Blog: July 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.

Marketing gone wrong

For certain commodities I have no brand loyalty and buy based on price or convenience. Thus, I recently bought a package of Scott Super Mega bathroom tissue, because with the coupon I had it was the cheapest per square inch and not known to be bad.

The rolls are huge -- too large to fit on a standard dispenser. Fail. But wait, they anticipated that and packaged an extender for your dispenser with the paper. This allows me to mount the rolls, but it's a little awkward and I don't plan to use that extender after the immediate need is gone.

Bigger is not always better, guys. Had Scott settled for rolls that comply with the standard interface, I'd be as likely as not to buy their product in the future. Now, however, they have acquired a small black mark; I will remember that it was Scott but might, in the future, not be able to remember if it was Ultra or Mega or Jumbo or Decadent or whatever, so better safe than sorry and I'll buy something else.

Is the chore of changing the roll really so distasteful that this is necessary for some segment of the market? (Do I really want to know the answer to that question?)

Kallah notes

It's been a few weeks since the kallah ended and there are things I'd meant to have written about by now. Well, better late than never. Read more…

New games

This weekend we invited a few people over to help test-drive some new games. (Well, new to me; Dani played each once at Origins and liked them enough to bring home copies.)


The first four of us began a "summon players" game while waiting for the other two. Or at least that's what we thought we were doing. The canonical "summon players" game is short (target 15 minutes), lightweight, and not something anyone will be heavily invested in (nor upset if we just abort). Our usual game for this is Trans America, but this time we pulled out Dominion. It turned out to be closer to an hour than the advertised half-hour, but some of that was setup and teaching. We did finish the game at the urging of the final two players.

Dominion has the feel of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, but it's much lighter-weight. Essentially, you build your deck over the course of the game, trying to buy action cards that will bring you money with which you can ultimately buy victory points. (You can buy victory points at any time, but you want to keep them from dilluting your deck early in the game, so you have to judge the right time to switch tactics.) The basic game has 25 different action cards, 10 of which will be included in any given game. They suggest some combinations to play with, and I"m inclined to do that rather than just randomize because the cards do interact with each other (sometimes).

This game has "expansion sets" written all over it, and I think it's likely to suffer from the same problems as Cosmic Encounters and Magic. There are only so many variations of a special power or monster or spell or whatever that fit in a coherent system; both of these games exceeded that limit by orders of magnitude. So I would enjoy playing Dominion again, but I am likely to resist playing with any expansion sets at all for quite some time, until I'm convinced that the base game isn't rich enough.


Next we moved on to Imperial, which Dani described as a cross between Diplomacy and 1830. I don't like Diplomacy, but I enjoyed Imperial a lot. The players are all investors in six countries in pre-WW1 Europe. When the game starts everyone is "playing" one of these countries, but to succeed in the game you really have to stop thinking of yourself as "Britain" (for example); you are "dominant investor in Britain, midling investor in Russia, and minor investor in Italy" (or whatever). Whoever has the most bonds for a country plays it, but when ownership changes hands so does control. At one point we had a player who did not dominate any country, but she was still in the game (and regained a controlling position later).

Your score is computed by, for each country you're invested in, multiplying the size of your stake by the country's position on a scoring track, which in turn is tied to tax income. I won this game by, in the last turn, buying the dominant position of the country that was leading on the scoring track while also having the dominant position in the second-place country (which had been first place until that turn). In other words, the previous owner did most of the work of advancing it, and then I swooped in with a fistful of cash to reap the benefits. Just like in the real world. :-)

A country's play consists of choosing an action from a short and dynamic list of options, including building factories/shipyards, using those resources to build military units, maneuvering those units, paying out investors, taxation (to raise funds and advance your score), and a couple others. During taxation you gain income for each factory or shipyard plus each sea or "neutral" space you control (examples of the latter are north Africa, Turkey, and Scandanavia). But you reduce that income for each unit you have on the board, so you're looking for a balance point. We had a couple battles that were described as "tax prep".

Conflict is very straightforward and there is no randomness to it. You also only fight if one of the parties wants to, so if you agree, you can both share a space. This mostly came up with seas, since, in addition to being a controlled space, a sea gives your land units access to lands across the sea.

