Blog: December 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.

World-conquest games

There are a lot of board games that can be broadly described as historically-informed world conquest: Advanced Civilization, Seven Ages, Age of Renaissance, History of the World, and no doubt some set in modern times that I haven't played (like Diplomacy and Axis and Allies). In many of these you play a single empire throughout the game, so it's natural to feel a little "territorial" -- when someone attacks you it's an attack on your guys, and one often retaliates, leading to a more directly-compeetitive game. (As compared to, say, Euro Rails, where you're all competing but you're sharing the world.) Different players have different styles, so in my experience these games start with some attempt at agreement on the level of aggression, and a player who is either overly aggressive or overly cooperative and accommodating can screw up the mood for everyone.

Within the last few years I've been introduced to two games where you play multiple empires over the course of the game. You would expect this to lead to less player attachment; if one empire tanks, well, you've got the means to start another. In practice, I've found this to be true in one and not in the other.

In the few games of Seven Ages that I've played, I've noticed that players (at least in my group, and certainly this is true of me) still feel pretty attached to the empires they have in play. I might have three empires in play, each one bringing me points each turn, but if someone wipes one of them half off the board I feel unhappy, and thus I am more reluctant to do it to others. (I am more of a cooperative player than an aggressive one.) I say this knowing full well that (1) it's nothing personal, (2) I like this game, and (3) it's a game and you're supposed to do stuff like that.

In History of the World you also play several empires over the course of the game, and I realized this weekend while playing that the ebb and flow, rise and fall, conquest and obliteration is perfectly natural and not at all bothersome beyond the "hey, I was getting some points from those guys!" reaction. In this game if I need territory I take it, and I know others will do the same thing, and that's cool -- I've got more guys where those came from. So, what's the difference in this game? I think there are two key factors: predictability of new empires and timing of scoring.

In Seven Ages, you can only bring in a new empire when (1) you have pieces available and (2) you have an appropriate card. I've had games where I would have happily replaced a failing empire, but I did not have the means to do so for a few turns running. So I was stuck playing a losing position while waiting for the luck of the draw. Bummer. In History of the World, on the other hand, you play each empire for one turn, and then everyone gets another (not necessarily playing in the same order). Your residual empires help your score as long as they stick around, but there's this sense that everyone's moving on. You can't go back and modify those empires any more; they've been and gone. If I need to knock over your guys to build mine, well, those are the breaks. Sure, there's competition for resources, but it's more asynchronous. I also know that due to the variation in turn order, you might, or might not, go twice before I go again.

The other factor is the timing of the scoring. In Seven Ages, as in most games, everyone takes a turn and then you score everyone (or you score only at the end of the game, in some games). I can build my board position all I want, but it's only what survives after you're done that helps me ("all that work for nothing", possibly). In History of the World, each player plays and then scores before play passes to the next person. In this most recent game, in the last epoch every single player save one dominated northern Europe -- obviously not simultaneously. I went early that round, collected my points for it, and watched empire after empire squish my guys (and each other's, as the epoch went on) to build that position. It made it more natural for people to actually take the logical, historical conquest paths, and hey, I already got my points so it didn't take anything away from me directly -- there was just the general vying for getting the best overall score possible. In this sense, the scoring feels more like Euro Rails (make a delivery, get paid) than like Seven Ages. I'm finding that I like this model, though I don't necessarily dislike the other.

Golden Compass (movie)

Dani and I went to see The Golden Compass tonight. Spoiler-free pico-review: pretty, and some nice scene-length bits of storytelling in need of their connective tissue.

More comments, with spoilers: Read more…

Shabbat in the Reform movement

I found the first 40% of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's sermon at the URJ biennial an interesting read. (The rest isn't uninteresting, but it's not my focus here.) He talks about increasing the importance of Shabbat in our communities. He's saying some things I've been saying for years, which is gratifying. (More people listen to him than to me, after all.)

