Blog: September 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.

Pittsburgh Great Race

Pittsburgh has an annual foot race, and I have the misfortune to have the starting line just outside my bedroom window. (The sellers did not disclose this... which actually led to me going to traffic court the first year over a parking ticket, but that's another story.) I understand the necessary noise from a crowd of 10,000 people, but the unnecessary, gratuitious noise of loudspeakers blasting music at 7AM (!) has been an annual irritant. (We're talking loud enough to rattle windows.)

Last year I wrote to the mayor (who, by the way, was facing an election six weeks later) and asked that they alter the race (location or start time) and kill the unnecessary music. I did not receive a reply, not even one of those generic brush-offs that politicians routinely send. When the web site for this year's race went up I sent my request again via their web form -- again, nothing. And in early September we received a letter telling us about the race and its parking restrictions (hey, first mailed notice in nine years of living here!), and the letter included a phone number, so I tried that. (At this point, obviously, I was focusing only on the music issue, as all other aspects of the race were fixed.) I never succeeded in reaching a human at that number (possibly by design?) and left a message, which -- do you see a pattern here? -- was never answered.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to find this morning that the obnoxious music was gone! The loudspeakers fired up around 8:30, but they were making announcements, not blasing music. It didn't become unbearable until close to 9, and it was all over by 10.

I never tried to coordinate a campaign with the neighbors (thought of it too late), so I have no idea if others complained too. Was this a coincidence, did they receive complaints from multiple people, or did one person actually effect this change? I'll never know, but that's ok if this sticks.

This week I will be following up with thank-you notes/calls in hopes that we can keep this modification next year. (It would really suck if the lack of music was just due to a technical difficulty or something...)


Embla now weighs 11 pounds 1 ounce, up almost four pounds since her treatment for hyperthyroidism a year ago. Wow. I'm not sure, but this might be a record for her. (I asked my vet if my cat is fat yet and she said this is a good weight, but we don't want to see it keep going up. She had gained the first three of those pounds in the first six months, so I think it's tapering off.) Her heart rate was 160, same as last time.

Baldur weighs 14 pounds 4 ounces. He's been fluctuating in the 13.5-15.5 range for a while. His heart rate was 200 but he was agitated (Baldur is always agitated at the vet's). The vet heard a slight murmur again. She wants me to bring him along when Erik has his next checkup in December, unless something unusual happens before then.

Baldur only weighs three pounds and a bit more than Embla, but he still feels much heavier. I think Baldur has variable gravity. :-)

Erik didn't go tonight but we talked about him anyway. She wants me to bring him by for a weight check in a month or so.

Shiva and food

Some things are not part of the formal Jewish learning process. I understand how to behave at a shiva house (house of mourning), and I've puzzeled out some of the rest by observation, but I'm curious: what typically happens with food? There are a couple facets to this (and I am blessed to not have first-hand knowledge yet).

The community generally provides meals for the family so they don't have to cook during that week. Sometimes there seems to be someone coordinating ("can you do Thursday?"), but either this is usually not the case or those people rarely call me. Assuming no one has yet emerged in this role, the behavior I've learned is to show up with something that can be reheated (and is freezer-safe) and hand it to whoever seems to be in charge. Correct?

(When there is someone in the coordinator role, how does that come about? Does the family ask someone? Does someone volunteer to the family? Does someone step up but work through the community or synagogue?)

The other facet is refreshments. This might be a function of the liberal Jewish community (the only one in which I've attended shiva minyanim), but it is almost always the case that the family has put out a spread -- cookies, cakes, fruit, and sometimes more-substantial food. So even if I'm not bringing a meal I always bring something to contribute to that. This (the spread, not the contribution) feels weird -- the family in mourning should not be forced into the role of host, I would think. Is this normal?

I've been wondering about these things for years, and just happened to remember to do something about it after a visit tonight. (Well, if sending questions out into the void counts as doing something. :-) )

There's lots of information in the comments (archive).


A conversation with a coworker today prompted a memory that I realized I never actually wrote about.

A few years ago, my cat Erik had to have surgery, which had complicated after-care -- feedings were on a 6-hour cycle while some drugs were on an 8-hour one, both inflexible. I work full-time. Clearly this wasn't going to work.

We had just moved into new office space and parts of it were not complete. Specifically, we have a shower that was still missing some of its plumbing, so not usable as a shower. My manager arranged for me to be able to use that room for a week, stashing Erik in there and just going in when I needed to do stuff to him. This was neither a secret nor widely-known; people who saw me walk into the building would have seen the carrier, but it's not like there was an announcement. (Though a couple people who knew about it made visits to the room too.) I put a sign on the door saying "please don't open; find me if this is a problem" and signed it.

