Blog: March 2008

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.

Random bits

Recently (to investigate something), I added a third-party tracker to some of my LiveJournal posts in order to see where the hits are coming from. This was meant to be temporary, but I've found it interesting to see just how big the internet community is, so I've continued to use it at times. So, I don't know who any of y'all are (and publishing on the internet means I might never know, and that's cool), but I'd like to say hello to my regular readers in Italy, Moldova, Switzerland, and Cambodia (!).

We are having weird modem luck. I thought all DSL modems were basically the same, but apparently not. Our old (bought in 1999) modem has started dropping signal -- it's eratic, but when it happens it lasts for a few hours. My DSL provider mailed me a new one (a level of service I did not expect) and it's reliable but universally slow. So our current mode of operation is to use the old one until it drops and then switch to the new one for a few hours. Weird. So I think we need to buy a new modem that is both reliable and fast, but since I thought they were all the same I now don't know what to look for. (We have basic DSL. Someday I hope they well run FIOS to our neighborhood and we'll switch.)

Recent conversation:
Dani: We're out of (book)shelf space in the library again.
Me: Maybe we should assemble that last bookcase we bought.
Dani: We're out of shelf space in the library again.
Me: You built it and filled it already? So we need to buy more?
Dani: We're out of wall space to put bookcases...

(I assert that he is incorrect on that last point, but it hinges on a dispute between practicality and purity. Or something like that.)

We bought some CFLs (in two different color-tones) to try again, and installed some in the ceiling fixture in the living room (the packaging contained no dire warnings about that, unlike the last one). Freaky white and bright, so some tuning is called for, but there might be a bigger problem: flicker. The switch is a dimmer, but we know CFLs don't dim so the switch is at max. (Truth to tell, we don't dim regular bulbs in that fixture, either.) Does the mere presence of a dimmer switch doom CFLs? That would be annoying.

From comments: non-dimmable CFLs + dimmer switch = fire hazard.

A couple links:

A few nights ago I made these lamb chops, which I've made before and which are amazingly good.

The ten plagues, done in peeps (from someone on my subscription list, but I've lost track of who). Twisted! Funny!

Allocating charitable contributions

This Shabbat we had a guest, Ruth Messinger from American World Jewish Service. She spoke Friday night about global communities and led a study session Shabbat morning on the theme of "to whom am I responsible?". We talked about communities and how they overlap and how this can influence our degrees of connection, and we talked in passing about how we make decisions about tzedakah (charitable contributions, though that's not a precise translation).

The talmud lays out some basic ideas, but they're all dichotomies that don't work so well in the real world. In lending money (it does specify lending, not giving), prefer the poor to the less-poor and your local community to other communities and Jews to gentiles (and other spectra). Sounds fine in principle, but people are not so two-dimensional, so this does not give good guidance on ranking the local poor gentile versus the less-poor eastern-European Jew. Of course, in talmudic times you were less likely to even know about the distant need, but in a global community, things change. Even 30 years ago it would have been pretty freakishly unlikely for me to have contact with people in Singapore, Australia, France, and Myanmar. Today? I didn't make up any of those examples. (This discussion was designed to raise questions, not give answers.)

One of the many factors I take into account is the "dividend" that my donation will pay -- if I can make a donation that will teach someone better farming techniques or medicine, or buy a family's first dairy cow, for example, I see that donation as more effective than one that will just provide sustenance today, all other factors being equal. (Of course, all other factors are rarely equal.) I'm a big fan of "enabling to fish" versus "giving a fish", when that's possible. (I said something about this in the discussion and she said "ding ding ding -- microlending!". Hmm, maybe; I hadn't thought about that, but I can see a connection, maybe. Someone else said "ding ding ding -- Rambam", which I was aware of but hadn't been conscious of.)

Another factor that I find myself taking into account is proportional impact. There are the "big causes" that lots of people donate to (and that includes me to some level); I find myself looking for the smaller ones that are doing work that's just as important but who haven't attracted a lot of attention yet. Of course, by definition, this is hard to do, so I'm always open to suggestions here. I only heard of the heifer project in the last few years, for instance, even though those guys have been around for a while. This is the sort of work the United Way ought to be doing, but I've seen too many problems with that so they don't get my money. Specifically within the Jewish world, I guess UJF is kind of analogous -- but I do not restrict myself to Jewish causes. And anyway, I prefer to have more of a hand in directing my contributions than they will give me -- so they get a token from me, but the real dollars go elsewhere. (The only significant "ok, you decide" money I give is to my rabbi's discretionary fund, because I know he will be a good agent.)

