Blog: December 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.

The quest for the sunbeam

The felines' dilemma: how far does the patch of sunlight have to move before it's worth waking up and moving?

two cats lying in patch of sun, one about half out, one partly out

How 20th-century (or, first-world problems)

The power is currently out at my house, and I've discovered that Duquesne Light appears to have no online source of real-time information on outages. C'mon, I expect to see a map of affected areas and outage times! Or at least an RSS feed with status updates. The last thing I want to do is call the "report an outage" number and gum up the works just looking for information. Besides, I'd probably have to navigate a terrible automated system to end up on hold.

(What? I'm at work and may as well stay here if we're not going to have light, heat-distribution, or internet anyway...)

Busy week

Last Monday, our choir had its annual pot-luck dinner, once again hosted by the people who used to host practice, back when their daughter (who's in the choir) still lived with them. That hasn't been true for a while, but they like hosting us anyway. We don't get to see as much of them as we used to, so I'm glad.

Tuesday night was Dani's company's holiday party. They have picked up another of my former coworkers, so there was one more person I knew. Oddest moment: a coworker asks where he knows me from, we both draw blanks, and then he asks if I work at [my company], where he interviewed a few years ago. Wow. Yeah, he looks vaguely familiar so I probably did interview him, but do most people remember individual interviewers for jobs they didn't get, years later?

Wednesday was a meeting at my synagogue. Nothing exciting, but it took a chunk of time. I learned that people were happy with the class I gave a couple weeks ago.

Thursday night was spent doing all the stuff that didn't get done the previous few nights, plus cooking for Shabbat.

Shabbat afternoon we had a guest, a relatively new member who has become very active quickly. We spent the afternoon talking. This summer will be thirty years since her bat mitzvah, so she'd like to chant torah for the second time, with which I will help her.

Saturday night we attended two parties, a pre-Chanukkah party held by fellow congregants (lovely, lots of music, very crowded) and the annual party held by our friends Ralph and Lori, very pleasant and less crowded than usual but with plenty of interesting conversation.

Sunday was the first night of Chanukkah. It's a minor holiday despite the fuss some make over it, but a holiday nonetheless. We were invited out for dinner, which was nice.

Monday night was choir practice.

It's all been good stuff, but this little introvert wants to ignore the world for a little while now. :-) Imagine what things would be like if I had a big holiday coming up or something! But on the positive side, a lot of my coworkers are already on vacation, tomorrow even more will be, and Thursday should be a glorious day to get work done. (Current theatrical offerings do not seem particularly interesting, so the Thursday-night movie might be in danger.)

I am strongly considering taking all of next week off, just because. There have been some stressful things at work lately so I could use the break, and it turns out that Dani has use-it-or-lose-it vacation time so he'll be taking next week off.


Here's a short d'var torah I gave tonight. (I got a call a few hours in advance, so I basically worked this out during the drive home.)

This week we read the beginning of the Yosef story and the difficulties that the favored son had with his brothers, leading them to almost kill him and then sell him into slavery. Many talk about the lessons we can learn from Yosef's behavior -- lessons of the "what not to do" variety. Tonight I find myself thinking more about his brothers and the lessons we can draw from them.

You can almost understand the brothers' point of view. Here's this kid who gets all the extra goodies from dad, who really does love him best. And what does he do with that position? He tells his brothers how they're all going to bow down to him; he dreamed it so it must be so. He does this more than once. He does other things too, like spread stories about them. He sounds really frustrating to live with.

The brothers respond to this with anger, violence, and ultimately deceit (to their father). They are upset by their brother so they try to get rid of him. This doesn't work out so well for them, and it's not a model we should follow.

We all have Yosefs in our lives -- coworkers, classmates, family members, or others. We can't get rid of them; even if you do manage to drive one away (I hope no one considers murder or slavery an option), another one will be along soon. And you usually can't reform the Yosefs either; if we're very lucky we can strive to set a good example and inspire them to change themselves, but we can't count on that. There will always be Yosefs. So it is far more productive for us to figure out how to cope with our Yosefs instead of trying vainly to make them go away.

How do we do that? Partly by recognizing that we own our feelings and behavior, and are not responsible for others'. I can be mad at the person who got the undeserved-in-my-eyes recognition, or I can make sure that I do my part in recognizing the contributions of those I feel are deserving. I can be mad and have it eat away at me, or I can decide that the Yosefs usually get what's coming to them eventually and I don't need to arrange for that personally. It's hard; these comments are inspired by a Yosef who has recently emerged in my life, and I'm struggling. But it seems the best way to cope, and maybe it will strengthen me in the long run.

This isn't supposed to be the hard part about driving

Every time I drive Dani's car (a rare occurrence) I am reminded that driving an automatic transmission requires specific skills that I apparently haven't learned. I assume there's a trick to accelerating -- that you can regulate the gas flow (via the gas pedal) to kick the gears in when you want them to -- but I'm afraid I will be forever reaching for the clutch pedal and shifter while driving. :-) This has happened with multiple cars, so it's probably me and not the car.

(We're going to his company's winter party after work, I'd rather he drive home in the dark with the predicted sleet, and he's not cleared for my manual transmission. So since he takes the bus to work anyway, I just took his car today.)


In response to a comment about not trying to flip the gears in normal driving:

I didn't set out to either. This morning I started toward a mild hill from a dead stop, so I stepped on the gas and the car unexpectedly said "err, hang on a sec and I'll get back to you, ok? gotta talk to the hamsters". Or something. So at that point I decided there might be nuance beyond "press gas to go". I'm not sure what was going on there.