My company was, at the time, in its first year of having been acquired. Large companies are not always as casual as the small companies they buy. We had, fairly recently, had a manager from the mothership transfer to us, perhaps to help steer us in the right direction in the larger world.

I only heard about this incident some weeks after it happened: this manager and one of our software developers were walking down the hall past this room when Erik meowed. The manager stopped, looked at the door, and said "you have a cat in there". The developer looked at the sign, said "must be Monica's", and continued walking, having given this fact all the attention he felt it deserved. Apparently the look on the manager's face was special.

At the time the manager had no reason to know who I was. Now that he does, I infer that he's forgotten all about the cat in the office. Or, if he hasn't, he has declined to bring it up. :-)

Ordered new glasses

A while ago I asked about opticians. Thanks for the pointers. On the basis of the feedback I got from a coworker, this morning I took my prescription over to Optometric Associates of Pittsburgh, who seem to have the right amounts of customer care and attention to detail (and proximity doesn't hurt). So far, thumbs-up. (Of course, the real evaluation won't be possible until the glasses come in.)

The optician I met with, Jan, asked me what I was looking for in frames; I said my priorities were lens size/shape, fit, and "not garish", and all other properties were solidly second-tier. I said I wanted lenses no smaller than my current ones because these are my do-everything glasses (not into separate reading/computer glasses), and asked her to turn those comments into recommendations.

I was pleased that for every frame she pulled, she started by having me put it on so she could check the fit of the bridge and withdraw any that weren't right. (I have a small bridge, apparently.) Of the four frames she handed me three were good candidates, and my explanation of why the one wasn't led to some of the other options.

She had been doing this much just by looking. At this point she measured the lenses on my current glasses and the top candidate; the new ones are exactly one millimeter bigger in each of length and width. Score; the current ones turned out to be 1mm smaller than specified. :-) (We had been talking about the size-weight tradeoff; too small and I wouldn't be able to see, but I was mindful of being too heavy, too.) The shape of the new ones is pretty similar to that of my current ones.

I told her that bifocal placement was very important to me (had problems with that in the past), and that one of my current lenses is good and the other is a smidge high. She said the difference was obvious, though the folks who made the glasses had claimed it didn't exist; it turned out to be a difference of half a millimeter. She measured the distance between my pupils with a machine rather than a ruler, explaining that it was more precise. (Having now read a bit about it, I'm glad to see that it "reads" my eyes rather than depending heavily on my maintaining focus in one area. One of my eyes wanders and is hard to keep on target sometimes.)

She was very friendly and accommodating when I explained past problems I've had and would like to avoid. She explained the quality-control process ("you won't even see the glasses until I've confirmed all these measurements are exact"). Even if that's just part of the patter, I left feeling confident. Now I just have to wait a few weeks.

Stats you probably don't care about (for my own records): lens height 37mm, width 52mm; bifocal "28 flat-top"; PD right 28, left 27; preferred length of side-piece 135. Lenses are ordinary plastic, not one of the fancier breeds that can involve distortion. Also, two-year warranty on scratch-coating (last time was one and it failed at 13 months). She will try to get the transition treatment in brown (amber) rather than gray but doesn't know if she can (it depends on some property of the prescription).

Net savings after paying for insurance: $229. So worth buying the insurance in years when I intend to buy glasses. (The plan pays for glasses every other year, so I skip alternate years. I wonder what my employer pays toward this policy.)

Ki Teitze

This is (approximately) the d'var torah I gave on yesterday's portion:

Parshat Ki Teitze contains a large number of laws, and the sixth aliyah gives us a miscellaneous collection: a newlywed is exempt from military service for a year; don't take a millstone in pawn; kidnapping is a capital crime; be careful in dealing with leprosy; and rules about how to handle a man's pledge for a debt. Or, maybe they're not as miscellaneous as they might seem.

At some level all of these deal with taking things that are off-limits. The reason the torah gives here for exempting a man from the military is that he owes his wife a year of pleasure. Her needs trump the army's needs -- pretty revolutionary. From this we move to taking items in pawn. A man might be destitute enough to be forced to pawn belongings, but you are not allowed to take the tools he needs to sustain his life -- the millstone that grinds his flour for bread. Then follows kidnapping, possibly the most obvious transgression of the group: pressing a man into servitude or selling him steals his liberty and is dealt with harshly. (There are specific rules by which people can legitimately lose their liberty, but this is not one of them.)

