Blog: March 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.

Midrash session 4

We began this session with a midrash from Sefer HaYashar (chapter 9), a 16th-century Yemenite (?) source (not this one), which we read in English. The midrash picks up with Avraham's lie to Sarah that we covered last time, but suggests that she's on to him:

Sarah took her son Isaac to stay in her tent that night [...] She said to him, "my son, how can my soul separate from yours? Then she kissed and hugged him more, she cried with him, and she instructed Avraham.

Essentially she gives Avraham the "take care of my baby" speech, the sort you might give on the eve of a long journey or going off to college or something like that. That's not how Avraham represented this trip to school.

In the morning Sarah took a beautiful and exquisite garment from those in her house which Avimelech had given her. She dressed Isaac her son and put a turban on his head in which she placed a precious gem.

Avimelech is the king who tried to marry Sarah after Avraham lied about her being his sister instead of his wife. (He was afraid that if he told the truth the king would kill him to take Sarah, but I've never been clear on why this lie was supposed to work, since instead of saying she was married he seemed to be saying she was available.) Rabbi Symons pointed out the significance of the garment from Avimelech: this places a visible reminder of the Avimelech incident in front of Avraham for the journey. Perhaps she is saying "you failed me; don't fail my son".

Now here's an interesting bit:

Sarah also went out with the servants to see them off. They said to her "return to your tent". Sarah listened to her son Isaac's words. She cried a great deal; her husband Avraham also cried with her. Those who went out to send them on their way cried a great deal also.

According to this midrash, everyone -- even the servants! -- seems to know that something big is going on here. Yet Sarah does not try to keep them home, and Isaac seems to be silent through all of this. (There's a reference to his words, but we don't actually get his words. And anyway, he's not bolting.) It's almost as if everyone knows, but is distinctly not talking about, God's command to Avraham. Probably even Isaac. (If so, his question three days later "where is the lamb?" would have to be rhetorical, or perhaps a way to try to get his father to actually speak directly to him about what's coming. I don't have this source's midrash on that part of the story.)

Then we returned to the text we've been working on. Here's the (scanned) Hebrew text: Read more…

SCA dinner

Tonight we hosted a pot-luck dinner for about a dozen SCA people. We declared the theme to be 14th-century English. We should have asked people to register their intent to make ember-day tarts; we had three. :-) All different and all tasty; this is certainly not a complaint. I was just surprised. (This happens to us. One time we declared the theme to be "once in a blue moon" and got half a dozen blueberry pies.)

As the hosts we provided the main course. I made sweet-and-sour fish, and because we had a vegetarian coming, I also made roasted and boiled chickpeas. Both went over well -- the fish surprisingly so since my haddock filets fell apart in the cooking so the presentation was off. But it still tasted good. And it turned out the vegetarian is actually a pescatarian, so the chickpeas weren't strictly necessary, but hey, people ate them (and I have enough for lunch a couple days this week).

One person brought beer bread, and explained that she had spent an evening at the Sharp Edge researching beers so she could choose an appropriate one. She ended up choosing a Sam Adams, but I didn't catch which one. The bread was tasty and I scored a small chunk from the leftovers. (I've actually been a little too aggressive in clearing out the bread etc before Pesach, so I can use this.)

We also had an onion soup (made with almond milk, not meat stock), rolls, a cheese pie (other than the ember-day tarts, I mean), and three desserts. There was the usual pot-luck issue of too much food overall, but everything was good and got eaten to significant degree. (I had anticipated that vegetables might be in short supply -- this isn't a strong theme in medieval English recipes -- and ate extra for lunch.)

The gathering was one of the highly-irregular get-togethers of a loose household. Once upon a time household dinners were roughly monthly, but in recent years that hasn't been happening and it's now very irregular. (Part of this is probably because the head of the household is in poor health. She did not attend today.) But it's a fun group of people to talk with and many of these people don't come to events often, so the dinners help keep folks connected. Almost everyone thanked us for having this, citing reasons along those lines. So maybe we've breathed a bit of life back into the tradition, and maybe someone (other than the person who seems to do more than her share of dinners) will pick it up and do another one in a few months.

Cascading effects

A few months ago I was talking with my ophthamologist about the difficulties of sitting at a computer all day (eye-strain headaches, which I could mitigate somewhat by doing ergonomically-bad things and getting neck/shoulder/wrist aches instead). She said that's because I need computer glasses rather than trying to use one pair of glasses for everything. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my employer would even pay for this -- cool!

