a bus. For all that the trains do a good job of communicating upcoming stops, the bus I was on sucked. There was a banner-style digital sign up front that was dutifully scrolling date and time past us twice a minute. Once I saw a request that people give up seats to the elderly. But it was not used to name upcoming stops -- and since it was stopping at the T stops, not on every corner, that would not have been burdensome. It irked me because I had not memorized the map (hadn't anticipated the problem) and I would not recognize my stop at night from inside the bus. The bus was packed, so walking to the front to ask the driver wasn't going to happen. I had to ask other passengers (characteristically, most did not know what stops we were passing), which was frustrating. I wonder if this was a failure of the system or a failure of that particular driver.