When we undertook to revive Erev Shabbat worship, our intention was not to focus solely on a single hour of Friday night prayer. Erev Shabbat was to be the key, opening the door to a discussion of the Shabbat day in all its dimensions. [...] With members returning to the synagogue on Friday nights, we had hoped that some of them would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer and to a serious conversation about the meaning of Shabbat. But this has not happened, and we all know one reason why that is so:

He goes on to talk about the bar-mitzvah service as typically seen in Reform congregations. What usually happens is that the celebrating family "owns" the service, so the rest of the community doesn't come because we feel shut out, so the family feels justified in claiming everything ("they don't come anyway"), so the bar mitzvah stops being about welcoming the child into his new role in the community. Rabbi Yoffie writes: "At the average bar mitzvah what you almost always get is a one-time assemblage of well-wishers with nothing in common but an invitation." I wasn't there at the formation, but I assume this is one of the reasons that our informal Shabbat-morning minyan formed: we have a regular community (with enough infusions to avoid becoming stagnant) that celebrates its members' milestones but feels no need to go upstairs afterwards. I go to shul on Shabbat morning to celebrate Shabbat in community, not to attend the theatre.

What typically happens in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, on the other hand, is that the bar mitzvah is a part of the community service: we celebrate with the family, but the family celebrates with the community. The focus is on Shabbat, not on the child. I have seen this work beautifully. It's not absent in Reform congregations (I saw it once at Holy Blossom in Toronto), but it's sure not the norm.

So what are we going to do about it? Rabbi Yoffie has brought the conversation to a broader forum (we've been talking about this problem in our congregations and on mailing lists for years). Rabbi Yoffie wisely recognizes it as part of a bigger issue: the place of Shabbat in the lives of modern, liberal Jews.

Also, other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed. Communal leaders outside of the synagogue love to talk the language of corporate strategy. They engage in endless debates on the latest demographic study. They plan elaborate conferences and demand new ideas. But sometimes we don't need new ideas; we need old ideas. We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition; less strategic thinking and more mitzvot; less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.

He talks about the importance of the whole day of Shabbat, not just the hour or three you spend at services. Hear, here. The URJ is trying to start this conversation in individual congregations, creating study programs and focus groups who will try, really try, to explore a more-meaningful Shabbat and report back. I'd love to be part of that conversation in my own congregation, should it happen. I already take Shabbat seriously, but there's still plenty to learn. And one of my biggest challenges is the shortage of a community that wants to keep doing Shabbat after morning services end. Shabbat afternoons, especially in the summer, can be pretty lonely for me.

Renewing some form of regular Shabbat observance among the members of our Movement will take time, and what we are proposing is only the first step. The plan is to begin with a chosen few and to heat the core, in the hope that the heat generated will then radiate in ever-widening circles.

But surely we must begin. Shabbat, after all, is not just a nice idea. It is a Jewish obligation and one of the Ten Commandments -- indeed the longest and most detailed of them all.

Where will it go? I don't know, but I'm glad to see people talking about it.

Embla update

My vet called today with Embla's test results. Her T4 (the thyroid number) is 1.9, which is pretty much right in the middle of the normal range. (All other results were normal too.) When Embla was diagnosed her T4 was 70; my vet had said she didn't know they went that high, and RadioCat told me she might need a second treatment. But now, I think we can safely say that RadioCat cured Embla's hyperthyroidism in one treatment. Yay!

The influence of mega-churches

This article on mega-church worship style in synagogues discusses some happenings at the just-ended URJ biennial convention. If this is a new trend in Jewish worship, I can't say I'm impressed.

The mega-church influence was felt as well during Friday night prayers, where 6,000 worshipers gathered in a cavernous room on the convention center's ground floor for a choreographed production of sight and sound.

. Multiple cameras projected the service on several enormous screens suspended over the hall. A live band buoyed a service that was conducted almost entirely in song.