There's got to be a story there

Turlough O'Carolan was a 17th-century harper who wrote some gorgeous music that is often recorded by modern folk musicians. (In addition to the obvious harp, the hammer dulcimer is also well-suited for his music.) Many of his songs are named after people, presumably patrons -- Planxty George Brabazon, Planxty Eleanor Plunkett, Blind Mary, and many others. One of his songs is usually listed as "Squire Wood's Lamentation".

The complete name of this last is actually "Squire Wood's Lamentation on the Refusal of his Half-Pence". My Google-fu has not yet led me to the story behind this. There's got to be one, right? It would be a shame if it went to the grave three centuries ago. What was he trying to buy that was worthy of commemoration?


I received a comment saying that in 1722 Ireland ran out of low-value copper coins and William Wood was licensed by the English parliament to produce them -- but the Irish didn't like this and boycotted the coins.

Class on prayer

Wednesday night I taught a last-minute class on liturgy at my synagogue. (A different person had been scheduled to teach a different topic but got sick; in exchange for pulling a class out of nowhere in one evening I got to pick the topic. :-) ) I've been thinking of trying to arrange something like this in the spring, perhaps one evening per major chunk of the service (amidah, kriat sh'ma, etc). The way I envision the class, we'd do some text study with lots of commentaries rather than this being a lecture. In the I-don't-have-time-to-prepare-materials version, this was a short lecture on the structure of the overall service followed by a somewhat-rambling discussion.

After my opening comments I had proposed breaking up into a few smaller groups so people could focus on the parts they were most interested in; most people didn't have specific interests so we stayed together. (There were ten of us, so that's feasible in a way that wouldn't have been had the class been well-advertised and popular.) One attendee wanted to discuss the r'tzei (one prayer in the amidah), so we started there. I asked someone to read it, asked the group to name themes in just that one paragraph (there are several), and then we talked about each of those in turn, going down a few side paths along the way. Then I suggested that -- since ours is a congregation where weekday prayer is largely unfamiliar -- we step through the weekday intermediate blessings, where we ask for things like wisdom, foregiveness, rain for our crops, and so on. I think this opened some eyes; these are broad communal petitions, not individual ones. One student requested a follow-on class on the Sh'ma and its blessings and some others suggested that they would be interested in that too.

I thought the class went ok; I am not a particularly proficient teacher and I think that showed, but the students also knew that this was a last-minute offering and were being forgiving. Three people told me later that they had really enjoyed it, which I hadn't been able to read in all of their faces during the class, so I guess that's a good sign. One of the three, who is an experienced teacher and the person who requested the session on the Sh'ma, asked about working together on it, which I will certainly take her up on.

I had brought, but did not use in class, the few volumes I own of My People's Prayer Book by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. These are excellent; they go through the liturgy in detail, with a range of commentaries, presented well. I plan to use these in future classes on this topic. (I also plan, someday, to buy the volumes I don't yet have.)

A small rant about my anti-virus software

We use BitDefender for anti-virus protection. Once it's running I've found that it behaves itself better than Symantec and MacAfee did when I ran them -- less intrusive, more likely to do the right thing, etc. (I've never had to clean up after a virus -- a combination of being careful and being lucky, I assume.) Maintenance, on the other hand, is a pain.

BitDefender expires after a year (usually), so you have to keep renewing. Note that I didn't say its update support expires; the software itself stops working on the magic day. You actually have to install a new version. Grumble. But ok, fine... we can do that, right?

They did have the decency to send email saying our expiration is up in a few weeks. Good for them. Had they actually included a "renew what we have" link, we would have done that, paying $50 for the household computers for a year. But they didn't do that; they sent a list of links for all their products, and we noticed that their $30 product would meet our needs fine. Clue for the sales force: if you'd made it easy for us you would have gotten more money.

Dani installed first, and the installer said "hey, there's a newer version than the one you just now downloaded from our web site; want it?". He said sure and it crashed the installer (a bit messily). Oh, and that installer helpfully uninstalled his prior version first -- which, technically, had a couple weeks left to run on it. Lesson: always keep your original installers; I've been dilligent about this for years and it's saved me a few times. So he re-installed, declining the auto-update, and then updated manually later.

When I installed it I skipped that update offer right off. After going through the usual dialogue I got the (predictable) "this may take several minutes" message and the progress bar started. An hour and a half later it hadn't budged, so I clicked "cancel". Which did nothing. Tried again; still nothing. Tried closing the window; nada. Considered killing the process, but I didn't want to leave a partial installation that might be hard to clean up. Eventually I remembered that something like this had happened last year and decided that a reboot would at least give the OS a crack at it. Reboot didn't work because that process was hanging on for dear life, so I ended up killing setup.exe (just a guess :-) ) anyway and then rebooted.

I ran the installer again; it said it had to clean up a partial installation first and I said fine. This time the installation did not hang, and I got all the way to the "enter license key" page. Did that and it asked me for my registration password; I guessed. That got me a "critical failure" notice, with a place to type a "what I was doing" message. When I finished that I was back on the license-key page.

I tried entering the license key again and got "try a different key". WTF? It took me and Dani looking at it for a couple minutes to realize that it had registered my key before it failed, and that message meant "if you want to change the key you have to actually change it". Not such a hot UI. This time I declined to register the product and it took me through configuration.

After all the configuration dialogues it offered to update and I said sure. That ran but then I got another "critical failure". I'm afraid my second message in ten minutes was a bit more testy than the first. But it then restarted itself and kicked off a "quick" scan, asserting that my machine had never been scanned for viruses. Ah, BitDefender, how quickly you forget that your previous version did that just last night.

So now my scan is running and I'm sure everything will be fine, with the anti-virus software rightly fading into the background (mostly). But I'm also thinking that if I still have a Windows machine this time next year, maybe it'll be time to survey the market again. It just shouldn't be this hard to buy and install software that, actually, I already had.