Blog: February 2009

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.

DSL :-(

Damn. The last local ISP in Pittsburgh, which has provided us excellent service, is going away. (I hadn't realized it had gotten quite that bad.) Our choices are Verizon (DSL) and Comcast (cable), so I've just submitted the order with Verizon. This should be a simple transfer (our ISP was reselling Verizon), but they have no apparent process for simple transfers, so we'll see. (No, not going to do Comcast, and not interested in switching technologies until the day Verizon deigns to offer FiOS in our neighborhood.)

With Nidhog (current ISP), service has been excellent, I had the owner's cell-phone number, and the very few problems were dealt with quickly and easily (even the ones that weren't really theirs to fix). Verizon claims 24/7 support but they mean online chat, which has obvious limitations. Getting a phone number at all was harder than it should have been, and I don't yet know the hours when it's staffed. (Not at 10PM on a Saturday.)

Edit: This wasn't clear from the mail I got on Friday, but tonight I learned that Nidhog is not going away completely. They are just ceasing to offer DSL. (I'd love to know what happened there...) If FiOS were available to my address I could buy it from Nidhog (so when it is I will, should it ever be).


Today Erik and Baldur are 16 years old. Photos of their high-energy (ahem) celebration:

Erik, eyes closed, head drooping, with blanket

Baldur, face smooshed into all four legs, sleeping

Photographically speaking this is not a good picture of Baldur -- but it captures his tendencies so well that I included it anyway. :-) (Though really... how can that be comfortable?)

First-time dishes

I'd been meaning to try making my own candied ginger and then someone on my reading list mentioned doing so recently, so on Sunday I took a shot at this. The result resembles most candied ginger I've seen for sale (which is tasty). I still have no idea how to replicate the best candied ginger I've ever had, which was darker and more "mellowed" than most. It still had plenty of strong ginger flavor, but it didn't have that initial sharpness. (For those who know the reference, I mean the stuff that the Pepperers' Guild used to sell at Pennsic.)

An unanticipated bonus of making candied ginger is the syrup. Yum -- I can make some good ginger-ale from this!

Last week I made chicken paprikash for the first time. This dish isn't part of my culinary experience, but it's a staple of Dani's past. Most recipes I've found (and this matches Dani's memory) involve sour cream; I found one that's dairy-free but it wasn't very tasty. By the time the chicken (cooked in a skillet) was up to a safe temperature it was dried out. Maybe dark meat would work better than light? And maybe boneless? (The recipe called for a cut-up chicken, which says bone-in to me. I used two breasts.)

I also made shepherd's pie a few days ago. (More Dani comfort-food. No, it does not contain actual shepherds; the apostrophe is important. :-) ) It was better on reheating than it was on the first night. I wonder why.

See comments for many suggestions.

Defensive learning

Originally a locked post.

I am currently working on a project that has a useful trajectory as far as getting to do things I want to do. (Broadly, a specific application will require us to build out more infrastructure; we're working toward a short-term demo plus a story of how we'll do that if we win the contract. I want to build that infrastructure. I'm not as into the project, but it's ok and it's a path to the real goal.)

Twice in two days, I have watched my new-to-me project manager defend me from looters (one was my grand-boss) with the mantra "you can't have her; she's our SOA expert".

Err, I guess, comparatively -- I'm the one person on the project who's worked with that technology at all. Two months ago I hadn't. I used another project to learn that and it led to this project. For my next trick, I think I'll use this project to become "the expert" on another (new, internal) technology, which will position me even more strongly for that infrastructure work. (The project manager supports this plan.) As a bonus, the project I hate most, which tends to gobble up people and not let them go, has only passing interest in SOA and none at all in this new technology. So clearly that would be a waste of my apparent expertises. :-)

Is that how other people game these things?


Added in reply to a comment about the value of skills diversity.