Now I'm all for music in worship; anyone who's heard me talk about my congregation surely knows that. But I do not attend services seeking "a choreographed production of sight and sound". I attend services to pray in community. Both parts of that, "pray" and "community", are important. Is 6000 people community? I think that's at least 5500 too many for me to have that kind of connection, personally. Maybe I'm societally deficient.

From what I understand (and have caught occasional glimpses of on TV on Sunday mornings), mega-churches are theatre, first and foremost. They are performances, deemed successful if the audience cheers or claps along enthusiastically (and maybe gets up to dance). Can you reach God by making a joyous sound, singing a new song? Of course! Is that what happens in those services? I wonder. Sometimes, for some people, of course -- but is the format an aid or a roadblock?

I don't know. I can ride that sort of wave of spirit in my 30-person Shabbat minyan and in our 300-person monthly musical service. Is 300 different in principle from 3000 or 30,000? It feels like it is. I know almost all of the 30 people and a good proportion of the 300, which probably makes a difference, but that's not all of it. I've been to services where I didn't know anyone and yet felt connected. I think it's also that among 30 or even 300, I can still feel like I matter. Among 3000? Not so much -- at that point I'm just an anonymous face in the crowd, not part of the community. Any face will do to build a crowd, but community happens person to person, soul to soul. Being just a face in the crowd is no different from being alone -- I might as well stay home and pray with fewer distractions. But that's not what I want.

One specific idea originating in mega-churches has come up in discussions a number of times, and I find it particularly revolting: the notion that instead of handing out prayer books, you project the text, perhaps done up in Powerpoint, on big screens. Shoot me now. Quite aside from the issues of doing this on Shabbat (yeah, most Reform Jews don't care, but some of us do), quite aside from how mood-detracting this is, there is the fact that such a format is quite hostile to those of us with vision problems, precisely at a time when movement leaders are telling congregations we need to be more welcoming, friendly, and accessible. If your quest for techno-gimmicks and new, young, hip members comes at the expense of the committed congregants who are already there, what message does that send?

"If the mega-churches can do it, maybe it'll work for us," said one member of Temple Holy Blossom, a large Reform congregation in Toronto. "I'm open to anything. As long as Jews are praying, I'm happy."

The key phrase, treated here as a given, is "as long as Jews are praying". I hope that's what's happening in these kinds of worship services, but I'm not ready to assume it. I would like to hear from people who like this worship style. In what ways does it work for you? Are those benefits unique to this style of worship, or do you also get them through other styles (and if so, which)? What aspects of this worship style have made you struggle, and how have you overcome those difficulties?

There is a lot of discussion in the comments (archive).

Radioactive kitty (followup)

Embla went to the vet tonight for scheduled maintenance... err, her three-month checkup after being treated for hyperthyroidism. I won't have the test results for a few days, but my vet said she would be very surprised if things are not normal. The folks at RadioCat had said that it was possible Embla would need a second treatment, because her numbers were off the scale.

While on the drugs in June Embla weighed 7lbs 14oz. After being off the drugs for a week (test requirement) in August, she was down to 7lbs 1oz. RadioCat did not weigh her on treatment day, but it was probably comparable. Tonight she weighed 9 pounds (even). She hasn't weighed that much for three years! So that's a good sign. Her heart rate was 160, which is very good.

Embla was not, however, happy to be at the vet's:

fluffy tortie flattened on vet table

still flattened and splayed, with big eyes looking disappointed at the camera

I parse this as "but mom, I am not having fun here!". :-) (I don't know how to transliterate "whiny tone", so you'll have to use your imagination.)

Unusual Shabbat

This morning about half an hour into services the fire alarm went off. It's one of those newfangled piercing ones that you can't just ignore (I suppose that's the point), so we started to file out. The executive director met us in the hall and said "get your coats and go wait outside; it's a false alarm". After getting my coat I started to go back for the sefer torah but was deterred.