The nice thing about this is that the glasses can be focused at a more-normal distance, which means I was able to push my monitor back on my desk instead of keeping it at about 8-10". It's now at about 20", give or take. (I did have to change some font settings and some apps, like Outlook, don't respect all the settings, but that's managable. And I'm used to the software world not fully supporting the visually-impaired.) That, in turn, meant that I could finally support a second monitor -- commonly available in my company, but I could never get that much screen in visual range before. But now...

My second 22" monitor arrived yesterday. My plan had been to set it up in portrait mode (which would allow me to have more than 45 lines of text visible in an emacs buffer), but my graphics card's default driver doesn't support that. There is a newer driver, but it has other issues.

But, my computer is coming up on the end of its lease, which means I'm going to have to move off of it in a few months anyway. So, worst case I wait a few months to be able to rotate my monitor, or best case maybe I'll be allowed to switch early. Moving to a new computer is a pain in the butt, especially with all the security exemptions and stuff (to install non-standard software), so I never would have expected to find myself saying "I hope I can replace my computer soon". :-) (Holy cow, I just realized this will be computer #5 for me... maybe I can safely delete the archives from #2.)

I wonder if I can get a trackball or similar pointing device, too. Not to replace the mouse -- to augment it. This is a lot of screen to move across, and I'd like to spare my mouse hand the broad traversals. (I've never been any good at fine control with a trackball or touchpad, but if I could have both that and the mouse... I assume I can plug in two USB pointing devices and they'd both work, and that trackballs etc come USB these days. Something to check.)

Discussion of pointing devices in the comments.

Random (Jewish) bits

The morning minyan has a particular person who always leads Hallel when it's included in the service (certain holiday seasons plus Rosh Chodesh, the first day(s) of every month). I lead the service on Thursdays, but if it's a Hallel day I turn it over to him at that point. A couple months ago he said "you need to start doing this"; I replied that I didn't want to usurp his role; he replied that I would do it next time. (Ok.) "Next time" is this Thursday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan. So I just ran through it; I'm comfortable with most of it, am unsure what melody to use in one place, and just plain don't know the melody he uses in one short place, but the world won't end if I just read that (and maybe I can get a quickie refresher before the service starts). Now, to see how this plan survives contact with the minyan. :-)

Err, yes, that does mean that Pesach is just over two weeks away. I'm looking forward to a seder with friends and singing. I should decide soon if I'm going to try to do something for the second night. (I don't hold it to be necessary, but it would be a learning opportunity. Hmm.)

Last week I co-led a workshop at my synagogue on a topic in prayer (the sh'ma and its blessings). Turnout was small and I felt kind of off the whole time, even though we prepared and I practiced. (The other person is a professional educator; I have no idea if she practiced, but if she didn't it didn't show.) I've received positive feedback from people who were there, but I still have the sense that I don't really know how to facilitate a discussion or teach an intimate class, though I'm a fine participant in either. (I don't know that I know how to present a lecture either, but I think I'd be on firmer ground -- but that's not what was called for here.) I'm not sure what to do about this -- the obvious answers being to teach more or teach less. (I'm leaning toward the latter but feeling like a bit of a coward for that leaning.)

Learning talmud with my rabbi and midrash with another of our rabbis continues to be quite nifty and engaging. For all that I can be nervous in a classroom (particularly if someone with superior knowledge is present), I really enjoy and hold my own in one-on-one study with people whose knowledge is vastly superior to mine. I wonder why that works like that. Sure, a lot of the comfort in one case comes from having studied with my rabbi (in various capacities) for more than ten years (!), but the other one is much newer so it's not just that. (I also wonder at what point I have the obligation to be the person with superior knowledge for someone else in a one-on-one setting.)


My current (desktop) computer is mostly working fine, though it's a bit sluggish for some tasks (like editing WAV files or scanning/processing large images). It's a few years old, and so long as it doesn't have any hardware failures it should continue to serve for a while. (Its two predecessors failed suddenly, though one was aided by lightning.) I run XP on this machine, which was looking like a problem last year when they announced its end of life, but now Microsoft is going to support it until 2014. Whew. But soon you won't be able to buy it any more, and I think even now you have to pay extra (buy Vista, then buy XP and install that instead). So when this machine does go (or I decide it's time), it'll mean a forced change of OS.

If I have to change anyway, Mac OS isn't looking too shabby. Its UI definitely takes some getting used to (particularly the menu-bar placement), but the Unix foundation is comfortable and, hey, I could re-learn X-Windows after all these years. Getting a used iBook a couple years ago has helped me explore the OS a bit, though I haven't made full use of it by far.

