Blog: August 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.

Splitting the baby

I am not Solomon, so I have to work harder for an answer. :-)

When I started leading the morning minyan, I did the service exactly as it was taught to me -- Hebrew here, English there, this melody, and so on. I have made a very few changes, gradually; after noticing that different people do in fact do it a little differently, I figured I could get away with that if I didn't jolt people too much. I made changes in the things I most care about.

Over time, I've learned, everyone else who leads this service has drifted away from one particular melody. Some people have asked me to kill it too. The rabbi, who is mara d'atra so may insist but knows the minyan was there before he was so he won't, hates it and said he would be delighted if I chose to get rid of it. I, personally, do not care; it would be hard to find a part of the service that I'm more neutral about. So for the last couple weeks I dropped it, just chanting that passage instead.

Naturally, there is one long-time, regular member who loves singing it and thinks people went behind his back to lobby me. He begged me to put it back. I did this morning, making a slight change to address what I perceive to be the rabbi's main complaint. (I haven't talked with the rabbi yet, so I don't know if that was effective.) Sigh. I wish I actually cared about this particular issue; then I could assert a position and go.

I might look for a different melody and see how that goes. I don't know any that fit all the criteria right now, but I haven't done any real work on this yet.

Staying (too?) connected

Creating Passionate Users has an interesting post about effects of Twitter. Twitter is ...a web site? an RSS feed? something else?... that encourages users to answer the question "what are you doing right now?". Gah. I can't imagine being interested in following that. It's got to be a hundred times worse than the LJ users who post one-liners a dozen times a day -- "now I'm leaving for work", "ugh, bad traffic", "eww, that sandwich has seen better days", and so on. Obviously, given its popularity, Twitter has something to offer, so maybe I'm just not seeing the good side, but I am not motivated to either read or supply that kind of content. As the Creating Passionate Users post says, I don't want to know that much about someone, even someone close.

Anyway, Creating Passionate Users talks about other down-sides, most notably creating the illusion of social interaction without, you know, that part about people. There are already many trackbacks and comments, which I haven't had time to peruse yet, but I recommend the article.

Twitter isn't a new concept, of course; it's just taking an older one and pushing on it. One thing that Twitter, blogs/LJ, web fora, newsgroups, and even email have in common is that they can create social divides. I see this with some of the LJ users I know: you'll be at a party or other social gathering and a subset of people will start talking about what so-and-so posted, or won't share news because it's already been posted to LJ. We saw this with mailing lists and newsgroups too, but the LJ case is more insidious because it's not all one big feed. If I'm on, say, the SCA kingdom mailing list, I might or might not have read the post you're talking about but I saw it go by. If we're both on LJ, however, that doesn't mean you and I read the same journals -- but the "on LJ so already knows this" bit gets flipped anyway.

I try not to let my online assumptions bleed into my real-life interactions too much. If I've read something interesting that I want to talk about, I'll describe it unless it's obvious that I don't need to. ("Hey, did you see that XKCD from last week about remembering names? Oh, it was funny -- [insert summary here]. It reminded me of...") And most of the people I spend time with are good about this too, but it requires conscious attention, which makes it somewhat vulnerable. We're bound to slip up sometimes even if we do pay attention; it's certain that the people who don't pay attention will.

Back when I first got online (ARPAnet and Usenet/UUCP), the email divide was between the haves and have-nots. Today the online divide is largely between the will and will-nots -- but we have to remember that there are will-nots, and that it's not one big switch -- you can be a user of email but not LJ, LJ but not IM, IM but not Twitter, (LJ but not that journal), and so on.

Creating Passionate Users talks about the effects of a particular tool (Twitter) on the individual. That's one dimension. We also need to pay attention to the effects we have on each other because of our tool use.

Now, to be fair, it's not really just about online content versus not, either. Fundamentally, this is an issue of manners; the people who dominate party conversations with talk of their particular hobby/community/etc and assume you know and care are committing the same transgression. But the net does seem to have an amplifying effect, and it's worth paying attention to that.

Car shopping

With six months to go on my warranty and a desire to do test drives in daylight, I figured it was time to go check out the Honda Fit. I've been somewhat admiring this car from afar, but I'd never driven one (nor even sat in one). So tonight, armed with a dealer referral (thanks, Ralph; he says you two are a lovely couple :-) ), I set out to remedy that.