Tzara'at ("leprosy") seems out of place in this list, but the passage gives us the connection: remember what happened to Miriam, who spoke lashon hara about Moshe and thus stole his reputation. And, finally, when you take a pledge for a debt -- which is permitted -- you cannot take it in a way that steals the dignity of the debtor. You don't ransack his house and you don't take away his bed-clothes at night. You handle his debt in a way that still allows him to bless you.

These passages are all about taking things, and specifically about taking things that can't be restored. You can compensate someone for stolen goods, but how do you compensate for stolen liberty, reputation, dignity, marital bliss, or life? You can't. Once you've committed the transgression, the harm is done.

How does this interact with the season we are now in? The high-holy-day liturgy makes clear that God pardons us for our sins only after we have made amends; what happens when we can't make amends? I'm used to thinking of murder as the canonical case here. This sin is theoretical and far away for most of us; I expect everyone in this room to get through life without committing that sin. So since I'm not a murderer, I don't tend to spend time thinking about unforgivable sins when I'm taking personal inventory every Elul.

Well, maybe I should -- as the portion points out, there are lots of ways to do irreparable harm to others, and some of them are not obvious. I haven't murdered, but I'm sure I've done some things that are like those on the parsha's list here, especially if we understand these sins broadly. The torah makes it clear that God takes these types of transgressions seriously; maybe we should too.

There are several conditions for teshuvah, returning from sin. One of them is that you don't repeat the bad behavior when put in a similar situation. Even if I can't make amends by restoring dignity or reputation or others that I've taken in the past, I can pay more attention and try not to do it again. Maybe if I get that right God will forgive me for the past anyway. May this be God's will.

Ki Teitze translation

I chanted torah yesterday; the passage was short and didn't have too much difficult vocabulary, so I translated from the scroll instead of reading from the book. (My rabbi was there; I can't remember if I've done that in front of him before. I think so.)

My translation of the sixth aliya of Ki Teitze (Deut 24:5-13):

When a man takes [lit "will take"] a new wife, he will not go out with the army and he will not campaign [lit "cross over"] with it for any reason (lit "thing"); it is an exemption for his house [for] one year, and he will please his wife who he took. Do not take in pawn a handmill or millstone as that is [like] taking life.

When you find [1] a man who steals a soul from among the children of Israel [that is, a kidnapper], to serve or sell, that thief will die, and you will drive out evil from close to you (often translated "from your midst").

Be careful with skin affliction ("leprosy") and carefuly keep [the rules] [lit "guard (intensifier) to do"]; everything that the priests and Levites decide, as I command [2] them you will do. Remember what Adonai your God did to Miriam on the road in your going out from Egypt.

When you make a loan to your fellow, do not go [in]to his house to take his pledge. Outside you will stand, and the man who is the borrower goes and will bring the pledge outside. And if he is a poor man, do not sleep in his pledge. [3] Return the pledge to him as the sun goes [down], and he will sleep in peace and bless you; and this is for you righteousness (tzedakah) before Adonai your God.


[1] The verb is actually third person singular, so not "you find" but more like "a man is found", but that was hard to render coherently with all the dependent clauses.

[2] I'm unclear on the verb form here; it looks like a participle, so maybe "as they are commanded" is better? Most translations make it more active -- "I command" -- which I'm not quite seeing here, but I still struggle with verb forms.

[3] If he's poor, the assumption is that his pledge is probably something like a heavy garment or blanket, which he would need at night.


Some of the "you will" parts are often translated "you shall", which has a different strength. Biblical Hebrew makes no distinction between "will" and "shall", though you can usually work it out from context. When God's giving you instructions, you can infer "shall". :-) It's actually Moshe who's talking here, and I chose consistency over just putting the "shalls" where I think they belong.

Translation requires both knowledge and art, the latter being knowing when to fudge the literal text to make something that's easier to understand without disturbing the core meaning. I am not very practiced in the art (and, of course, limited in the knowledge too), so at least for now, I tend to show my work.

Games day

We had some people over for gaming yesterday. Four other people played Descent, and I played a four-player game of Iron Dragon and two three-player games of Puerto Rico. After all that, some folks played Estimated Time to Invasion, which was new to either everyone or everyone but Dani. (He brought it home from Origins.)

According to BoardGameGeek, Descent is about a four-hour game. Either that's not correct or we're doing it wrong. The last game of it that we hosted ran about seven hours -- which wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't started after dinner. Yesterday's game ran about seven and a half hours (plus another half-hour for setup; that game has a lot of stuff). At several points in the game, including some around the four-hour mark, the players collectively thought that they were moments away from finishing. In the end, the GM won, but the players put up a good fight.

