Blog: December 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.

Conversation snippet

This week we finally got some routine legal documents in order. Snippet from today's review meeting:

Me: Just out of curiosity, this place in the boilerplate where you cite [a particular act], don't you have the name wrong? It doesn't really matter, I don't think, because this is in a section heading and you have it right down in the legally-binding paragraphs below, but just checking...?

Lawyer: I never noticed that bug in our template before.

Me: My work here is done. :-)

My professional training follows me everywhere, I tell you!

(Medical power-of-attorney, and it's HIPAA, not HIPPA.)

Jeremiah season 2 (finally!)

Several years ago I learned about the TV show Jeremiah, which was written (and produced, at least in part) by JMS (of B5 fame). The story is a post-apocalypse drama that moves from surviving to rebuilding, with the challenges you would expect along the way, and the slowly-revealed backstory of how that apocalypse came to be in the first place. (Ok, more slowly revealed in the script than in my brain, but that's ok.) I didn't get the relevant channel back when the show aired, but the first season eventually came out on DVD so I got to see that. The second season, however, continued to elude me.

When I got a Netflix membership a few months ago I noticed that while there were no DVDs, the second season was available for streaming. I figured that one way or another I was going to have a Roku box by now to watch streaming video on the TV (watching TV on the computer kind of sucks), so I waited. The Roku box (do they have a generic term for "Roku box" to protect their trademark?) was ready to go on Sunday, so I moved a few things around in my streaming queue before settling down to break it in. That's when I noticed what I'm pretty sure was an annotation that could only be a few days old: Jeremiah would be available for streaming only until the end of December 2009.

Well. Deep breath. Two days (yesterday and tomorrow) were already fully booked and parts of Monday and today were, but I figured I could still both watch and enjoy watching the season, and I couldn't figure out any useful way to capture that stream for later viewing with tools already on hand, so off I went.

I just finished watching it and I am highly satisfied. The second season was cut short (with enough warning that they could react), so -- like the fourth season of B5 -- it was rushed in places that really could have benefited from more time to tell the story, but it worked well anyway and I'm not sure that extra time would have been spent in the best places anyway. This was compressed but it worked; that's no small feat.

Apparently there was talk of a third season (yes, despite the handling of the second), but I'm glad it didn't happen. I enjoyed this show, but it ended in a very good place, leaving us to imagine how the rest plays out without showing it to us. Showing it to us would have weakened the story, in my opinion. Unless the next season was going to jump forward a few years, I'm having trouble imagining how it wouldn't have been a let-down.

Tonight, Wikipedia informs me that a DVD release of the second season is finally planned (US only) -- probably the reason the streaming is going away. That's good news; I wonder what brought it on. (It's going to be "manufacture on demand" and I'm not sure what that means about quality or packaging; we'll have to wait and see.)

Family visit and technology

We went to my parents' house this evening. (Their holiday, not mine, but the gift thing is a strong family tradition.) During dinner someone mentioned a gift gone wrong from yesterday: my sister, not understanding the technologies involved, had bought my mother (a dedicated Elvis fan) an SD card with photos and some MP3s. She had thought that she was buying a means to play them, but no -- and since she doesn't know this space, the pricing didn't tip her off. They were talking at dinner about hooking this up to my father's new iMac somehow so she could view/listen, which is more work than anyone intended. (I assume the iMac doesn't have a direct interface and they were going to go through a camera via USB to copy files to disk, or something.)

The digital photo frame we gave my father an hour later made that much easier. :-)

I am now in possession of a Roku box for streaming Netflix to the TV -- yay! There's a bit of delayed gratification, however; due to a bug [*] and connection-type limitations in our TV, I need to go buy some component-video cables. So tomorrow I will be able to set it up (and finish rewiring the TV cluster because, hey, if you have to wade in anyway...). I promised Dani a wiring diagram in exchange for setup help. (This is help of the "hold this" and "plug that in there" variety; actually figuring it out is my job.)

[*] If an s-video cable is plugged in to the TV, all devices using composite video lose their video. Neither the documentation nor Google has been able to help me figure out why. I sure hope component video has no such complications. (Currently the Tivo (series 1) and DVD player are both connected via composite; I'd like to upgrade the DVD player to component and move that composite connection to the Roku box.) The TV does not support three composite connections, only two -- so the third has to be component or s-video.