The visibility is rather better than in my Golf, though still not as good as in my old Mazda 323. (Nothing else has come close to that, alas.) The interior is comfortable, and I was able to find good positions for the seat and steering wheel. (I like to sit up in a car, not slouch; many cars don't support that well, but the Fit and Golf both do.) The instruments are easy to read. The rear seat folds sensibly, which was not the case in the Civic I looked at three years ago. (Transporting my hammer dulcimer would be a piece of cake.)

They didn't have a manual transmission on the lot, so I had to drive an automatic. For an automatic it seemed fine, but I'll want to drive the manual before committing. The car I drove had a smooth ride but was a little sluggish on hills and while accelerating; I think that's the transmission type and not inherent, but I want to make sure.

The steering and braking were smooth. I obviously couldn't do a skid test in summer, but I'll trust. The turning radius felt nice and tight.

The Fit comes in two flavors, basic and sport. While I flinch a little at the "sport" name and note that the engines are identical (I expect "sport" to mean "vroom!"), the latter is the only path to some features I've become fond of, so I'll probably spring for it. Not sure yet. I'm trying to decide if keyless entry, intermittent wipers, MP3 support, and the rear wiper are worth the $1200 difference. That's steep, but I've undervalued the annoyance factor in the past, too. (There are other differences, but they're things I don't care about.)

The salesman offered me less for my trade-in than I (and Edmunds) think is called for, but he's going to try to improve on that. Since I told him I wasn't going to make a decision tonight anyway, that's fine. He was not drastically out of line, but it was enough to be worth pushing back.

Of course I knew, and he knew I knew, all the pertinent data about pricing, invoices, supply and demand, and so on. He commented that the internet makes things much easier for all concerned; I would have thought it would make it harder for dealers, but maybe it depends on the car being sold. We both know that there's only a $500 markup built into the price for this particular car; maybe if we both knew that there was a large profit built in that would be different.

Our conversation was pleasant and low-pressure, in both directions. I loathe the high-pressure slick-salesman situation; while I'm not particularly intimidated by it, I find it distasteful. It's possible that, if I buy this car, I will overpay by $100 or so, but I consider that to be the price of the experience.

There's enough demand for the Fit that they're being doled out to dealers; this dealership can get four per month, filling out the matrix of {basic, sport} {manual, automatic}. The next sport manual is due in a week or so and is an acceptable color.

I'm positively inclined, but I want to sleep on it (and see if he can improve the price).

Ki Teitze: divorce

"When a man [...] has found something obnoxious in [his wife] he may write her a bill of divorce. [...] And when she has departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband rejects her [...] or dies, her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she is defiled; for that is abomination [to'eivah] before the Lord; and you shall not cause the land to sin, which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance." (D'varim 24:1-4)

Sometimes the torah presents us with difficult passages. It's tempting to ignore them, there being plenty else in torah to occupy us. When our sages faced difficult passages, though, they instead sought to interpret them. Earlier in our parsha is an excellent example: the torah tells us that if a son is rebellious, indulging in gluttony and ignoring his parents, his parents are to take him before witnesses and kill him. The rabbis drew from the text many restrictions that would make it difficult to carry this out, and in the end declared that it never happened. In that spirit, let us look at this passage that seems to take a poor view of women.

Let us look first at the reasons for divorce. Our text says the husband finds something "obnoxious" in her. Beit Shammai says this refers to immorality; he can divorce her because of some moral transgression. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, says he can divorce her if she burns his food. (Gittin 90a, mishna) This sounds frivilous, but I side with Hillel here.

In Shammai's view, a divorce levels an implicit charge against the woman. Worse, it is one she can't defend herself against, because the man didn't bring it to a beit din where she could respond. That charge, that suspicion, will follow her around in the community. What an awful thing to do to her.

In Hillel's view, on the other hand, the divorce could be about anything -- and, in fact, could well be about the man's pettiness. He is as likely to look bad as she is. What kind of man divorces his wife on account of the soup? Shammai's interpretation damages the woman's reputation; Hillel's preserves her dignity.

If a divorce signals immorality then it should be difficult for the woman to remarry, but the torah talks about the case where she does. And, once she does remarry, if that marriage ends the first husband cannot take her back. He does not have the option to say to her "nyah, he wouldn't keep you either; you should come crawling back to me". He does not have that power; once she has gone on with her life, he's done. (As an aside, we can ask why he is still, or again, seeking a wife.)