Dani has a more pressing need for a new machine and he's already decided he's getting a Mac, so I will get the benefit of his explorations. (He's been waiting for the new machines to come out, which they did a few weeks ago.) It turns out we're looking for different things, though; while he's been trying to decide between a high-end iMac and a Mac Pro, I've been thinking about the Mini and considering the iMac. Dani's been staring at specs; I suggested that he go to an Apple store and actually try the kinds of operations he's most interested in, which he agreed was a good idea. He made an appointment today (armed with a thumb drive with large music and image files) and I followed along.

What I learned: the iMac is absolutely not going to be an option for me until they do something about that built-in monitor. In many ways it's lovely -- crisp and clear, probably beautiful for watching movies and stuff like that. Color, brightness, and contrast settings appeared adequate. But that glossy finish seems to actively attract every bit of potential glare in the room. That's an automatic failure for me. Apple makes monitors with a matte finish, which seemed fine, but if you want an iMac you're getting a glossy monitor. (The salesperson helpfully pointed out that I could hook up my own -- but the built-in one would still be there in the way, and I'd still be paying for it. Um, no.)

The Mac Pro is way more machine than I need or am interested in paying for (about four times what I paid for my current Windows box). With the iMac out of the running, that leaves the Mini. People have made fun of me for considering that machine, but it actually seems fine to me. A high-end Mini was about the same speed as a mid-range iMac for the operations I tried. It's faster than my current machine (though there's some comparison of apples and oranges due to the different software involved). If I turn out to be wrong, I won't be mourning exhorbitant sunk costs, feeling like I have to keep it for a decade to be "worth it". So I don't know when yet, but that'll probably be my next machine.

(Mind, compared to a PC it's still expensive; while it "starts" at $599, by the time you give it decent memory and disk and buy support (and let me say how frustrating it is to have only 90 days of support if you don't), it's nearly double that. Oh, note to self: I'll have to buy a (third-party) keyboard, because my current one isn't USB. Third-party because I disliked the keyboards in the store today.)

The Shadyside store was underwhelming, by the way. They did not have a current Mac Pro in any configuration (only last year's model), the iMac we looked at had a bunch of other stuff running on it (so not a good test), and the "genius" wasn't very knowledgable. After we came home Dani called the store in the South Hills, which did have current machines, so he paid them a visit and got much better information.

Not a daf bit (bowing during prayer)

I had to miss minyan this morning for a doctor's appointment so I didn't prepare a daf bit for the congregation, but here's something my rabbi and I studied this week:

Tractate B'rachot is largely concerned with the whys and hows of prayer. The central prayer of the service, the t'filah (or amidah or shemona esrei), consists of three opening passages, some number of intermediate ones (depending on the day), and three closing ones. Each passage ends with a phrase blessing God for something specific. (That's all by way of background.)

The g'mara teaches (34a-b): these are the benedictions when one bows: the beginning and end of avot (the first passage), and the beginning and end of hoda'ah (one of the closing passages), nowhere else. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, reporting Bar Kappara: this is for an ordinary person; a high priest bows at the end of each blessing; and a king bows at the beginning and end of each. (There is some further discussion of kings.)

I knew that the talmud frowned on the often-seen practice of bowing at the beginning and end of each (and sometimes continuously). What I didn't know is the reason: it's seen here as presumptuous.

When I led the weekday minyan I would include a brief teaching from the Daf Yomi cycle. I haven't included all of these on this blog, but they're on Dreamwidth under the daf bits tag.

Verizon, round N

Dealing with Verizon has gotten less excruciating since I acquired the direct-dial number of someone in tier-3 tech support who seems to have a clue. We are definitely into the second-order problems now.

Muhammad (who I spoke with last week) did not approve of our modem, so he sent us a new combined modem/router (including wireless). It came today; if any paper it shipped with had included the modem's user name and password, I might not have needed to call for help in setting it up. The internet side of this is fine.

So far we have been unable to get the wireless to work with either Mac in the house (the only wireless devices we have). With WEP turned on, the password is simply not accepted. If we turn WEP off and go to MAC authentication instead, neither machine can see the network. If we turn off all security everything works fine, but we're not interested in doing that.

Right now our solution is to leave the wireless turned off unless we actively need it, but that's a short-term solution. To his credit, Muhammad said he would research this and call me back tomorrow. (I think he will; he also called earlier today to confirm the modem had arrived.) Muhammad isn't a Mac user (he called back to say "what OS?" and when I said "10.4" he asked if that was sufficient ID), so we'll see what happens. So far what Google is telling me is that other people with iBooks have had this problem.

