Blog: July 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.

NHC summer institute

After Pennsic I head north for the NHC summer institute. I got both of my first-choice classes, and there are interesting workshops in every session (sometimes more than one). This should be fun!

They encourage newcomers to just dive in (they even asked if I'd like to to lead a workshop), so I volunteered to chant torah. I'll be reading twice (one a subset of the other), on Thursday morning and Shabbat morning (the chavurah-style minyan, as opposed to the traditional-egalitarian or the kabbalistic-sounding one).

I'm looking forward to NHC. It's something I haven't done before, and it sounds like it'll be a fairly immersive experience -- lots of stuff going on all day and evening, as opposed to the daytime-only program I attended last year. (The timing might be a bit brain-bending; it's probably pretty different in style from Pennsic. :-))

The organizers report that cell-phone coverage on the rural campus is spotty, but there's internet access. I sure hope the latter is correct, as I'd like to be able to communicate with my cat-sitter. (Dani won't be going so can take care of two of them, but special-needs kitty will go to his usual sitter.)

Pennsic setup

The Coopers were able to move the house this morning without apparent problems, fortunately. The trailer does need some repairs -- probably one axle should be replaced, at least. One of my camp-mates spotted some writing/engraving in the middle of the axle (completely eluded me), so we now have a part number. (Also most of a serial number, though a couple digits were too hard to read, but I don't think that's useful for anything.) Someone had a good idea: ask the Coopers who services their vehicles, on the assumption that they don't drive their tracters in to Butler or Newcastle for maintenance. I need to find someone who can make a house call; the trailer is not road-legal (and probably couldn't be made so without fixing the problem for which I would want to take it somewhere... um.)

We spent all day up there doing camp set-up. Dani is now the assistant plumber (since the previous assistant has moved to another camp). We got all the camp infrastructure in place today (and most personal dwellings); we're farther ahead than we usually are on the first Sunday. I didn't think I had done anything really strenuous, but now some muscles are filing complaints. Oh well; they'll get over it.

It should be a comfortable camp this year. There's never a lot of space at Pennsic, of course, but we managed to get an optimal shape, so we have a straight path through camp and relatively few ropes in inconvenient places.

Now, home for a few days before going back up.

Well, at least it wasn't a *catastrophic* failure

Today was Pennsic land-grab, so several members of my camping group were up there to do setup. (Dani and I will join this effort tomorrow.) The first order of business is always to move the house, partly because they need room to maneuver the tracter and partly because a lot of our stuff is in it.

The Coopers started to move the house. One of the wheels came off (!). This caused a cascading effect that damaged two other tires, so all three tires on one side were dead. Move aborted. :-( My apprentice had in his possession one spare wheel and two new ones we just bought, and a pile of super-special lug nuts, but the folks at Pennsic didn't have his phone number. So eventually I got home from morning services and learned about all this, and we were able to reach Degan who hurried up there. Meanwhile, Arianna and Brandubh (and Alaric?) jacked up the house and started investigating, and once Degan got through the hour-long check-in line they were able to start swapping things around, a process that I imagine was long, messy, and frustrating. They think it's ready to roll now, but the Coopers were done for the day so won't move it until tomorrow. (Meanwhile, people shuttled cars back and forth to retrieve some of the contents so some set-up could happen.)

If it had tipped over while losing all the tires on one side, we would be doomed. Close call.

I have awesome friends. I feel awful that the weight of this work fell on them while I wasn't even there to help. I guess next year I need to be there on Saturday, which means being there Friday before sundown and sleeping in the car or something. Ugh. But less ugh-inducing than not sharing in the suffering when something goes wrong.

We will call the place where we got the new tires first thing Monday morning to order four more. The only reason I didn't get a complete set to start with is that we're upgrading to something more durable, and I wanted to make sure a pair would work before I spent money for all of them. (Everything should have worked, of course, but special orders can't be returned.) I wasn't supposed to need the other four this soon; after Pennsic should have been fine. :-(

Apparently there is also damage to, um, the part of the axle that the wheel fits onto (not sure of the specifics here). So I need to find a mechanic (or metalsmith?) who can make, err, a house call.