I've played a couple of really short games of this -- short because the GM won fairly early, which was unsatisfying for all of us. I would be attracted to it as a four-hour game, but an eight-hour game of it does not appeal.

I wonder what's driving that. I do enjoy longer games, like Seven Ages and Civ, but for me specific games have specific good lengths. I enjoy EuroRails but would not want to play a EuroWorld on a huge map that took three times as long to end, either. Maybe there's some sort of magical "variety" threshold; Civ has a lot going on in it so it can be long, but Descent is a lot of the same stuff over and over so maybe that's just boring? I'm not sure. (And I should mention that I happily played in a multi-year D&D game not long ago, so it's not the millieu -- but RPGs have much more room for variety and this one had an intriguing story.)

Meanwhile, the four of us who weren't playing Descent played Iron Dragon, one of the crayon rail games. The three other players all started building in roughly the same area, competing with each other, while my initial cards pointed strongly toward the other side of the map. I got the orc as my initial foreman, so I made heavy use of the underground early on. (At one point I sailed to the northern hinterlands to make a high-priced delivery and then used that money to tunnel back to the mainland.)

I was not getting viable cards involving the eastern half of the board. I started building on spec (you have to connect the major cities anyway) and eventually got some good runs. However, when someone else won I was still pretty far behind. Oh well; it was a fun game even if I wasn't competitive.

After dinner, a couple departures, and an arrival, there were three people not playing Descent. Puerto Rico is supposed to work for three players, though I don't think I'd played that size game before. The games we played were fun but both unsatisfying in one way: they ended too early, both times due to running out of settlers. I understand that the game is supposed to end before you get to do everything you wanted to do; I'm used to that. This was earlier than that baseline. I am inclined to add a few more settlers to the pool in my next three-player game.

One possible contributor: the rules tell you how many settlers (and other game pieces) to use for different numbers of players. So we counted out 55 settlers, the number printed in the rulebook. Only today when I was looking for something else did I notice that the rules contain a diagram, showing a populated colony ship (three settlers in a three-player game) and a pile, with a line pointing to that and listing the different numbers. I wonder if that means we were supposed to start with 58. That would make a small difference, though I was thinking that the game needs 60-62. Hmm. (A commenter confirmed that the settlers on the ship initially don't count toward the total.)

Descent finally ended and some folks decided to pull out ETI. I decided not to play this "one-hour game" (which ran two hours, but for a first time that's not surprising). It looked cute, and I'll play some other time. The idea is that each player is playing a government contractor trying to win research contracts, which are abundantly available because the alien invaders are on their way. Doing research is uncertain (based on card play), and players have to decide when to pull the trigger on going forward. Multiple companies can be working on the same project; first one to get there wins it and the other one is out of luck. Successful contracts can bring staff (helps with future projects), defense value (more if the program is secret), fame (more if the program is public), and probably other stuff. There are some other "stats" that the companies have that affect how well they do; it starts out with the standard "allocate N points to M traits" scheme so you have to make trade-offs.

The twist is that one of the players is secretly an alien collaborator, and at some point he pulls the trigger on the alien invasion. The invaders attack the other companies individually (that's where those defense numbers come in), and among those companies that survive, the one with the highest fame wins. Looks like fun.

Ponderings: health care

In the comments on the previous entry we were talking about health care in the US. The current system is broken in many ways, but the "nuke it and start over with some nationalized program" proposals are scary too. What incremental improvements are possible? I have to believe that there are some.

One idea I'm interested in is what would happen if we separated paying for routine care from paying for catastrophic care. What would happen if people could be on their own for the former but could buy a policy to cover hospitalizations, major illnesses, and the like? How effective would that be and what would it tend to cost? What would having that in play do to the over-the-counter (uninsured) price of routine care? (Yes, I know that not everyone can afford to pay for routine care out of pocket. I'm exploring a suite of options, not choosing a single one.)

On the flip side, would medical practices or insurance companies be willing to sell affordable plans that cover all your routine care (only), if they were not on the hook for catastrophic losses? Could that get things down to the point where the average family could afford regular checkups, preventative care, and routine tests (which helps prevent some catastrophic issues)? Such plans exist now in niches (vision and dental, most commonly in my experience), but I haven't heard of one for general medical care. Why not? (Am I totally misunderstanding where the profit centers are in the insurance business?)