Wireless is new to me (I've used other people's networks but never administered one). I thought it pretty much just worked out of the box these days, but I guess not.

Update in a comment:

Well here's a peculiar twist. We left the router with WEP off and MAC filtering on. Neither laptop could connect (yes, verified MAC addresses carefully). That's where we left it.

Tonight I fired up my iBook to check out my Airport driver as suggested by others -- and it was on the network. I asked Dani to check his, and it was too. We didn't do anything to the router. Is it possible that the Macs required a reboot to use the network? That feels very strange -- I mean, even Windows doesn't tend to require that, and I think of Mac OS as being more plug-and-play. Did the internet fairies come by and sprinkle pixie dust on our router? Are Thursdays special (despite Arthur Dent's protestations)? Beats me.

I haven't investigated WPA yet. That'll be a project for after Shabbat. Right now the iBook is getting software updates, since it hasn't been on the net in a while.

The joys of Verizon

Our DSL was supposed to switch from Nidhog to Verizon today. Nidhog was reselling Verizon, so that should be a no-brainer, but this is Verizon we're talking about. Almost everything they told me in advance turned out to be wrong (some things were probably outright lies). We have no connection at home and now they're jerking me around.

"Maddy" claimed that we would have uninterrupted service (aside from the momentary blip of the switch). We lost our connection overnight and the support person I spoke with this morning told me I should expect it to take until 6PM for them to connect us. That's a pretty loose definition of "uninterrupted" -- and that's assuming the claim is correct. By 6PM the business office is closed, so there's no one to escalate to.

The claim that I could create a temporary account and thereby get my router settings last night was, near as I can tell, utter fabrication, though it is possible that "Manu", his supervisor (whose name I couldn't parse through the accent), "Rauel" (this morning), and "Linda" (escalation this morning) were all wrong about that. All of these people told me, last night or today, that I would have to connect a single machine to the modem and setup would be automatic from there, and after that I could put the router back and it would work.

Err, what? Are they claiming that somehow, once I put my password-protected router back on the net, their software is going to reconfigure it? I don't think so. Everyone has been utterly unwilling to just tell me the configuration information I'll need (e.g. DNS servers). I predict that what they are actually going to do is configure a single machine and leave me to fend for myself from there (examine what they did to that machine, use the info to configure the router, and undo what they did to the machine).

"Linda" was supposed to escalate this and said someone would call me back on my cell phone "ASAP", but that hasn't happened yet. (That was at 9:30.) I guess I get to play support roulette tonight when I get home. (I'm posting this via email from work.)

One minor thing in my favor: if I have to connect a single machine to the modem anyway, it's going to be a Mac. I don't know Macs particularly well, but it seems less likely to get me routed to the undertrained, underinformed, English-limited support pool. (This morning I chose "Mac" on the phone tree and got to "Rauel", who seemed to actually know what he was doing -- but, unfortunately, he couldn't make them connect my service.)

If FiOS ever comes to my neighborhood I'll be thrilled. As soon as Verizon switches me over to it, I'm going to turn around and transfer my account to Nidhog (who now does FiOS but not DSL). Nidhog knows how to take care of customers!

DSL followup

This afternoon, several hours after not getting the followup "Linda" promised me, I called back. "Melissa" told me that if I were at home she could connect me directly a level-three tech-support person, but they wouldn't talk to me if I wasn't there with the modem. She said she would note this in my record and that I should call back when I got home and point this out. (It sounded like she was pre-authorizing it.) She also told me that both her office and tech support answered 24 hours a day.

I got home, called, and sat on hold. Meanwhile, around 7PM, someone from the complaint department called, following up from "Linda". I said I thought Linda had asked for a tech-support person to call me back, and this person said she would submit that request. She also said the relevant office closed at 9PM. I said I did not want to go another day without service and she said she would mark it urgent. I hung up the still-on-hold call.

A few minutes later I realized that, once again, I'd been given inconsistent information, and I wasn't going to rely on them to call back before 9. So I called again, and -- again -- while I was on hold "Muhammad" from tech support called. (Aside: every time I requested or was offered a call I explicitly said to use my cell phone, and every single call came to the house line. Bah. The request wasn't gratuitious; I knew they were likely to ask me to move things around, and I wanted the hands free.)

"Muhammad" actually seemed to have a clue, though first he went through the script stuff that I had to deflect. ("Yes, this is the same modem I was using yesterday without issues. Yes, we have filters on all the phones, just like we did yesterday. Ok, if you insist we'll swap out the phone cord." Etc.) He first said we weren't getting signal (despite the solid-green lights), then said we were getting some but not full bandwidth. With "some", though, we could proceed to configuration. He said start Internet Explorer; I countered with a Mac; he said go to our URL; I said 404. Finally he said "we'll configure your modem manually".