If I were doing this project over, I now know some things I would do differently. But I have to work with what I've got, because it's not practical to make changes.

Services this Shabbat

Summary: Friday night ok (or good considering circumstances); Saturday morning quite good. Read more…

First look at two games

Dani came home from Origins with (among things) two cooperative games, Fury of Dracula and Descent. Both are best for five players, so yesterday we rounded up three other people to give them a spin. Read more…

Shabbat and NHC

I'll be leading services tomorrow night (and Saturday morning) at my synagogue, including reading torah. (Both the rabbis are away.) I'm looking forward to it. One small monkey wrench was thrown at me -- last week we switched to a new siddur for Friday nights, an interim prayerbook based on the forthcoming Mishkan T'filah. (MT is out, but our copies are still "forthcoming".) So all the familiar page numbers are wrong, some of the songs are in different places, some of the English is a little different, etc. I borrowed a copy and applied stickie notes for a few page cues; it should be fine. (If you're local and want to come, that's 7:00 tomorrow night.)

When I registered for the NHC summer institute (the learning program I'm going to after Pennsic), I checked off the "willing to read torah" box. I had looked at the portion; there is one very long aliya (two columns!) and the rest are managable, but there was no place to indicate "but please not levi". Fortunately, they don't just send out assignments; yesterday I got mail asking what I'm interested in. (There are several options, not just Shabbat morning.) There were a bunch of people on the To: line of that message, including some with "rab" in their user names. I hope I won't be outclassed. I don't think so.

Followup on Erik's ultrasound

Last month Erik had an ultrasound (prompted by an accumulation of suspicious bloodwork), which showed some "streaking" (deposits?) in the bile ducts and a possible gallstone. My vet referred me to a specialist, who we saw today.

(Aside: 7 pounds even, again. Sigh.)

The vet is skeptical about the gallstone -- skeptical that it could be causing the problems we're seeing in the absence of other problems we're not, and also a little dubious about whether it's really even there. The surgery Erik had in late 2005 was "game-changing", he said; some internal bits got moved around, and that makes it much much harder to read an ultrasound. (He's not dissing the guys who did the ultrasound; he's saying their job is hard.) He speculated that the "stone" might be an accoustic shadow. The only way to know is to go in and look, but he sees no reason to do that unless we're going in for some other reason.

The streaking is something of a puzzler, and he didn't talk much about it. He said there are four possible causes of the issues we're seeing in Erik: the hepatitis we already know he has (which we should continue to treat), IBD (irritable bowel disorder), diffuse lymphoma (which wouldn't produce ultrasound-visible tumors), and a tumor in the pancreas. Of these, the hepatitis is treated with drugs, the IBD would be treated with predinzone, the pancreas tumor could not be treated, and lymphoma is treated with chemo. So none of the treatments are surgical, but surgery would be required to figure out which of those is going on. (Surgery to "look around" and collect samples for biopsy.)

I asked what are the risks of doing that surgery and what are the risks of not doing it. (I got the impression from his reaction that most people don't ask about both, while I think it's essential.) If we don't do the exploratory surgery, we should take a shotgun approach, treat the symptoms, and see what happens. (I didn't get the impression that chemo was part of the ammo in that shotgun.) If we do the surgery, there are risks from the stress. While Erik is an older cat, the vet said he is otherwise healthy so he wouldn't rule out surgery. But, he said, he would judge that there's a 10-20% chance that we would look back on it and say "we shouldn't have done that". He said he is on the fence about whether the surgery is a good idea; he thinks the risks are comparable either way. (Oh, great...)

I asked about the lymphoma scenario -- is this something that moves quickly and would kill him in months, or is it something that would take a few years (he's 15.5 now)? Also a good question, he said, but he was dodgy about answering so I will follow up with my vet. I wrote down "a year w/prednizone", but I'm now not sure what predinoze has to do with lymphoma so I probably misunderstood. As an aside, his WBC has been high for a while (2-3 years, I think, but need to ask my vet), so at a gut level I don't think he has cancer. I should have asked the vet to comment on that given Erik's WBC history. My vet will be speaking with him, so maybe she can pursue that.