Both angles are important. What I'm labelling catastrophic incidents are (as the label implies) financially devastating if you don't have sufficient coverage. Outside of elder-care issues I'm not sure how common they are, but it's the sort of thing I wouldn't want to take a chance on. I insure my car and house, after all -- how much the moreso should I insure my health?

What I suspect has a bigger impact on the poor, though, is the routine care. If you don't have insurance, you're looking at a three-digit number to walk into your doctor's office. Throw in some kids and you're in trouble. (This is why I asked what would happen to those costs if catastrophic care were a separate factor.) Could plans that just cover routine care be made affordable enough for most people? This doesn't solve the other problem, but neither does the current system -- we rely on hospitals' obligations to treat (which is a legitimate public demand while they pay no taxes), or medicaid/medicare/SSI in some cases, to get through those. Remember, incremental improvement.

I'd also like to explore the effects of reducing drug regulation, letting people buy from anywhere that's selling and reducing barriers to getting things onto the market. I know the standard argument against this (those high prices pay for R&D), but I'm not sure how much I believe that. What are the other considerations?

Where else could we look for incremental improvements?

(In case you haven't figured it out, I am not a medical professional, an economist, nor part of the insurance industry.)


Lots of discussion in comments, archived.

Weekend bits

I bought a new calendar today and, to my surprise, among the candle-lighting times on each page it lists Pittsburgh. (Usually we don't make the cut.) While looking at this I noticed that sunset in September is moving by about 12 minutes per week, but that in March it only moves by about 8 minutes a week. Shouldn't it be symmetrical? (The delta for sunrise and sunset changes over the course of the year, with the widest swings being at equnoxes and the smallest ones at solstices. I grok that; I don't grok that they don't match.)

Friday night I saw something unusual at services: a man lit candles and a woman made kiddush and there was no special occasion dictating that. For all that egalitarianism is a core principle in my movement, I don't think I have ever seen a woman make kiddush in our sanctuary before, unless there were special circumstances (sisterhood service, a bat mitzvah, etc). Gee, maybe there's hope that someday I will be offered that honor after all. (There's still another barrier: there is a strong meme of giving that pair of honors to a couple. This was violated this week, too.)

Yesterday morning after services our newest rabbi (hmm, I need a shorthand notation for him -- the others are "senior rabbi" and "associate rabbi") talked with the group about adult education. He wanted to know what we want to learn, when we want to learn it, and how we want to learn it. It was a good discussion; I wish im luck in distilling down feedback that, in aggregate, meant "all of it". :-) He seemed a little surprised by the idea that, actually, we'd love to learn on Shabbat -- ideally right after services, but late afternoon leading into havdalah would be acceptable to some. I hope that idea bears fruit. (Of course, he was asking the group of people who self-selected to stay around after services for the discussion... but every option doesn't need to appeal to every congregant, only to a critical mass. And we also discussed the idea of giving the same class multiple times, in different kinds of timeslots -- a teacher's dream, but for some reason we don't tend to do it.)

At the end of the discussion he said something interesting, so after it broke up I asked him "did you just imply that you're available for individual study?" and he said yes. Heh. I'll be in touch.

Short takes:

I assume that everyone has by now seen Jon Stewart on election hypocrisy (the link that was here rotted). You might not have seen Language Log's discourse analysis on Karl Rove.

(I have not posted about the election; it's not because I don't care, but because there's so much as to overwhelm and lots of other people are already posting good, thoughtful pieces.)

I recently found myself in a discussion about internet discussions and used the phrase on the internet nobody knows you're a dog. I later went looking for the cartoon; it shouldn't surprise me that it has a Wikipedia entry, but it did surprise me a little that Google suggested the phrase after I'd typed only "on the internet". That real-time search-guessing thing is good sometimes. (I also went looking for a recipe for a dish I ate last night at Ali Baba's, and when I'd typed only "mujdara" it offered two completions, "recipe" and "calories".)

Speaking (sort of) of internet discoveries, this article from Real Live Preacher taught me about the Caganer, a figure we don't often see in nativity scenes these days but apparently quite normal in times past.

This article on using the internet for identity theft (link from Raven) didn't have anything new for me, but it's a good summary to give to people just getting started. It did remind me how annoying I find the canned security questions used by most banks -- things like "mother's maiden name" and "city of your birth" were way too easy to crack even before the net was ubiquitious. (And the ones that aren't tend to be non-deterministic, like "favorite color".) Fortunately, in most cases your bank doesn't really care about the answer; it's just a password. So lying adds security at little cost, assuming you can remember the lie. (What do you mean my first pet wasn't named "as375m~@z"? :-) )