I forgot to time our game, but I think we had played for about three hours when one of the players had to leave, at which point I think we were within a turn or so of when it would have ended anyway. BGG says two hours and I'm not sure I believe that, but thinking of it as a three-hour game is safe, I think.


Next we played Hermagor, which is a resource-optimization game with more wiggle room than many in this space. There is a map with roads and towns, where each town is interested in buying one of eight commodities. A somewhat-complex bidding process determines which commodities you have available to sell each turn. In each turn you will have between three and five moves; on a move you pay to travel each road segment (some are cheaper than others) until you get to one town you haven't been to before where you can sell a good, for which you collect income. It's not quite the travelling-salesman problem because you're allowed to pass through towns you've visited; you just can't sell twice to the same place.

When you sell in a town you leave a marker (your trading post), which can be a minor source of income. If you have trading posts at all the towns bordering a region (this tends to mean four or five posts), you get special access to one type of good. This doesn't help you with selling; this just contributes to victory points (and brings you a little cash). Encircling regions with different commodity affiliations helps; doing the same good twice deosn't really. Of course, you have limited resources (there are more towns than you can visit). And to encourage geographic diversity, a component of your score is based on the number of trading posts you have in the map zone in which you have the fewest. (There are three zones and at the end of the game I had five, five, and six, the best that could be done.)

I think this game ran about two hours. Again, some of that was teaching; as with the other games, only one person had played before.


After dinner we were down to four players so went back to Dominion. Each of two games ran close to an hour; each of these was a different variation, so there were new cards to learn each time. Of the three variations played, the first (the recommended first one to try) was the most satisfying. But more experimentation is called for.

I would happily play any of these three games again, and would actively like to play more Imperial and Hermagor.

Another synagogue visit (Dor Chadash)

Friday night I went to Dor Chadash, a Reconstructionist congregation. I'd been there once before for a Purim service that a friend was involved in and once on a Shabbat morning (I think), both several years ago. They do not have Friday services every week; currently they're doing two a month, and I don't know if that's a summer thing or their normal routine.

There were about 20 people there, which someone said was a little small. Dor Chadash is a lay-led congregation, though the person who led this service is in rabbinic school (currently off and back home for the summer). There was also a cantorial soloist (someone said "cantor" but I don't think so). There was a lot of singing; many were melodies that I'd heard but don't know, but they were easy to pick up. I wish I had retained any of them. At least one felt like Carlebach to me, and I think I heard one or two of them at the kallah a couple weeks ago. Oh well; I'll encounter them again someday. Even if I would use a recorder on Shabbat, it's not like I would be inclined to carry one with me to services. :-)

They sang or read passages from several of the psalms in kabbalat shabbat (not all). At a rough guess the liturgical time was split fairly evenly between kabbalat shabbat and ma'ariv, which probably only stood out because of the kallah two weeks ago where kabblat shabbat was very much the lion's share with a quickie ma'ariv tacked on. Dor Chadash started the t'filah together but immediately went to individual recitation, and I was surprised by how fast they were (that is, how quickly people sat down). I was reciting it pretty efficiently (and skipping some bits once I picked up the vibe), but I was still the last to sit down. As a visitor I felt awkward, as if I'd come in from outside and slowed them down. But whoa was that fast -- maybe four minutes? (The cantorial soloist then chanted Magen Avot, which I suppose "covers" you if you didn't do your own, but I didn't know in advance that she would.)

There was a rabbi there (introduced as a guest), who gave a d'var torah. (He mentioned that he'd be reading torah the next morning; I don't know if he had any other leadership roles.) He talked about the beginning of Matot, which lists all the places Israel camped in the wilderness, and about the importance of remembering history and the effects of displacement. (It was more coherent coming out of his mouth then than my memory now.) Toward the beginning he asked the congregation how many places Israel camped and there was resounding silence, so I quietly answered. (I was in the second row, right in front of him.) I don't think I knew that I knew that until he asked, but I guess I did.