This, to me, was code for "we're going to mess around with the TCP/IP settings on your machine", so I said "how 'bout we bring the router back into the picture and do it there?". To my surprise he said that'd be fine. It turns out the only thing I needed to set was my new user name and password; I said I hadn't been issued a password, he said I'd need to create one online, and I pointed out the obvious problem. I asked "can't you just give me one?" and he did. This could have been done yesterday, or days ago, and I might have been online this morning! (I then had to change it, which I would have anyway.)

I also had to zero out the DNS settings. That was it. I don't really believe our modem was any part of this problem, so I think it's quite likely that I could have had nearly-uninterrupted service had "Manu" been willing to give me a password last night as I'd been promised.

We seem to have lost our static IP address, which "Maddy" promised would not happen. We don't need it right now, but we've needed it in the past (for employer VPNs) and I wanted to keep that option open. With luck, we'll be on Nidhog-served FiOS by the time it matters.

Several Verizon employees I dealt with were either grossly misinformed on various things or outright lying to me. I'm not sure what to do about that yet.

Edit Friday AM: This morning there was, again, no apparent connectivity. After a little digging I was confident it was DNS. Michael (I think that probably really is his name) at Muhammad's number was able to confirm that and give me alternate DNS numbers to use. He, too, told me our modem is crap and initially said that was the problem. (Muhammad is sending a new modem next week, so we'll see what that does.)

Tech-writing resumes

Someone on a tech-writing mailing list today asked the following: "As a hiring manager, what are you looking for in a resume? Do you think hiring managers with a technical writing background look for different things than one that is just getting to employ their first technical writer?" I want to record my response here:

I am a software developer and manager who was formerly a full-time tech writer. (I still do some writing, but it's not the majority of my work any more.) When I was hired it was for a sole-writer position.

What I look for in a resume is: technical expertise (what domains do you already know?), types of writing, size/complexity of past projects, and classes of tools. On this last: I don't care about the long list of tools (my eyes kind of glaze over, actually), just as for programmers I don't care about the long list of languages dating back to college. I do care about whether the candidate has worked with structured editing (e.g. XML) versus just working in Word. I care about whether a candidate has built or maintained the tool chain. But I don't really care if you've used Epic or FrameMaker. Tools are tools; I assume you can learn the ones we use. We'll sanity-check that assumption in the interview.

You may have noticed an absence of actual writing skills on my list. I can't judge that from a resume (except in the negative); that's what the writing samples are for, and they're essential. I want up to a few hours with them, not just what I can see while we're talking during the interview.

I don't have a lot of data about what non-writer hiring managers look for, but I believe the factors that got me hired by my current company were: technical skill (both writing and programming), ability to work with geeks, ability to work independently (demonstrated by past positions), and asking insightful questions about their software (showing that I wasn't going to just parrot what the SMEs told me, and also that I'd done some homework). (Granted, you don't get to demonstrate some of that until you get the interview.)

(Not posted on the mailing list because it would have been topic drift: For what makes an excellent writer in my particular domain, as opposed to just what I'm looking for in candidates, I find that an entry I wrote almost seven years ago still sums it up pretty well.)


In a comment, somebody asked me about writing samples that are technical but not conventional, like bibliographies and resource lists. I replied:

When I look at writing samples I look at a few things, starting with: can this person write coherently (grammar, spelling, an appropriate level of detail, consistent style, etc). For this, I don't much care what the material is. (Heck, for fresh grads they're unlikely to have more than a few article-length pieces; that's fine.) Next, I want to get a sense of scope, because some of our projects have large docs or doc sets with lots of moving parts. Not being able to show this doesn't rule you out; it just means we'll talk about it in the phone screen. To take your case as an example, we'd talk about how you organized all the research, how you decided what to include and exclude, how you keep it current over time, and so on. If someone has sound methodologies but just hasn't ever written a 1000-page doc set, that's not a blocker. (Plenty of people who have written 1000-page doc sets don't do it in a way that it can be maintained over time...) If your samples show that you can write decently, then most of the time we're going to talk about other things.

For my particular department you're going to need some code skills (at least reading, preferably writing at least simple stuff). But that's not true of the other group, which does user doc and sys-admin doc. (I help them out with their interviews.) In all cases, we're going to talk about how you gather information, verify it, maintain it over time, deal with contradictory input, assess user needs, etc. I presume that you face many of these issues in your work, so we wouldn't want for conversational topics. :-)