Blog: September 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.

Managing Humans

One of the books Dani got me for my birthday is Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager, by Michael Lopp. This was a great read, and I'll now be following his blog, where I gather a lot of this material was first posted. But even if it was, curling up with the dead-tree edition worked better for me.

The book contains a lot of good advice and analysis of the nitty-gritty of being a manager (or, sometimes, a managee) in the high-tech world. His experience is colored by acquiring all of it in Silicon Valley, but I still found myself nodding a lot. The chapters on meetings, detecting agendas, and figuring out where people are coming from (incrementalists/completionists, organics/mechanics, etc) are valuable for anyone. I found myself rethinking my weekly team meeting, my one-on-one ineteractions with my direct reports, and my nearly-non-existent one-on-one meetings with my own manager.

Sometimes the author draws black-and-white lines where, in reality, there are many shades of gray. Almost no one is either an incrementalist or a completionist, for example; most of us are in the middle. But I have seen exactly those tensions play out on the projects I've worked on, enough to find value in the distinctions. He over-simplifies, presumably for rhetorical effect (for example, saying that incrementalists lack vision); there's usually a grain of truth, but don't take any of this as gospel. My take on it is that if it gets me thinking, it's done its job -- even if I disagree on the details.

The writing style is informal, occasionally vulgar, and humorous (as promised in the title). The chapters are short (most originated as blog entries), so it's easy to take it in bite-sized chunks. (That said, I read it cover to cover in two sittings.)

One criticism of the publication rather than the content: Michael, Michael, Michael... people would pay a little extra for the increased page-count that would come with a civilized font size. Trust me. Ouch. (I'm not sure if it's 8pt or 9pt, but it is certainly smaller than I am used to.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone in the high-tech industry. Or, if you don't want to get the book, at least check out the blog.

Draft letter to mayor

I'll de-snark this before actually sending it, but right now I just have to get this out of my system.


Dear Mayor Ravenstahl,

I write concerning the annual disturbance of the peace known as the Great Race.

As you will see from my address, I live on the starting line for this event. This means that crowds begin to gather at 7:00AM and the sound system is fired up soon thereafter. I understand the need to give instructions to the racers, but the primary use of the sound system is to play high-decibel music. I do not understand the logistical need for that.

I work hard all week, and Sunday is the one day when I can sleep in a little -- except when this great ruckus occurs outside my bedroom window. (There is, in fact, no room in my house where this is not a problem, so I can't just sleep on the couch that night.) I understand that you consider the Great Race to be a great community-building event, so I would like to suggest that some other neighborhood become the beneficiary of this community-building starting next year. It's time for the race to move. If you can't change its location, please change its time by several hours; the end of September is late enough that the mid-day heat is not a concern for runners (and late afternoon would certainly not be a problem).

Regardless of when and where the race is, I urge you to eliminate the unnecessary noise; residents are more likely to tolerate the necessary noise if we do not feel abused by gratuitious disregard of our Sunday mornings.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I would appreciate the courtesy of a resolution before election day.


I received no reply. It took a few years, but they did eventually move the starting line to a park area nearby. I understand that I was not the only person in my neighborhood who complained.


(The Yom Kippur stuff will probably come in dribs and drabs this year. Lots of stuff is still swirling around in my head.)

From the morning service:

For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.

I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.

As I forgive and pardon those who have wronged me, may those whom I have wronged forgive and pardon me, whether whether I acted deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed.

The first time I was faced with those words I argued with them. Write a blank check? Are you kidding? It wasn't that I had a particular grievance in mind; it's just that it felt wrong somehow. After all, we're told that we have to ask forgiveness and make amends; just feeling sorry doesn't cut it.

The next time I reasoned that there was a quid pro quo involved, and I wanted to say "I forgive and pardon anyone else who is making this declaration today". I don't now remember if that's what I actually said. I know that for a while I've been mentally inserting "those Jews" rather than just anyone, because while not all Jews keep Yom Kippur, it seemed a reasonable compromise.

This year I was able to say it as written. I was able to realize that yeah, there are people who've wronged me who will never apologize (perhaps because they don't even realize it), and I've surely done such things to other people, and it's just not important enough to hang onto. For wrongs that are known and more serious, well, there's a difference between forgiveness and forgetfulness -- I might not rely on certain people in the future, but I don't have to carry the weight of their misdeeds around on a mental scorecard either. I can inform my future behavior without holding out on forgiveness.