I asked about followup issues from surgery, since that took me by surprise last time. He said the best case is that Erik stays in the hospital a couple days, goes home, and we're pretty much done (one followup visit, I think). If they can't get him to eat after the surgery, they would use a feeding tube and things get more complicated (as we saw before). Last time the feeding tube caused an absess; this is very unusual, he said, but of course there's always a risk at any incision site (my read on this was "CYA").

He's on the fence and doesn't feel a sense of urgency, so I won't be acting before Pennsic. I need to talk with my vet more and think about things. There's no "quick fix" -- it's not like there's a tumor to be removed or the like -- but there could be a lot to be learned that would let us do more-effective drug treatments, maybe. Or, this might just be the way Erik is, and what we would learn is "the drugs you're using are good".

When I was giving him an overview of Erik's history at the beginning, consulting my own notes, he asked if I'm in the medical field. I guess most people don't use words like "icteric" in conversation. No, I said, just detail-oriented. :-) (I actually only started keeping my own notebook last winter, in an effort to track appetite changes, drug changes, behavior changes, etc more finely. Still no patterns there that I can see, but I might try using the data-visualization software my company makes to look for patterns.)

Edit: My vet called to ask how it went, so I gave her a rundown. While we were talking I asked what the treatment would be like if it did turn out to be lymphoma, and she described something that sounded like "cure worse than the disease" to me, though of course that's only a casual reaction to a cursory description. But, as I suspected, chemo does have the potential to be pretty invasive too. So we'll see. She also suggested that aspirating the liver would tell us if it's lymphoma; since the specialist didn't mention that, I asked her to discuss it with him and tell me what happens. (This is much less invasive than surgery -- basically just a needle stick, guided by ultarasound.) A problem with prednizone, she said, is that it can interfere with future biopsies, so she doesn't want to just put him on it unless we're sure we aren't going to do the surgery. She agreed that we do not need to do anything immediately, unless of course his condition changes, so there is time to think and study.

Interviewed by tangerinpenguin

1) What are you up to musically these days?

The only organized, regular thing is singing in the barony choir. I participate regularly in a musical congregation but usually don't have the chance to lead or innovate. I'm not currently doing anything with folk music or instruments.


2) From the viewpoint of a tech writer, what do you wish more developers knew, or would do differently?

A good tech writer is also a user, a usability advocate, and a coniving tester. So...

  • Name things appropriately. Yes, it matters; we're not just being nit-picking word nerds when we push on this.
  • Think about publicity levels at the beginning. What makes sense for an internal interface might not make sense for an API. Understand what that means up front; refactoring APIs is a PTIA (and often impractical).
  • Document the contract for external eyes and the implementation for internal ones. I see too much javadoc that describes implementation, and that's rarely what was really intended.
  • That said, document at all. :-) Look, no one expects perfection, but the time to capture your intent and design is, at latest, when you're writing the code. Not a year later when you finally have a user who wants to understand the patterns you're using.
  • Eat your own dogfood. If you're making an API, actually write an application against it. To avoid too much insider knowledge, pair up with someone else so you're using less-familiar code. Ask yourself where the pain points were.


3) What, in your opinion, has been the biggest game-changing development in software development in the last five years?

This question is the main reason this reply has been so long in coming.

I'm really bad at the Big Vision Stuff; I don't have a good overview of where the whole field is and is going. I can only answer from my own little corner, so I'm going to give an answer that is almost certainly wrong in the grand scheme. Sorry.

Five years is also hard (presumably you intended that). Most things that came immediately to mind are older than that, or at least had their roots much earlier. I think part of why I struggle with this is that it takes a while to see what really turned out to be game-changing. Faster, multi-core machines were game-changing; IDEs were game-changing; test-driven development might be game-changing; Java generics (and their predecessors, C++ templates) are probably game-changing. But all that stuff is too old for this question. (Ok, not Java generics, but I also said "probably" there.)