Does Hillel's view treat divorce too lightly? Do we trivialize marriage by allowing it to be broken up over something as petty as cooking? Marriage, kiddushin, is holy. Our tradition tells us that God spends his time post-creation making matches, and it also tells us that when there is a divorce the altar weeps. But, all that said, we permit divorce -- the well-being of the people in the marriage supersedes kiddushin itself. Marriage is holy, but people are more holy. Divorce is unfortunate but sometimes necessary.

The passage that talks about "defilement" and "abomination" is troublesome. The text says the remarried woman is defiled, and the feminine language in the Hebrew supports this reading. The word for abomination, too, is feminine. The pronoun here is actually written incorrectly, spelled "hu" (masculine) but vocalized "hi" (feminine); this is not uncommon in the book of D'varim so isn't necessarily significant, but perhaps it is a hint.

I read this passage as saying that she is defiled to him, to the one who divorced her. Clearly she is not defiled globally, as she is permitted to remarry. I think the to'eivah, the abomination, here is not in her or in marrying her, but specifically in trying to reclaim someone he has already dismissed and who has gone on with her life. Just as we do not remind a convert of his idolatrous past, we do not force -- nor even permit -- the divorced woman to go back to her unpleasant past.

There are still plenty of problems with women's roles in marriage and divorce. The torah does not provide for a woman to initiate a divorce, and the problem of the agunah, the chained woman who cannot remarry because she doesn't have a bill of divorce from her husband, is a major issue (more major than it needs to be). But sometimes we can read the text less negatively than it seems at first glance, and maybe by doing so we can find new insights and ways to address these problems.

Interviewed by merle_

1) As someone who writes documentation for programmers, what do you perceive as the main complaint (or enhancement request) that you get?

The most common request, I think, is for more examples. That's not surprising, as a good example both is worth a lot and takes a while to write and document. There's usually not enough effort budgetted to develop (and maintain) rich example sets. :-( There is also an art to choosing the right examples, of course. Too often documentation that does have a lot of examples has distracting ones that overwhelm the reader. So what people ask for is "more", but in my experience they really mean "more + better".

By the way, the most common complaint I have with other programming documentation, and thus try to avoid in my own, is lack of specificity -- restrictions on parameters or return values beyond what I can learn from the signature ("did you mean a positive int? positive and non-zero?), the types of members of collections (if not obvious, e.g. Java generics), when null is possible versus not, and stuff like that. The signature tells me the syntax, but it rarely conveys the semantics. I can get really tired of seeing javadoc like "returns: an int". Well, duh...

2) During your life, have you tended to move from smaller towns to larger cities, vice versa, or is it a mix?

I have spent the last 40 years living in about a 25-mile radius. :-) I grew up in suburbs, went to college in the city, and have lived in the city or immediately outside it ever since. ("Immediately outside" was about tax jurisdiction, not density of buildings.) I'm happy in a moderate-sized city; I don't think I would want to live in a big one like NYC or LA, but I like Pittsburgh.

3) Is there a particular event which caused you to choose the religious faith that you have?

Caused, no. Made me aware enough to start paying attention, yes. I had been inellectually curious about Judaism for a while (as I am with many things, including other religions). I'd been to Pesach seders with friends a few times (but nothing else). One year I found myself without the friends but with the desire for the seder, which struck me as odd. I went to one where I didn't know anyone, found that it resonated rather strongly, and spent the next while intensely trying to find out why. That led me to lots of books, friends willing to engage in long conversations, and, eventually, into the synagogue.

4) What, if any, types of music do you truly loathe and deplore?

There aren't specific genres, mostly, but a few characteristics can strongly turn me off. First up is incomprehensible lyrics, by which I mean bad enunciation and operatic techniques, not foreign languages. (It's ok if I don't speak the language; it's not ok if someone who does still can't understand what's being sung. If you want to use your voice but not words, have the courage to just do that.) Next, extremely offensive lyrics, either thematically (not that common) or over-use of profanity (more common). On the musical side, atonal or non-melodic is an instant turn-off; I think pitch and use of fixed intervals are pretty fundamental to music. They don't have to be the pitches/intervals I'm used to; bring out your quarter-tones, your eastern modes, and whatnot. But I want there to be a system; maybe it's a mathematical thing. I've heard stuff that was labelled music but sounded to me like the contents of one's kitchen cupboards tumbling to the floor; that's not for me. (It's also becoming apparent that I don't really have the proper vocabulary for discussing it.)

Embla update

Embla has an appointment with Radiocat next month to treat her hyperthyroid condition. She had her baseline tests this week, for which she was required to be off of the medications for one week.