This would be much harder, perhaps impossible, if there were a major outstanding wrong against me. I am blessed to not have suffered the kinds of wrongdoing (abuse, major betrayal, etc) that some people have. The small stuff just isn't worth getting worked up about.

As I said, it wasn't so much that I had specific grievances I wanted to hold onto; it was more that I had trouble making the blanket statement. I don't know what's changed, but I don't seem to have that trouble now. I'm happy about this.

I'm glad I'm a Jew -- the annual introspection and sanity check is helpful. And, quite demonstrably, when it wasn't required of me I didn't do it. (Maybe others are more dilligent in such things.) In all seriousness, I would recommend something like the high holy days to my thoughtful gentile friends.

Fasting while sick

Wednesday I caught the beginnings of the crud that's been going around and started taking Sudafed aggressively to kill it before Yom Kippur, because fasting with a cold would suck. That didn't work, alas. Thursday night/Friday morning I noticed the first of two second-order effects: near as I can tell, the Sudafed -- whose job, after all, is to "make the emissions less bad" -- was having a dehydrating effect. So I stopped that before it could do more damage. The other effect was that the cold was sapping my appetite, when I should have had a large lunch and good-sized dinner on Friday.

It actually wasn't as bad as I had feared. I did make one concession: on Friday I bought a bottle of "throat spray" to deal with the soreness (or at least numb it away), and I took that to shul with me. I reasoned that while this might technically be in the same category as applying lotions, it's not food or drink and it's medicinal, so it was ok. (You spit it out after gargling with it. I would have taken pills if I'd had anything that I knew to work and be non-dehydrating. I wasn't going to experiment.) Beyond that, I took tissues, tried for aisle seats in case I had to run out, and did my best to minimize contact with other people.

Friday at Kol Nidre I was sweating like mad. I know that our HVAC has unintended climate zones and I was sitting on a supplementary chair in a place in the sanctuary not normally used for seating, so I figured I was just in a bad place. It happened again this morning (in a regular sanctuary seat not known to be bad for heat), and only then did it occur to me that perhaps I had a fever. Well, either the fever broke or the AC kicked in at the beginning of the torah service, and I was fine after that. The sniffling was not bad for the rest of the day and my voice is getting less froggy-sounding. Let's hope I've seen the worst of this.

As for the fast, I found that by about hour 19 I had stopped caring. I expected to be desperate for water by then because of the cold (and wouldn't have been too surprised if my rabbi had ordered me to the drinking fountain). But it wasn't an issue. Yay.

Timely study

Today in our talmud study my rabbi and I reached the passage in B'rachot (16b) that records the concluding prayers of several sages. The t'filah, the central prayer, has a fixed text, but there is a place to insert personal words at the end. (Over time, some of these have in turn become fixed.) On this day before Yom Kippur, let me share some of these prayers that struck me most strongly.

(These translations are from the Soncino edition. They aren't exactly how we translated, but are close enough.)

Rabbi Eleazar used to say:
May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to cause to dwell in our lot love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, and mayest Thou make our borders rich in disciples and prosper our latter end with good prospect and hope, and set our portion in Paradise, and confirm us with a good companion and a good impulse in Thy world, and may we rise early and obtain the yearning of our heart to fear Thy name, and mayest Thou be pleased to grant the satisfaction of our desires!

Rabbi Yochanan used to say:
May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to look upon our shame, and behold our evil plight, and clothe Thyself in Thy mercies, and cover Thyself in Thy strength, and wrap Thyself in Thy lovingkindness , and gird Thyself with Thy graciousness, and may the attribute of Thy kindness and gentleness come before Thee!

Rav added the following:
May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigour, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and confusion, a life of riches and honour, a life in which we may be filled with the love of Torah and the fear of heaven, a life in which Thou shalt fulfil all the desires of our heart for good!

Non-parsha bit: Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur afternoon we recall the service of the high priest on the day of atonement. The mishna tells us of the preparations made on behalf of the high priest: seven days ahead of time he is secluded, and a back-up high priest is appointed lest anything cause the original one to become unfit for duty. Rabbi Yehudah said that in addition, another wife is prepared for the high priest in case his wife dies in that time, because it is written "he shall make atonement for himself and his house"; "his house" includes his wife. (Yoma 2a)

(As you might expect, the mishna also discusses in a fair bit of detail the preparations on the night before and day of the service.)

I think after Simchat Torah, instead of doing parsha teachings for another year, I'm going to switch to teaching something from talmud, following the daf yomi (page a day) cycle. We'll see how that goes.