I certainly try to maintain the multiple-roles ability. I was a little surprised that something learned so recently had turned into that kind of leverage. :-)

When my previous company was imploding and a new company was trying to emerge from the ashes, I was on the list of people being considered as initial employees. I am told that one of the funders questioned this, saying something akin to "isn't she just a technical writer?", and the person who had compiled the list (VP Engineering at the dying company) pulled out his grid with skills on one axis and people on the other. The list contained things like "code monkey", "interface design", "UI design", "testing", "test planning", "build management", a bunch of specific technologies, and stuff like that. I do not know which of these boxes were checked, but as the story reached me, the funder said "she can do all that?" and I stayed on the list. What that taught me is that I need to improve my PR; people less close to me than my immediate coworkers need to know what I'm good at. (Doing that without seeming arrogant is hard.) So I've been working on that, and I guess it's paying off.

Question on parshat Mishpatim

Noticed in this Shabbat's torah portion:

When Israel's leaders go up on the mountain for their group encounter with God, the torah tells us that Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu are in the group. Aharon has two other sons who are not included. Later on (in parshat Sh'mini) Nadav and Avihu are going to have a fatal problem when they offer "alien fire" (eish zarah) in the mishkan. This leads me to wonder about connections between this encounter and that event. Did the encounter with God make them over-confident, leading them to think that they could innovate in the mishkan? Or is it that someone else doing so wouldn't have generated such a harsh response, but because they had had a direct encounter with God they were changed in some way (or should have known better)? (This also raises the question of just what happened in the mishkan -- was God punishing them, or was their zapping an uncontrolled and unfortunate consequence of "playing with fire"? Either is possible; I personally lean toward the latter.)

Midrash session 2 (part 2)

This is the second midrash we looked at last week. (I previously knew this one, but reading it in Hebrew was still educational.)

"et binkha" -- amar lo: shnei banim yesh li.

[Take] "your son" -- he [Avraham] said to him [God]: I have two sons.

"et y''chid'ka" -- zeh yachid l'imo v'zeh yachid l'imo.

"Your favored one" -- this [son] is favored by his mother and this is favored by his mother. (That is, Yitzchak and Yismael have different mothers and each is special to his own mother.)

"asher ahavta" -- amar l'fanav: ribono shel olam, v'khi yeish tichumin bameitzayim? Sh'neihem ani oheiv.

"That you love" -- he said before him: Master of the world, (err...) are there boundaries deep down? (A footnote gives "tichumin" = "givulin" (boundaries); I'm stumbling a bit over the rest and am not sure quite where the "ki" fits in.) I love both of them.

"et yitzchak".

Yitzchak. (Ok, fine, I'll spell it out for you. :-) )

v'khol kakh lamah? k'dei shelo titaref da'to alav.

Why so much? (That is, why draw this out so long instead of just saying "Yitzchak" up front?) So that he will not [verb] his knowledge of [it, him]. We must have discussed this but I don't now know tet-reish-feh (none of my dictionaries are helping); the gist of the clause is essentially, I think, so there'd be no doubt. (Must remember to ask Rabbi Symons about this before we go on.)

Edit: a commenter jogged my memory; I had the verb direction wrong and it went downhill from there. Lit: So that the knowledge of it will not tear him. Rabbi Symons drew the analogy "the cat's on the roof" -- if God had just said, out of nowhere, go sacrifice Yitzchak, it would have been too much of a shock, so instead he builds up to it.


Last week a coworker of Dani's was enthusing about Pittsburgh Public Theatre's Metamorphoses, so he asked if I wanted to see it. After Googling the show to confirm that we were talking about Ovid (-es) and not Kafka (-is), I said sure. We went Sunday afternoon.

I had wondered how they would stage this, and the answer turned out to be: mostly-unconnected vignettes. At the beginning there was something that seemed, at the time, to be a framing story, but they never came back to it so I'm not sure what that was about. The individual stories were mostly enjoyable; King Midas stood out in particular for me. A few of them were so-so (particularly the girl who refused all suitors, whose name we didn't get and I can't remember on my own). Almost everything was over-acted, and it would have been better if they'd toned that down, but it was still enjoyable.

They built a pool in the center of the stage and used it in most of the stories, usually appropriately but sometimes gratuitiously. It was used very well in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone (the former dying in a storm at sea). Two times during the show actors appeared to stay underwater for long periods of time and I wondered how they were doing that (hidden equipment? extraordinary lungs?); Dani noticed on the second one that while attention was focused elsewhere the actor sneaked up in a corner for air. Nicely done; I was looking for it the second time and missed that.