So instead, I'll go in a slightly different direction. I think in the last five years we have seen a build-up (pushing past the tipping point) of demand for a new level of interoperability. More and more we are seeing open interfaces for data and services, and we are seeing the expectation that the client code you crafted is a starting point, not the end of the story. This is most obvious on the web, with mash-ups, browser extensions, data services, client-side page rewriting, and RSS feeds (your content is now just data). But I think we're seeing it in other forms too; I think the iPhone might have finally pushed small devices into the mainstream, such that software vendors have to pay attention to them. Yeah, others were there for years before, and what we got from it was a few web sites that understood the small screen and the idea of syncing your data to your desktop machine. I think there are greater expectations now and software providers have to pay attention. All in all, I think this is leading to a "have it your way" approach; the user is increasingly in charge. (Of course we have a long way to go yet.)


4) What's been your most intriguing daf so far?

Of the ones I've posted about, Sotah 12 because it contains so much nifty midrash about Moshe's early years (and things that immediately preceeded his birth, like Paro's decree, Miriam's correction of her father for divorcing her mother, and the deeds of the Egyptian midwives). Of all the ones I've studied, I think Bava Metzia 59, which argues about the source of authority in law. This contains the famous passage where one rabbi calls for miracle after miracle to prove his point, until he is rebuked by the others saying "torah is not in heaven" -- the authority is in men. That's the part everyone knows, but then the gemara goes in a somewhat disturbing direction where one of the rabbis involved is excommunicated; I don't completely understand it yet, but it certainly qualifies as intriguing.


5) Are there any SCA activities you could see yourself doing more often at this point?

Storytelling. Partly because almost anything is more than what I'm doing now, but it's something I'm interested in exploring, especially with the rich tradition of Jewish stories (midrash). Storytelling is portable in a way that the dulcimer isn't, too.

While I know some stories (not as many as I'd like yet, but a start), I don't know a lot yet about telling stories, particularly in a period-appropriate way. There are no SCA teachers accessible to me who are interested in the authencitiy angle, and I'm not interested in doing modern storytelling in the SCA. As a first approximation "imitate Cariadoc" works, but I'm not really sure where to go from there.


Since Friday was Independence Day, our cantorial soloist made certain modifications to the music at services. Adon Olam is Greensleeves-complete (that is, it can be sung to anything that Greensleeves can be sung to, which is a lot); so is the national anthem. Sort of, but "sort of" is normal for mutations of Adon Olam. (Everybody picks that song in particular to beat up on... :-) )

We had no rabbis this Shabbat, so I was asked to lead the torah study on Shabbat morning. I participate every week, but leading is a little different. I think it went reasonably well, especially with the difficult passage I had to cover. (Ahem. Rabbi, I'll thank you not to leave us in such a challenging place next time. :-) ) Deut 25:11-12, for the curious. Maybe more about that in a different post.

The service was led by the person who organizes the torah readers; he happened to be reading that day, so he got the whole service. He has told me in the past that he's uncomfortable with singing/chanting, but he did a great job this week. It probably helped that a few of the regulars who tend to run roughshod over any non-rabbinic leader weren't there. These are the folks who won't give the lay leader a chance to start a song in a comfortable key or choose a melody, for instance. It's pretty frustrating, as it forces leaders who are not necessarily practiced at this to be pushy rather than taking that calming breath before doing something major. They don't much faze me (I'm loud and, when the designated leader, assertive), but I feel for some other folks. But anyway, yesterday's leader did a fine job, and I hope he'll be more comfortable doing this in the future now that he's done it once.

After lunch Dani and I went to Arianna's holiday party. Her new house is excellent for parties that can use outdoor space; the deck and yard are expansive and comfortable. She's also got a good space for gaming, though we didn't break out any games at this party. It was nice to chat with some folks I don't see often (or do see but it's at events and they're busy being, say, royalty).