All of the parsha bits are available on Dreamwidth.

Interviewed by steven

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Rosh Hashana

I went to the early services Wednesday night and Thursday morning. (We have double services and they're stylistically different. I get a better spiritual experience from the early ones, with less-formal music, cantor but no choir, and more congregational participation. The only down side is that the rabbis shorten the sermons at the early services -- but in a month or so they'll post the full texts on the web site, so I can see what I missed then.)

Wednesday night the associate rabbi spoke, with the refrain being "what does it mean to walk Jewishly [reference to halacha] in America today?". He said lots of good things, including that the ethical mitzvot aren't enough. I don't remember the details very well, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

It struck me that the Israeli associate rabbi has gotten quite proficient in English in the year he's been with us. I've been seeing him improve week to week, of course, but hearing this sermon and thinking back to last year's, well, what a difference. He knew the language then, of course, but there's a difference between knowledge and comfort. This year he looked relaxed and confident. (I'm impressed by any adult who can master a second language like that, since I have found this so elusive myself.)

Thursday morning we were supposed to have students for all the torah reading, but we only had one (of the four readers). I'm told the late service had all students. So one of the regular lay torah readers read one aliya and each rabbi read one. Had I known, I would have offered to do one that I already know, though I presume the rabbis also already know them.

Thursday morning my rabbi spoke about the akeidah (the binding of Isaac), starting with an interesting midrash (source unknown to me; haven't gone looking yet). Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka had separated, each taking one son, and as our story opens the two sons are at Yitzchak's bedside asking why he and mom separated. Yitzchak tells the story of the akeidah from his perspective, with the addition that Avraham didn't stop; rather, the tears of the angels watching this unfold melted the knife. This led into the main part of the sermon, where my rabbi talked about tears that can be strong enough to change the world. Again, I can't do it justice. There was a coda: Ya'akov ("the smart one") said "but you didn't answer my question -- why did you and mom separate?" and Yitzchak says "so that I could never do that to both of you".

An interpretation my rabbi brought out when he read the torah passage: as they climb the mountain Yitzchak asks Avraham where the animal is for the sacrifice, and Avraham says "God will provide the lamb, my son". That "my son" can be read two different ways. The torah (with no punctuation) is nicely ambiguous, so you are free to read it either way. (As you might conclude from the fact that I'm talking about this, my rabbi read it as the one with overtones.)


Last year for the first time we had a service on the second morning. The second day was a Sunday and we got a decent turnout (60 people, maybe?). The service was less formal -- shorter, some "creative" English readings, no sermon, no cantor, guitar music. We got lots of positive feedback and decided it was a success.

This year the second day was on a weekday, and this is a community where many people don't take off work for the festivals, so I wondered what kind of a turnout we would get. (Will people who don't come on Sukkot morning come on the second day of Rosh Hashana?) Well, they did -- the chapel was full, probably 100 people. Even if people have to get friendly and we bring in some folding chairs, I'm going to lobby strongly that we keep the service in the chapel next year too. The intimacy of the chapel contributes to the mood of the service, so until we're in the violating-fire-codes range, let's keep that.

Two other regular lay readers and I did the torah reading. I had to abandon my attempts to memorize the special high-holy-day trope, but the regular trope worked fine. (And the other two read rather than chanting, because they didn't get the portions far enough in advance to do otherwise. Bummer.) We read the first creation story; I read the first three days, pretty well in my opinion. (Interesting compliment: someone came up to me afterwards and said "that was very good, but I really wanted to hear you read the Akeidah because when you did that last year I got chills". Actually, I did that two years ago; it's gratifying to know I made a lasting impression on someone. I told her I didn't get to choose the parts, but I didn't object if she wanted to place a request with the rabbi.)


Thinking about the day of the week for the second-day service led to some broader wonderings about the calendar.

By rabbinic decree Yom Kippur is not permitted to fall on Friday or Sunday because the fast would either impede, or be impeded by, Shabbat. So, first question: how is calendar manipulation justified halachically? That is, there are going to be some years when the new moon falls such that Yom Kippur would be on the "wrong" day so everything gets moved; how is that done (and justified)?

Given those forbidden days, Rosh Hashana (first day) can never be on a Wednesday or a Friday. I know it can be on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Shabbat. That leaves Sunday as the only day not spoken for. I suspect, but do not know, that this day is off limits too -- because Sukkot is the same day of the week as Rosh Hashana, and the seventh day of Sukkot (which would then be Shabbat) involves certain ritual actions that would be forbidden on Shabbat (beating the willows). I wonder if that's right. If so, I wonder how far out this kind of reasoning can go. A first Pesach seder on Saturday night poses some complications too, yet that can happen. It all makes me realize that the details of our calendar are kind of a mystery to me. I wonder what I should read to change that.