Everyone was very friendly after the service. I was the only newcomer, so it was easier for them to learn my name than for me to learn all of theirs. I talked for a while with a professor of music history at Pitt; we talked about 16th-century counterpoint, which I suspect surprised him as much as it surprised me for Shabbat conversation. And it turned out that the person who looked really familiar but I couldn't say why is a neighbor on my block, so we went home together. (And the friend who motivated that first visit was there too.)

Of the (local) places I've visited this summer, Dor Chadash is the clear winner so far. Next time I want to be somewhere other than my own congregation on a night when they are having services, I expect to go back.

Visiting other congregations (Young Israel)

This summer my congregation is starting Shabbat evening services earlier than normal. I'm not sure why this idea is popular, but ours isn't the only place doing it. (I don't mean not waiting until sunset when sunset is late; I mean moving the start time earlier than it is during the rest of the year.)

Personally, I find summer shabbatot long already (Saturday afternoon into evening is a long haul), so I'll only add 2+ hours onto the beginning if there's something in it for me. "Something in it for me" can mean a real d'var torah or sermon (aimed at adults, not dumbed down for kids), or a significant role in conducting the service (hard to get), or a new experience. So while I've gone to my congregation a couple times (once to support my rabbi in something, and once because our educator rabbi would be leading), I've also been seeking out new experiences elsewhere.

I've been to Tree of Life for their monthly music and to New Light (a 5-minute walk from my house), both Conservative. This week I sought out Young Israel. I had the impression that they were on the liberal end of Orthodox and that there might be singing and others my age. I'm not sure why I had those impressions.

Not knowing the lay of the land I dressed conservatively (I would never wear long sleeves in summer otherwise). Good call; black hats were the norm. Their entry way had only one door into the worship space (no separate women's entrance) and the women's section was on the far side, so I quietly opened and closed the door and tried to be unobtrusive while making my way over there. (Mincha had already started.) I saw no obvious place to get a siddur on my way past and didn't want to disturb any of the men standing there. (None of them looked at me.) On the women's side I found assorted books, which might have been people's personal copies, but there was no one there to ask. So I picked up an Artscroll siddur from on top of a bookcase and joined the service.

The service -- the remainder of mincha, then kabbalat shabbat, then ma'ariv -- was very matter-of-fact. There was a little bit of singing during kabbalat shabbat (not as much as I've seen at other Orthodox congregations). Mincha started at 7:30 and we were leaving the building by 8:30. I felt like I'd had a decent prayer experience personally, but didn't feel part of a community. No one greeted me as we were filing out, though someone did on the street half a block later.

I know that the conventional gender roles in the Orthodox community mean many women don't come Friday night, and if you want to meet a community you go Saturday morning. I have a place I'm very happy with for Saturday mornings, and I can't see anything currently that would cause me to skip that for someone else's regular service. (If there were a simcha involved for a friend that would of course be different.)

So far this summer, aside from the kallah, my Friday-night experiences have been "eh". They would have been "eh" if I'd gone to my own synagogue every week, so I haven't lost anything, but it's still a little disappointing. (On the other hand, it's confirmation that my own congregation is well above average when it's in "normal mode"...)
Does anybody in this city celebrate Shabbat, as opposed to just getting through the service, at an hour that doesn't have one leaving the building with the sun high in the sky?

(Yes, I know you're allowed to accept Shabbat early. Coming out of ma'ariv into sunlight feels weird to me, and as I said before, I'm reluctant to add a couple hours to Shabbat this time of year.)

Oh well. There are still a few weeks left in which to explore.

Les Mis

This afternoon Dani and I went to see the CLO's production of Les Miserables. We had seen a prior production in Pittsburgh (I don't know whose), maybe 10 years ago, and Dani saw it on Broadway once. It's one of his favorite shows, and I liked the soundtrack and previous performance. Read more…

TV: Merlin

I've been watching a new show, Merlin, which started a few weeks ago. I've seen four episodes so far (one more is waiting for me on the Tivo) and have been enjoying it.