Yup, conversational skills are still minimal

The guy at the deli counter was complaining that "tongue" is spelled weirdly, and I said something to the effect that borrowings from other languages are often a little counter-intuitive. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Him: What other languages do you know?
Me: None well, alas.
Him: (fast Hebrew)
Me: Dabeir lei'at, b'vakashah?
Him: At mevinah Ivrit? (This was definitely also a simplification of the prior utterance.)
Me: Ivrit shel torah (shrug gesture) kein yacholet l'kria, aval Ivrit l'omeir, ktzat. (I am certain that this utterance demonstrated the truth of the latter clause. :-) )
Him: kein, kein.

And then we switched back to English and I said I read better than I speak/hear but no, I wouldn't say I know Hebrew...

For future reference, how would I refer to the modern language (as opposed to biblical)? The best I can think of is "Ivrit shel ha-yom", which is probably, at best, "quaint". :-)

From comments: Biblical Hebrew is "Ivrit Tanachit"; modern Hebrew is "Ivrit Modernit" (so, an English word transliterated into Hebrew?). Another pointed out the distinction between "Lashon HaKodesh" and "Ivrit".

SCA dance music: trip down memory lane

We have gotten to the SCA dance music in the digitize-the-music project. Last night, specifically, I got to the Tape of Dance, the tapes that accompanied a dance newsletter started by Justin du Coeur, then edited by me and Dani, and then passed along to others.

The newsletter publishes dance reconstructions, and early on the community decided that there needed to be tapes, freely copyable in the SCA, to accompany each volume. The first tape came out in 1991, so this was long before you could just download MP3s off the web, and buying a bunch of commercial CDs for the one or two tracks each that lined up with the dance steps, if in fact any did at all, was expensive. But the SCA is full of musicians, so another plan was hatched.

Later volumes were published on CD, but the first two were published on cassette tape and not (to my knowledge) ever re-issued on CD. So we ripped copies from our cassettes. (We passed along the masters when we passed on the newsletter.)

I was in the Debatable Consort when we recorded for the first tape. We recorded in a classroom (we did hang blankets up on the windows), with actual mics and a four-track recorder (uses all four tracks on a cassette at double speed). We did our best, but, well, it was on the cheap and sound quality suffered. We were not the only group recording under those kinds of circumstances. So while the dance tapes were revolutionary, allowing some dances to be danced in much of the SCA for the first time, they were also kind of noisy. But the SCA dance community was used to noisy dance tapes from all those Nth-generation copies floating around, so most people didn't mind.

Dani and I published the second tape, and by then the first was either out of print or nearly so. The cost of duplication rose only a little bit (relatively speaking) for a longer recording, so we made a longer tape and included many of the tracks from the first tape again. (Some had since been deprecated.) We took the masters from the first tape and all the submissions from the second to the home of the person with the best stereo we knew of, and he graciously applied what noise reduction he could and edited together a master that we could send off to the duplicators. It was an admirable job for which we were (and are) grateful.

This weekend I popped the ripped copy of the first tape into Amadeus Pro and took a new crack at noise reduction. Wow, did those tracks clean up well! I did it the harder (but more correct) way by sampling noise from each track individually and applying it to that track only. Since there was plenty of pure noise right before and after each track, this was easy. And clickity-click, as fast as I can do select-sample-select-reduce, it was gone.

Doing this to the second tape, which had already gone through one significant cleanup phase back when it was made, did not work well, by the way. I got better MP3s of the tracks from tape #1 from tape #1 than from the reprints in tape #2. I didn't expect that, but I'm glad I was curious enough to try the experiment instead of just jumping to #2.

The tapes sounded good to us when they were made, tape hiss and all. Some really excellent music groups contributed recordings to this project, and now I can listen to them again without all the noise! I have my commuting music for the next few days now.

Interviewed by Justin

I've been writing this off and on over the course of a few days. I hope it's not too choppy.

1. Which appeals to you more, the emotional or intellectual aspects of Judaism?

If forced to choose, I'll have to go with the intellectual aspects. Mind, the emotional aspects are significant too, but if it were only about emotion, I'm not sure it would be any more meaningful than getting high. There has to be something else going on too.