This was her first vet visit since we made a minor change to her medicine in June, so it's not properly grounded, but we do the best we can. (There was no medical need to get her tested right before going off the meds, and the test is expensive enough that my own curiosity wasn't enough of a reason.) In June her T4 was 0.5 (normal is 1 to 4) and her weight was 7lbs 14oz. The vet adjusted her medicine slightly (overshot on the T4), dropping her from 2 tablets a day to 1.5.

I knew that being off the meds for even just a week would make a difference. How much of one, I wasn't sure.

Monday she weighed 7lbs 1oz (!) and her T4 was 21.6. The vet who called with the results said "I think she's an excellent candidate for Radiocat". Yeah, you don't say. :-)

(The pre-screen included other blood tests and a chest X-ray (not sure why on that). Everything there was as expected.)

Harry Potter movie (5)

We finally saw the fifth Harry Potter movie today. As usual, I have not read the book. (From what I hear, if I do decide to read the books I should still skip this one.) Overall... eh.

This one felt more like filler than any of the others so far. (Chamber of Secrets is the other candidate.) It looks like the major goal of this episode was to teach Harry to work with others and groom him as a leader. That can be a compelling plot; this particular rendition didn't compel me, but the movie was still ok overall.

We are starting to see the government corruption that affects the school, but motives are still pretty murky. (Yes, I am somewhat familiar with the politics of academia, so I know the real world doesn't always make sense here either, but I hope for more from fiction.) And, once again, aside from "boy-hero stories require it", I find myself wondering why those with power who do know about the grave threat aren't doing more to help instead of leaving Harry to figure it out on his own. Trying to teach him self-defense is all well and good, but I'm left feeling that wizards of Dumbledore's calibre could do more.

I'm left wondering some other things, but probably not the things the author had in mind: Read more…

MBTI at work

Not long ago someone at my company listed his Meyers-Briggs type on his wiki page. And then someone else did, and, well, once three people do it it's a movement, so while I was on vacation someone created a page listing people by type (when known).

Of 35 people currently listed, 8 are INTJs -- seven software developers (including one of my favorite colleagues) and a hard-core designer. Yeah, these are my people. :-) According to Wikipedia, INTJs are about 2% of the general (US) population.

Granted, most of these types are being obtained by test toys found on the internet, but I don't imagine that would bias the results in a particular way, especially as people are using different tests. A few people have had more real tests in the past.

(Next-biggest group is ISTJ at 6, but that's a big group in the general population so not surprising. Ours apparently took some flack for alphabetizing the names within each section of the page; it's an ISTJ thing to do, apparently. :-) )

I just noticed something odd in the groupings. There are 16 types, grouped into four groups: NT, NF, SJ, and SP. Given the first two, I expected the other two to be ST and SF, but they're not. (That is, the first two suggested the pattern of "middle letters dominate".) I wonder what that means. (The I/E dimension gets no primary grouping at all?)


This year, for the first time, AJL is offering a class in biblical (not siddur or conversational) Hebrew. Wow! Better late than never, I suppose. :-) It's being done in conjunction with a local synagogue (and being held there); I don't know the instructor but my rabbi has heard of her and didn't say anything bad. The class is 20 weeks and 1.5 hours a week, so that's substantial. At $150 (so $5/hour), that's also way better than I could ever achieve via tutoring. (No idea what class size will be like, of course.)

I already know a lot of the material, but there are reasons to take it anyway. First, the teaching approach is different, and complementary to, my favorite textbook; that should help. Second, this could develop into a second-year course. Third, I want to encourage classes in this space by helping to ensure critical mass. So I'm doing it.

Speaking of critical mass, I got email from the coordinator of the Melton program today saying "you might have noticed I haven't cashed your check...". They did not make minimum registration for the Monday-evening class. :-( My choices are to take a too-early Sunday-morning class (without my favorite instructors) or wait and try again next year. I'll be doing the latter. On the bright side, this means I can sing with the Debatable Choir for the coming year.


I arrived at Pennsic on Friday of the first week. This was a day or two later than normal, but the schedule worked out reasonably, I think. Besides, I'm told it was sweltering for most of the first week. This was probably the worst weather year in quite some time: very hot the first week, then hot and humid with many storms (that didn't help with heat and humidity) for much of the second week. If this coming week is nice, remember that that would have been Pennsic week if they hadn't changed the dates. Anyway...

Read more…