One more calendar mystery (perhaps easier for someone to answer). When we have a two-day Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), the dates are the 30th of the old month and the first of the new month. Two-day Rosh Chodesh results from uncertainty. Rosh Hashana (new year) is two days also because of uncertainty, and they are... the first and second of Tishrei, not the 30th of Elul and the first of Tishrei. Um, why? (All two-day holidays share this property -- Pesach in the diaspora is the 15th and 16th of Nissan, not the 14th and 15th, and so on.)


Finally, a small comment about music. During the high holy days (every day, not just Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), there are some different musical motifs (nusach) that show up in the service. (Also text changes.) I find that these changes do something to reach deep inside me and emphasize the themes of the season. I'm not sure why that works for me, since it's a learned association and not something that goes all the way back to childhood, but it does work.

Radioactive kitty

Embla is home from her stay with RadioCat, where she was treated for hyperthyroidism. She was described by their staff as "shy but not cowering". She certainly seems happy to be home. (She's not yet eating as much as normal, but they said that might happen.)

She does not glow in the dark, nor has she shown superpowers yet. Remind me, how long does that canonically take, e.g. for Spiderman? :-)

One of the feline residents seems put out by the new (temporary) litter, but we seem to be getting that under control. It turns out that the stuff RadioCat gave me and the bag I bought last week -- of, allegedly, the same stuff -- have different textures, one more acceptable to our mystery cat than the other. (I assume that if Embla were the problem, she would have had the problem there too and they would have mentioned it.)

I wonder if there is a safe way to get box contents into the sewer system without going through my house plumbing. I assume storm drains are a different feed that don't go through sewage treatment, so probably not. But even with nominally-flushable litter, I'm a little nervous about our creaky old pipes.

The carrier (which I had to leave there for the duration) came home with a tag on it with Embla's name and a picture (clip art?) of a tortiose-shell cat. Cute. I guess they have a library of clip art, but it makes me speculate about challenging them with unusual-looking cats. :-) (There was also a toy mouse stapled to the tag, in which she has shown no interest.)

SCA: newcomers at general meetings

I'm curious how other SCA groups with predictable influxes (this usually means students) handle the introduction. We have demos at the beginning of the school year on our two major college campuses, so the first general meeting in September doubles as the "talk to the people from the demos who were curious enough to come to the meeting" meeting.

What often happens at ours is that each officer and each guild head gets up and gives a spiel about that particular area. There are about 30 such people, which IMO is at least 20 too many to speak at such a meeting. Even if you limit them to two minutes per, that's an hour of just sales pitches. Some people will not be limited, and we're collectively too polite to shut them up. I fear that we drive away people who would otherwise come back. I've seen this scenario happen year after year; some years are better than others, of course, depending on who's running the meeting, but it's a standing problem.

I have yet to meet a college freshman (the bulk of these attendees) who, at the first meeting, will care one whit about heraldic bureaucracy (commenting sessions), children's activities, becoming a first-aid officer (let 'em come to a fighting practice or event first), setting up tournmanet brackets (ditto), awards, or several other things that usually get covered. By definition, if you've gotten them interested, they'll have plenty of other opportunities to hear about such things, once they have context and interest. And there's a newsletter and a web site anyway.

At various times I've suggested to our officers either telling some positions they don't get to make pitches at all at that meeting, or choosing 4-5 offices/guilds a month to highlight and doing 'em all over the course of the academic year. So far it hasn't happened. A couple times I've quietly suggested to specific people that, hey, the meeting's long, and would you consider delaying your spiel? Apparently I have not mastered the right diplomatic skills, as that hasn't tended to work either.

So what do the rest of y'all in big groups do?

Our meeting is tomorrow night. Since that's also Rosh Hashana, I won't be there to see how it plays out this year. And anyway, it's probably too late to try to do anything now; this would best be done as consciousness-raising at the officers' meeting earlier in the month. So, thinking ahead to next year, what might I be able to do to encourage my group's officers to think about this issue differently?

(I am aware that several members of my local group read this journal and this might look like some sort of passive-aggressive BS. It's not. I'm interested in ideas, from anyone.)

Lots of interesting discussion in the comments (archive).