The story of King Midas was beautifully staged, with gold-colored lighting kicking in at just the right moments. (The lighting in general was excellent.) The stage was sparse (other than the pool), with not a lot of props, which worked well in this story -- Midas walked and the stones lit up below him, he reached up for an imaginary tree branch and the air lit up, and so on. They didn't light his daughter but by then they didn't have to -- she froze and you got it. (Granted, everyone knows the story.) The Midas story ended up bracketing everything else -- aside from that opening scene that didn't go anywhere, things began with Midas's plight and ended with the resolution, with all the other stories in between.

There were some humorous anachronisms. While most of the costuming was nondescript "Greek-oid", Midas wore a suit. (All actors were barefoot, though.) And later, the story of Phaeton and daddy Helios's sun-chariot was rendered as a therapy session, with a modernly-dressed female counselor spouting a mix of babble and Jung while Phaeton floated in the pool on a rubber raft. (My favorite line there: Phaeton says "so I said, gimme the car keys!". :-) ) Obviously in this version he doesn't die.

The story of Baucis and Philemon, the poor old couple who were the only ones to show hospitality to disguised Zeus (and another), was under-stated and gentle, as befits the ending. I think this was the last story before the return to Midas, and it was a good way to wrap things up.

A few times, between stories, people came out and "danced" with mops. Dani and I concluded that this was functional (but pretty), what with all the water being kicked up from the pool and whatever the actors were dripping onto the stage. (Which reminds me: either they had extremely quick-drying costumes or they were doing bunches of costume changes, which they might have had time to do because this was an ensemble cast with only a few people on stage at a time. The actors never looked soaked though they must have been at times.)

Two moments stood out for me in terms of the acting. First, in the opening Midas scene, the actor playing Midas had the part nailed, reminding me of 's Pantalone in particular. The greed and scheming while having trouble articulating concern for anything else was great. The other was Zeus in the Baucis/Philemon scene near the end; he managed to be the ordinary traveller and then larger than life when revealed, all without over-acting. It was beautiful to watch.

There was music, mostly between scenes for transition, and mostly delicate strings that tried to evoke ancient Greece. It never got in the way and mostly didn't jump out at me, but it added nice texture.

The show was shorter than most, about 1:20 (no intermission). The O'Reilly theatre is set up for three-quarter round and it's not that big, so if a show is staged to work in that space, there are no bad seats. We were in the center section and it looked like the staging was favoring us, so this might not be a show to get side seats for. On the other hand, there were no obstructions on the stage and the actors did move around, so maybe it wasn't that big a deal. They seemed to mostly be looking at us, not to the sides, but you could see them from everywhere.

The show runs through Sunday.

Midrash session 2 (part 1)

Rabbi Symons (he says I may use his name here) and I continued our one-on-one midrash study this week, continuing with the Akeidah (binding of Yitzchak). In addition, I learned some new grammar and have some new questions.

This entry covers one of the two midrashim we studied (why does God say "please"?).

Quoting and translating in chunks again:

"Vayomer kach-na et binkha" - amar R' Shimon bar Aba: ein "na" ela l'shon bakashah.

Ref "And he said take please your son" - R' Shimon bar Aba said: (something the gist of which is that God doesn't need to say "please", but I can't quite translate this now even though we did. Sigh.)

("R'" is "rav" or "rabbi", and while they mean the same thing they aren't interchangable in the talmud. What's the difference? This is probably talmud 101, but I realize in writing this that I don't know.)

Mashal l'melekh basar-v'dam sheamdu alav milchamot harbeh, vhayah lo gibor echad notzecha b'khol hamilchamot.

This is analogous to the king of flesh and blood that many wars stood against him, and he had one strong victor (think champion) in all the wars. (Err, I think "notzecha" is victor? Something in that vein.)

Aside: if you see the word "mashal", that means we're about to get a parable of sorts. "Mashal l-something" is "[this is] analogous to". (The explanation of the parable is the "nimshal", though that word does not always appear explicitly.)