I support local organizations instead of or in addition to national or world ones. I support an organization working in world hunger, but I also support my local food banks (the general one and the kosher one). I support a national animal-welfare organization, but I also make donations to local animal shelters. Stuff like that.

This is all stuff I should think more about, as sometimes, right now, it's kind of haphazard.

Ruth told us about an interesting family tradition she'd heard somewhere: when each kid in the extended family reaches a certain age (I think she said 9 in this case), a family member with the means sits that kid down for a talk that goes something like this: "Here is a check for $100. It's made out to your parents 'cause they have the checking account, but at any time during the coming year, you can direct them to write a check to any charity you like until this money is gone. If you come back in a year and tell me how you spent it, you'll get more to distribute next year." There is no request up front to justify the decisions but, she said, it comes out in the followup conversation. I think this is a neat idea; think of it as a teeny tiny foundation that gets people thinking about decisions and decision-making from an early age.

New monitor

A couple weeks ago at work we got our first look at the new version of Bugzilla, which we'll be forced to upgrade to soon. (Our current version is incompatable with the version of Perforce we're upgrading to.) Both Perforce and Bugzilla have web interfaces, and in the new versions, both assume a much wider browswer window than I am prepared to provide. That I have to jack up the font size doesn't help, but, fundamentally, people are, more and more, designing inaccessible web sites on the theory that of course you can spare 1000+ pixels in width. The web-design industry is mature enough (or at least old enough) that we should be past that... grumble. But I digress.

So, while talking with my manager about some of the things we were trying to do to address this (our build manager, in whose lap all this falls, has been wonderfully helpful), my manager said "I just ordered some new 22" monitors; I'll put you on the list". (I could, if I like, have a pair of 18?" monitors, but I can't actually place two monitors such that I can see everything.)

This morning the monitor fairy came. :-) 22" turns out to be widescreen (not the 4:3 or whatever of regular monitors); the new one might be half an inch shorter than my old one. But it's tall enough, and the extra real-estate is nice. The recommended resolution is only 1680x1050 (or something like that), which surprised me. (I expected to see a number over 2000 for the wide dimension.) That resolution actually works for me; yay! This was also the highest setting available on my computer; I assume that's a function of the graphics card and not the monitor. (I would not be able to put higher resolution to good use.)

One problem: I noticed some pretty significant color distortion in the top quarter of the screen. We actually thought it was defective, so we swapped it out for another one (slightly different model). The problem was less pronounced on the second one but still there. That's when I noticed that it changed with my height; if I raised my chair a couple inches the problem got much better. But I can't raise my chair a couple inches because then the keyboard will be in the wrong place. (Tried it for an hour. No.) If I could tip the monitor forward a little that would make a difference, but it's already at the max setting there. Perhaps I will channel my inner MacGyver and rig something to let it tip a bit without falling. (Ok, that's more like my inner MacGyver's four-year-old apprentice or something. MacGyver would rig it to track my eyes and auto-pivot in both dimensions, using nothing more than duct tape and pocket lint.)

Mind, I will find ways to live with the color distortion if necessary. The real estate is worth it. It's not a perfect solution; I have to roll my chair sideways a bit to fully utilize the screen. But it's pretty good, and if it just plain gives me the room to have some extra-wide windows that I can move around as needed, that'll do.

One other problem (handily solved): the first monitor did not have buttons but rather touch controls. With tiny little labels that are impossible to read in dim lighting. I had to borrow a flashlight and use my magnifying glass to configure the monitor. The second one (an older model) has buttons. Yeah, I'll keep that one. What was Samsung thinking? Touch controls?! (And finicky ones, too.)

Six years (!) later I learned about the difference between TN and IPS monitors.

When policies collide

Dear Giant Eagle,

You have made it abundantly clear that your parking lot is for use only by your customers while they are shopping in your store. Even though Kosher Mart is across the street from you, I try my best to honor that: if I am shopping at both stores, I will park on the street if I can do so within a block or so. It is true that when I've planned to buy a whole cart-load of stuff from you and just a couple packs of meat from across the street, I have used your lot anyway if there is no street parking. But I have at least tried to honor your policy, because I understand about slippery slopes.