The secret to parking near her house, by the way, is to ignore the thing that looks like a street (it's a driveway) and follow the thing that looks like a driveway (it's a street).

Today has been mostly a quiet day at home. We went out for brunch and ended up on Craig Street, where we encountered roadblocks and lots of classic cars parked in the street. The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix isn't for another two weeks, but apparently today was the kick-off for the festivities -- what we saw turned out to be cars lining up for a road rally. I've never participated in a rally, but they sound like fun (though I'd be most interested in low-tech ones; I think it's more fun if you have to do your own calculations, don't have a GPS telling you exactly where you are, and so on).

I think of rallies as being more of a rural or suburban thing; this one was right in the city. But I guess there are different sorts; the ones I've heard about revolve around instructions like "go 28MPH for 3.7 miles", which would be harder if you have to deal with traffic lights and want to stay legal. (A rally isn't a race; you are peanlized for passing checkpoints either too early or too late (based on how long it should have taken you to get there had you followed the directions precisely).) Maybe someday I'll learn more about them from a participant's perspective.

I found a recipe for cold cherry soup today that I like. I finally seem to have learned how to use cornstarch as a thickener (though I gather that's not the only thing going on here). This recipe is pretty easy, and tasty. Definitely a keeper.

I spent some time learning the torah portion I'm chanting in two weeks. I'm not sure yet whether repeated text with different trope is good (hey, I already know these words) or bad (...but not to that melody). I'm reading the part of Pinchas that goes through the holidays listing the offerings to be brought for each, which are mostly the same. It's kind of long, but not in words.

I wonder if this is a good idea

It's summer, the time when people at my synagogue traditionally think about plans for adult education for the coming year. I've realized that there is something I could teach, that I am atypically qualified to teach -- but I have no idea if it would reach the right people (or be seen as interesting).

Over the course of a year we see a fair number of people on the bimah, leading parts of the service, who haven't done this a lot and have never been taught how. The senior rabbi (who is excellent at this) is the right person to teach such a class, but he's busy. But at the risk of sounding immodest, I am probably one of the best lay people in the congregation in this area. At the knowing and the doing, I mean; I don't have much experience with teaching. That would be a "growth opportunity".

There is so much more to leading worship than just reading the words in the book. (It starts with awareness of that fact, by the way -- da lifnei mi atah omeid, know before whom you stand, is a guiding principle IMO.) I learned what I know mostly by observation (I'm good at noticing details in this context; people have commented on this), a fair bit by doing, and a fair bit from the Sh'liach K'hilah program. So I'm trying to figure out if I should offer.

The main reason I hesitate is that such a class could fail to attract the people who will be in a position to apply it while giving people who won't be in such a position false hope (double whammy). I've lived that false hope; it sucks. Possibly the right way to structure such a thing is not as a broad class but as something that members of sisterhood, brotherhood, committees, etc -- the groups that get services during the year -- are expected to go through. Pitch it to them rather than more broadly. (But would they buy in if the rabbi isn't the teacher?) Now that I think about it, we've had targetted training sessions on how to lead a shiva minyan (targetted to the committees that do that), so maybe that's the right model. (I'm focusing on adults here because I think the b'nei mitzvah have their heads, and schedules, full already. They and their families could surely benefit, but I don't think it would happen.)

My rabbi is away for the next several weeks (and then I'll be away for a bit just as he's coming back), so I'll either wait or mention the idea casually to our new rabbi who will be focusing on education.


Added in a comment:

That's a good point. I'm also in a better position than the rabbi to teach "interacting with the rabbi on the bimah". :-)

Seriously, one of the things I seem to be good at is rolling with changes without explicit communication. An example from the last time I led on a Friday night: I'm reading along in ahavat olam and I see, out of the corner of my eye, the rabbi pick up his guitar. We don't normally use guitar for Sh'ma and hadn't talked about it here, but there is a sort of kavanah (sung) that we sometimes use. Aha, says I to myself, he's decided to insert that. I turn slightly and give the faintest hint of a nod, which tells him I know what he's up to. The congregation never knows we didn't plan it.