After about five minutes the director said it wasn't a false alarm after all (but no one was panicking either), so the fire trucks were on their way and we should probably go home. I suggested we try to relocate and continue the service. Someone else said she lives a couple blocks away, so we decided to go there. The director wouldn't let us back in for the sefer torah and siddurim, but eventually consented to let the rabbi and one other person go in. So the rest of us headed over to the house and they did that. (We ended up with about one siddur for every 2-3 people, but that was fine. I learned that I have more of the service memorized than I had thought.)

We did lose a couple people along the way, but most joined us and it was a pleasant experience. We were already reduced in number because the URJ biennial is happening this week, so we all fit in the living room. I read torah on the dining-room table, and people just moved around as needed to make that work. (I gave the hosts the aliyot -- seemed fitting.) After the service our hosts brought out wine for kiddush, and we also had food. Around then we got word that everything was fine back at the synagogue, so when we were done schmoozing a few of us carried everything back.

(If I understand correctly, something in the kitchen (I think a fridge) fried itself somehow. The kitchen was not in use at the time.)

Random bits

Exhibit #342 supporting the case that Dani and I are well-matched: tonight's theoretical discussion of the proposition "lights timed for 35 MPH are also timed for 70 MPH". Well, that's pretty clearly false; the interesting discussion was of the reverse. It sure seems like lights timed for 70 MPH ought to also be timed for 35 MPH, but I don't think it's so even if you pile on simplifying assumptions like "green 50% of the time".


Remember when disk space cost a dollar a meg? And later it was a dollar a gig? Dani just bought a 500GB drive for under $100. Um, yeah.

When I bought my current computer (a couple years ago), I was sure that 6 USB ports would be enough for anyone. Yeah, right. Ok, I'll buy a hub. :-) Ok, I don't need all of them all of the time, but it's just easier to leave things like the iPod cable plugged in all the time.

(In a similar vein, I was looking at the mass of plugs in my office -- four-outlet wall socket and 6-outlet UPS, all full. One of the nine plugs (the UPS is plugged into the wall) turned out to be spurious. Eek. (CPU, monitor, printer, scanner, two hard drives, router, lamp. Clearly the lamp's days are numbered.))


Conversation while driving through a construction zone:

"Is this our on-ramp?"

"I think so. At least the signs are facing the right way."

"And no oncoming headlights. Let's go for it."

"Man, if their attitude is 'if you're not from around here why are you on our roads?', they should make it easier to flee."


My father-in-law and his wife were in town Thursday (on their way south for the winter), so dinner with them trumped this week's Hebrew class. They were staying at a hotel along I-79 and said they wanted to eat at "that Italian restaurant". We don't have much occasion to be on 79 between 279 and 279; can they be more specific? The one where they put the french fries on the sandwiches. Ok, "Primanti's" is an Italian name, I suppose, but I've never thought of it as an Italian restaurant. :-) (Food was ok, smoke was pretty bad, vegetarian options were limited. Next time I push for something different.)


A picture in today's paper made me laugh. It was of two people in a Christmas-tree lot with their dogs. I laughed because I had two conflicting thoughts: we're identifying the tree the dogs like (in that way that only dogs do) and keeping it far far away from the living room, versus we're letting the dogs pick the tree since it's going to be theirs anyway. :-)


This morning's torah reader wanted to give hagbahah (one of the honors) to a woman because we tend to give it to men. This involves lifting the open torah scroll overhead and turning so everyone can see it. The first few people he asked turned him down, so I said I would do it. I commented that early in the year is great for lefties because of where the weight is. Only after I said it did I realize that I'm not actually a lefty; I just feel like one. (Born lefty, raised righty.) Eventually I'm probably going to confuse someone with this. :-)

Mitzvot in Conservative Judaism

I was recently given a photocopy of the article "Conservative Judaism in an Age of Democracy" by Rabbi Harold Kushner. (I think it came from Conservative Judaism magazine. I can't find an online copy.) This theologically-attuned Reform Jew found it a fascinating read. Read more…