I also acknowledge that you apparently have a problem with the theft of shopping carts. Your signs about this being theft are apparently not doing the job for you.

However, it was still a surprise to me today to find that you had -- with no posted notice -- installed some sort of electronic security system such that it was impossible for me to move the cart past your walkway and onto the public sidewalk. I was not thrilled to have to shuttle my groceries from your door to my car down the block in several trips. (Mind, at least I can, unlike some of your customers.) No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.

Well, now I know: I should just park in your lot, at least until you install the sensors that will detect bags from Kosher Mart being carried through your airspace.

But to end on a positive note, I would like to commend you for being open today (Easter), unlike your larger store in Edgewood. I guess being in a Jewish neighborhood is good for something. :-)

Voter registration

PSA: tomorrow is the deadline for registering to vote in the PA primary.

I'm curious about the numbers of new and party-change registrations. Apparently there have been 111,000 new Democratic registrations since the fall election and the number of registered Republicans has gone down by 13,000 in the same time period. But, of the remaining 98,000, how many are brand-new registrations and how many are changes from third-party or independent voters? I'm curious.

According to an article I saw (there was a link here but it died), they're a few thousand shy of 4 million Dem registrations. That says to me that, while 111,000 new (nominal or actual) Democrats is impressive, it's not nearly the number of cross-registrations I would have expected. Of course, this number will change in the next few days, but even so, I guess I was expecting a lot more non-Dems to temporarily switch, like I did.

So for those of you who kept your Republican registrations, I have a thought. Your primary is sealed up already, but instead of staying home or wasting votes on McCain (who doesn't need them), how about casting votes for whichever Republican candidate you feel best represents what the GOP should be and was before the far-righteous got into power? You're not voting for a person (that's already over with), but you could vote for an idea or a direction. Were I registered Republican I would be voting for Ron Paul because he's the only Republican who's against the Iraq war and he seems to actually be for smaller government. (That latter used to be definitive for Republicans, but it hasn't been true for a while.) Could he win? Of course not. If he did, could he implement his agenda? Not very much. But if he showed up with a primary win, that just might get people to start talking about those ideas.

Or not. Up to you. I'm just suggesting that you make your votes count in this late state.


Purim sameach (happy Purim)!

I went to my congregation's megillah reading tonight. I haven't been there in several years; the last time it was a real zoo (not in the good way), but that was also one change of rabbis ago, so I went. It was fun, though the kids were a little too wild (no surprise there).

There were a lot more people than I expected -- probably 300, maybe more. They had made a special booklet (siddur and songs; I don't think megillah text), but they ran out before I got there. I'm fluent with a siddur, so I didn't have problems with the service part (just using the regular weekday book), and anyway they made that as brief as they could.

There were a lot more people -- including a lot more adults -- in costume, or at least silly hats, than I expected. Last time most of the costumes were on kids, to the point where I would have felt self-conscious. Tonight that would have been fine, though. Before next year I would like to acquire a large silly hat, though I don't know what (or where one shops for large silly hats).

The associate rabbi was a hoot. He showed up in black suit, long white beard, full talit, black hat... and you have to understand that he can't be much more than about 35, so this was funny.

There were four readers for the megillah, trading off. They read mostly in English but started by chanting the opening paragraphs in the special megillah trope (well, I assume that's what it was, since I'd never heard that before), and they read some key passages in Hebrew along with the English. Most of the readers were doing over-the-top dramatic readings, which worked well. There were some bits of adult humor that I appreciated and that would have sailed right over the kids, so this was not geared just toward them.

During the megillah reading one is supposed to make noise when Haman's name is mentioned (to blot it out). Kids are really great at noise; they're not so great at stopping, and don't seem to grok that they'll get better impact if it's not one continuous din. The last time I went that was really horrid (and was the reason I didn't go back for a while); this time the rabbis were making large "cut" gestures to try to cut it off, a trick I saw work well at another congregation and had shared. Our leaders were not as successful with it, but it was way better than it had been. They'll have to work on the parents (some of whom were doing nothing to guide their kids in this).

Nobody local who I know (or, at least, who would invite me) does a big day-of-Purim feast like Yaakov and his friends do, but I'll try to have a nice lunch tomorrow. :-) In two years Purim will again be on a Sunday, and I'd like to see if I can find critical mass in my congregation for a party. (Last year it was on a Sunday and I cooked an SCA event for it. That was fun too.)