The strong tradition (commandment, actually) to study and probe and turn the torah over and over looking for new insights is very appealing to me. It says that there isn't one pat Answer, and when someone tells it to you you're done. It says that the mere process of engaging is meaningful, even though it's inefficient to have imperfect humans try to figure out stuff than an omnipotent God could just tell us. There are no (well, very few) stupid questions, and it's ok to ask "why?".

But it's not a complete free-for-all, or at least when it is that's a lot less interesting to me. The quest, the struggle, and the what-ifs are within a certain context. It's bounded but very open within that. There's lots to learn and explore and not enough time in a lifetime to cover it. That could be scary or futile, but to me it's exciting.

2. Which of your engineering-related positions have you most enjoyed? Why?

While I've enjoyed various aspects of all of them, the overall winner would be the company I most recently joined, before it was acquired. It was at the time I joined it a team of about 30 smart, passionate people with a very flat organizational structure. I was the sole technical writer within the engineering group (which was most of the company), and the engineering manager gave me free rein. It was pretty clear that most of my coworkers had not previously worked with a tech writer with strong technical clues, but it didn't take too many interface challenges, bugs found in source code, and exploits of gaps in specifications to fix that. :-) So I became "one of the guys" in what was much more of a meritocracy than usual, and it was great. And we were doing some very nifty work, technically speaking.

I don't think my being a tech writer was actually all that significant in terms of my satisfaction; that I was working with good people on interesting stuff in an environment where your skill mattered more than your official rank was what did it for me. It's been a while since I was anything like a full-time tech writer and that's fine too.

Somewhere around 50 people the character of the place started to change; not everyone knew what was going on everywhere anymore, and of course by then we had middle management. We got bought and some of our technical focus changed, and we continued to grow. I'm still there so it obviously doesn't suck, but it's not what it was. It probably wasn't what it was since sometime before the acquisition, actually; I think the departure of that original engineering manager was in retrospect pretty significant. He didn't posture and hide stuff; you always knew where you stood with him. Too few managers are willing to be that direct.

3. Having had some years in it, was the Pennsic house worth the effort?

Yes, definitely, though if I were doing it again I would make some changes in the construction. I think it would be worth the loss of a little headroom in the loft, and a steeper ladder, to make it a foot or so narrower, which would make it more stable when being moved without costing much in usage. (And also buy the camp a few more square feet of land.) I would put (mesh-covered) drain holes along the bottom of the wall cavity, so moisture that gets in wouldn't do so much damage. (We had to replace a fair bit of the sheathing a couple years back.) I might make the railing on the loft hinged so that it could be opened for loading large stuff up there, which would support an actual mattress rather than an air mattress. Oh, and given how much stuff we want to store in it, I would look into a beefier trailer in terms of supported weight.

But just to be clear, these are small things (aside from the weight issues on the trailer). The house is great to live in during Pennsic and I'm fortunate to have a camp that supports it.

4. What single characteristic matters most to you in a political candidate?

If I thought I could judge it, integrity. But since that's pretty much impossible to evaluate, I'll say a demonstrated record of valuing individual liberty. In particular, I'm looking for evidence that the person supports liberty in areas where he personally disagrees. This would be good evidence for viewing his role as serving the people and not just his own agenda.

5. What TV show do you most wish had not ended the way it did?

Restricting this to shows that I watched to the end... I have two candidates. First is "St. Elsewhere", which was an excellent show (that I haven't seen in 20 years) with a cop-out last episode. (I'll elaborate in comments if asked but want to keep the entry spoiler-free.) Second is "Earth: Final Conflict", where I resent the entire last season for taking a previously-good show in a sideways, banal direction and never recovering.

"Honorable" mentions go to "Star Trek: Enterprise" (same class of complaint as "St. Elsewhere", but Enterprise wasn't nearly as good a show so it didn't fall as far) and "West Wing", where I was really hoping they would have the courage to have Vinick win the election. A spin-off series with Alan Alda as President Vinick could have been excellent; Matt Santos just isn't compelling.

Sorry, I couldn't do just one. :-)

Duplicate (novella)

I read an early draft of Alex Feinman's novella "Duplicate" and found it compelling. It's now available for sale, either as a print book or an e-book. I'm looking forward to getting my (print) copy.