This is a very loose adaptation of the Arthurian legend with Merlin as the focal character. Not the old, powerful, wise Merlin, mind -- this is Merlin's early days, when he hasn't necessarily learned subtlety or good sense yet. Uther Pendragon is king and has a real problem with magic; Merlin comes to Camelot to apprentice to (be fostered by?) Gaius, the royal physician, and in the process meets Prince Arthur, with whom he seems to have something of a love-hate relationship. Because of the ban on magic Merlin has to hide his budding powers, though they slip out from time to time. Nimueh is an evil sorceress who has it in for Camelot, though we haven't yet been told why.

The show is well-written and generally well-acted. Effects are mixed but get the job done. This is an import of a BBC show (on network TV, who'd've thought?); the BBC has already broadcast 13 episodes and signed up for a second run, so even if this tanks here it should be possible to watch the BBC version directly eventually. (The first series is already out on DVD.) I hope it doesn't tank here; the show has promise. (These things are hard to predict, between a summer premiere and US audiences.)

Kallah: (some) services

I attended a variety of services at the kallah (though I did not manage all three each day due to schedule complications). Here are some thoughts on some of them. Read more…

Interesting visualization

I just came from an interesting demonstration called a "cosmic walk". (People who were at NHC last year might have seen this there. I saw only its after-effects then.)

The presenter laid out a long rope in a spiral, maybe 8-9 feet across with spacing around a foot. (I'm too lazy to do that math.) Each eighth of an inch represents 1.5 million years. There is a pillar candle in the center and about 30 tea lights at designated places along the rope.

As one person walked the spiral lighting candles the presenter narrated. The pillar candle is the big bang, followed nearly immediately (the candles are too big to be accurate) by the formation of the universe. The progression then goes through various highlights -- the emergence of the first stars (much bigger than our current ones), the emergence of elements other than hydrogen and helium, the first cell, and so on up through the formation of land, contintental drift, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, the rise and fall of mega-fauna, etc, ultimately leading to the emergence of homo sapiens. The presentation mapped this to the days of creation in B'reishit. (The narration continued on with milestones way too close together to be represented as candles, by the way.)

What partcularly struck me with this was the clustering. I'm sorry I wasn't in a position to take a picture. After the initial flurry there are long stretches, billions of years, where nothing happens. (You could argue that the presenter chose the points to mark, but I -- not a scientist, to clarify -- did not notice any missing.) And then, around the time of the dinosaurs, things start happening very quickly; the last dozen candles (maybe more) occupied only a few feet.

I found the spiral to be a more-effective representation than the conventional straight timeline, even though it's inherently distorting (inner legs are not the same length as outer legs). I wonder if that's just nifty or if it is in fact a better visualizaation in terms of conveying information.

Prayer techniques

I won't be leading shacharit tomorrow, so no daf bit, but instead I'll share a few short notes from some recent unusual-to-me services.

I've seen this a few times. The congregation chants a word or phrase from the part of the liturgy you're supposed to be doing, over and over, while the service leader chants the entire passage over it. The load on the congregation is lighter (useful if not everyone is fluent), the problems of skipping text are avoided (the representative of the congregation says them), and you might get a sort of minor meditative thing going that helps with focus. I wouldn't have predicted that I could be happy with my entire contribution to Ashrei being "Halleluyah" in a tight loop, but it worked.

The service leader is the locomotive; the congregation is the train. The leader leads, but everyone has to get there together. (This is an approximation of something said by Hazzan Jack Kessler.) This analogy breaks down if you look at it too hard, but I found it interesting enough to note.

This almost set off my woo-woo alarm but I tried it anyway: say Ashrei with a partner, delivering your part directly to the other person with intention. The reason I feared woo-woo is that I thought this would take praise of God too close to praise directed at the other person, but it didn't actually feel that way. I felt like I was praising God through this other person. It's not something I'd make a habit of, but it was an interesting experience.

I appear to be ok with thoughtful drumming during prayer. I am still not ok with chanted English where liturgy belongs -- doubly so if the English isn't a translation but something creative. Singing English is ok, but I find that I want the nusach, the traditional chant melody, to be reserved for more-or-less traditional Hebrew text.

The amidah is your private audience with God. What do you want to say to him? (Rabbi Richard Simon.)

More later, I presume.