Daf bit: Megillah 16

I haven't imported most of the weekly "daf (yomi) bit" posts from Dreamwidth. There's a tag for them there.

(In honor of Purim, which starts tonight, a side trip to a different tractate.)

Megillat Ester describes how Ahashaverus came to honor Mordechai: he summoned Haman, his advisor, and asked how he should honor someone he favored, and Haman, thinking the king referred to him, described an elaborate public ritual, only to have the king say "go do that for Mordechai". The midrash fills in the ensuing conversation:

"Who is Mordechai?"

"The Jew."

"There are many Jews named Mordechai."

"The one who sits at the gate."

"For him the tribute of one village is sufficient!"

"Yeah, go do that too." (16a)

Some days it pays not to argue. :-)


When considering law and policy, the dominant factor should be what is just. When interacting with people, compassion should also be an important factor. The relative priorities of justice and compassion go a long way toward defining a political or philosophical position.

All that said, when discussing law and policy with people, things get complicated. I sometimes fail to give appropriate weight to compassion when expressing myself, even while holding a justice-dominant opinion. This is something I would like to improve in myself.

His Dark Materials

After I saw the movie The Golden Compass I added the trilogy to my reading stack. I finished them a couple weeks ago but didn't get around to writing about it before now. Terse impression: rich worlds and characters I wanted to follow; the first two and a half books hung together reasonably well, but the last half of the last book went off into la-la land, which affected my enjoyment of the whole. Spoilers follow.

Read more…

Last few days

Last week Dani got email from someone he knew in Toronto lo these many years ago. She and her family were driving to DC; did he want to visit with them on their way down? We said sure, and invited them for dinner Sunday. She and her husband are friendly people; their teenage sons were shy but pleasant, and they appreciated access to graphic novels and an internet connection while the rest of us were talking. :-) (One of them was excited to find Diablo installed on one of Dani's computers...)

The adults had obviously done some research. During dinner they said "please tell us about the SCA" and "so what about the house on the flatbed?". I googled both of us later and the page for the little house on the flatbed does not come up in the first half-dozen pages of results, so I'm not sure how they got there. (Of course, my home page does, from there you can get to my page of SCA links, and from there...) I, lacking information beyond her first name, had done no such research; I hope I was not socially deficient in these modern times.

Both Dani's and my desktop computers have been gradually getting sluggish over time. Dani went shopping and found that we could each triple our memory for $50. Ah, much better! Dani was kind enough to install mine for me. (We have a clean division of labor when it comes to household IT: he does hardware and I do system administration. Things go more smoothly when we do not try to switch.)

Dani did another hardware installation this weekend: late last week the water flow to the shower head was, suddenly, extremely diminished. Advice found on the internet suggested banging on the head and/or pipes to shake loose any gunk that might be in there; we decided not to do that without replacement hardware on hand, 'cause some water is better than none at all. (I should mention, in passing, that it took me a couple tries to find any useful information here. Who knew that some people try to deliberately reduce flow to their shower heads? Err, isn't that what the tub knobs are for? But I digress.) In the end, Dani bought a $5 head and simply replaced it; the new one is actually better than the old one. (Another in the "who knew?" department: you can spend $100 on a showerhead. It had better be gold-plated, water-softening, temperature-regulating, and massaging, for that price!)

A week ago Monday I took all the cats in for checkups, and two got blood drawn for tests. Tuesday night I got a message: um, err, we lost some of it. I had the last appointments of the night, and apparently one vial got left in the centrefuge... so I had to take Erik (I'm glad it was Erik! He's easy!) back to be stuck again on Wednesday. They were apologetic, but sigh. (Everyone's basically normal, locally scoped.)

Shabbat morning was a little more rabbi-heavy than usual. Both of our rabbis were there (until it was time to leave for the later service, anyway). We also had our incipient third rabbi (yes, now it can be told... we were looking for an educator and got one who's also a rabbi). And our associate rabbi's aunt, who is also a rabbi, was visiting. I'm glad that day's lay torah reader isn't one to get spooked easily. :-) (Though he might not have known about the last; I was introduced to her Friday night, but I don't think she mentioned her background Saturday morning.)

The third rabbi will be focusing mostly on education (including adults). He's an excellent teacher, and I'm looking forward to having more chances to learn with him. I presume that our adult-ed program is going to get a boost; yay!