L'yamim amdah alav milchamah hazakah.

For many days an old war stood against him -- in other words, war dragged on.

Amar hamelekh l'oto gibor: b'vakasha mimkha, amda-li b'milchamah zo, shelo yomru: harishonot ein bahen mamash.

The king said to his champion: I request from you (this is formal language, described by the rabbi as high-falutin'), stand for me in this war, that they do not say: the previous wars were nothing really.

Grammar: I asked why "l'oto gibor" instead of "l'giboro", which both mean "to his champion". The form used here is some kind of intensifier. More grammar: "zo" is just another form of "zot" (this, feminine); the clipped form doesn't seem to mean anything.

Af hakadosh barukh hu amar l'avraham:

Thus the Holy One blessed Be He said to Avraham (we're about to get the explanation of the analogy):

nisitikha b'khamah nisinot v'amadta bkhulam, akhshav amad-li bnisayon zeh, shelo yomru: ein mamash barishonim.

I tested you several tests (less literally, I put to you several tests) and you withstood them all (translated loosely), now stand for me in this test so they do not say: the previous (tests) were nothing.

Grammar: "nisitikha" is a contraction of "nisiti ot'kha". I've certainly seen objects pasted onto the ends of verbs before, but for some reason this one stopped me cold. Maybe I mostly see it on imperatives, not past-tense verbs?

I was also tripped up by "nisayon", specifically by the nun at the end. I know that the verb for "test" is "nisah" and this sure looked like that root (in noun form) from context, but the spelling's different. This happens with drop-letter roots sometimes, and the rabbi pointed out the dageish (dot) in the samech and said that this can indicate that this is what's going on. Err, I think. I think, now that I've written that, that I learned something like that at HUC a few years ago, that the placement of a dageish tells you which letter from the root has been transformed. I'll have to consult the notes from that class, unless one of my helpful readers clears it up for me first. :-) (And, while you're clearing, anything you can say about why a nun in particular would be great. Is it always a nun when a final hei gets replaced?)

Finally, I was surprised to see "akhshav" for "now"; I thought that was modern, verses "'atah" in biblical Hebrew. It turns out that "akhshav" is used in the talmud, so it's been around a while.


Ok, that's the translation and some grammar, but what does the midrash mean? Let me sum it up a little more loosely: the torah says "And God said 'take please your son'", and R' Shimon objects: what's up with God saying "please"? This is like an earthly king with a champion who has always stood for him in wars and won. Now there's a war so big that it makes the others look like nothing, and the king says "please, will you stand for me in this one too so they don't say the previous wins didn't really mean anything?" Similarly, God says to Avraham: "I've given you many tests and you've passed with flying colors, so will you please do this one big thing for me so they don't say none of that mattered?".

The rabbis say that God set ten tests for Avraham; this was the last and most difficult. I've been saying "test" here, but the root also means "prove" (which we will see in this week's portion, actually); essentially, it seems to be a real challenge that (my interpretation) the tester knows the test-ee can pass if he tries. The test here isn't "kill your kid" but rather "trust God", I think. (And no, I don't think there's only one answer.)

The mashal seems to be saying "please do this for me so we can show the world our victory", but it could also be appealing to the gibor's baser emotions -- "please do this one so they don't think you just got lucky before". Is Avraham God's soldier who just goes where he's pointed, or are Avraham and God partners? Does God need Avraham to pass this test the way the king needs the gibor to win the war? If so, whose opinion exactly is God worried about? (We do see apparent concern on God's part for what others will think later on, but I think that's a little different from this case.)

Wouldn't commanding the gibor accomplish the same thing? The war gets won, the king looks good... what's the problem? With Avraham it seems a little clearer: God wants Avraham to do this willingly, not gritting his teeth while thinking "he can smite me if I say 'no' so I'm stuck". So maybe, either way, the king needs a champion who's wiling to stand up for his king rather than just doing an assigned job.

Note that I haven't really formed opinions yet; I'm just trying to draw meaning out of the text. Which is what "midrash" means.

See comments for some corrections.