Mining in space has taken off. This is expensive and dangerous. But not to fear -- if you get mortally wounded in an accident in space, you just crawl into your Dupli-Pod where your brain is downloaded and later you'll be re-constituted. Nothing could go wrong with that, right? Right. And surely the corporation funding these expeditions will spare no expense to make sure everything's in top working order before sending people out, right? I think you know the answer to that.

To say more would spoil the story, so you should go read it yourself.

Liturgical obligations

I was recently in a discussion about the choices that worship leaders make, and I realized that the Reform movement's approach imposes a higher literacy burden than I think most realize.

In an Orthodox service, the decisions made by the sh'liach tzibbur, the leader, pretty much boil down to what melodies to use. The actual text is fixed; you do what the the siddur tells you to do (and remember seasonal variations if the siddur doesn't mark them). I'm not saying it's easy, but I am saying it's not too complex. While (in my experience) most Orthodox Jews who would be in a position to lead services are thoroughly fluent, technically the leader doesn't have to know what it all means and why the service is structured that way and so on.

Now consider the Reform movement, which from the beginning declined to follow the fixed liturgy. The early reformers eliminated some parts of the service (like musaf and many of the kaddishes) because they were repetitive, changed the texts of some prayers for ideological reasons (like objecting to resurrection of the dead), and introduced English readings that did not necessarily strictly follow the Hebrew they replaced. My impression is that they did the vast majority of this thoughtfully; later generations might disagree with their reasons, but they had reasons.

At least since the publication of Gates of Prayer, a siddur that offered many (and quite varied) alternatives to the leader, Reform services have tended to vary from one time to another, skip some of the Hebrew readings, use very "creative" English readings, and vary the music (which sometimes means varying the text because you want to use so-and-so's setting and it's a little different). The publishers of the siddur stuck to the same service structure, but at least from what I've seen in the last 12 years or so (as long as I've been watching), leaders have used it pretty freely. So it wasn't uncommon to do the Sh'ma/v'ahavta in both Hebrew and English (despite the repetition) but skip ahavat olam entirely, for instance. (Why yes, that does bother me, but that's a different essay.)

Mishkan T'filah, the new Reform siddur, corrects some of the problems in GOP. The theory is brilliant: here is a two-page spread including the Hebrew, a decent translation, and some alternative English readings; choose exactly one thing from this spread and then turn the page. But some of the English readings really aren't connected to what's supposed to be going on at that point in the service, so I see leaders break the pattern -- skip a few pages, then do both the Hebrew and one of the English readings from one spread, and so on. (That the editors sometimes violated their own format doesn't help this.) I was recently talking with a lay person who sometimes leads services in her congregation, and she told me she picks and chooses "just like [she] did with GOP". She didn't realize that she was repeating some things and entirely skipping others.

Why didn't she realize this? Because she is not highly fluent in the service -- she doesn't understand why the (Shabbat) amidah has seven sections and what each of them is for (and why that one English reading is terrible in that place...), or that kri'at sh'ma has more structure than "something before, sh'ma, mi chamocha" and that skipping parts breaks the theme, or why the v'shamru earlier in the service doesn't cover you for the sanctification of the day later even though they're both "yay, shabbat" texts, and so on. She hasn't studied this stuff and doesn't engage with it like I do. And I realized: most Reform Jews don't study this stuff. In another movement they might not have to, but in the Reform movement, the leader is more likely to be making decisions about the content of the service and so, in my opinion, has an obligation to become fluent. By the nature of its siddur and its history, the movement imposes, or ought to impose, a higher burden of fluency than would have been necessary if we'd just stuck with the traditional text.

Of course our rabbis are fluent, and often they are the ones leading services. We have occasional geeks like me who are also fluent and have occasional opportunities to lead. But sometimes we have people who have occasional opportunities to lead who aren't fluent and don't even realize it matters. As a community we apparently aren't willing to say to those people "get fluent or follow instructions without varying or get off the bimah". So we get services that are sometimes haphazard and disjointed, which makes it really hard for people who do know what's going on to achieve kavannah (intentionality).

Once people know a little about the service structure I suspect they're more likely to not mess with it, but how -- aside from one conversation at a time -- do we get people to that "aha!" moment that causes them to even notice the issue?

Another visit to YPS

A couple months ago I visited Young People's Synagogue and had a good experience, so I'd been thinking about going back this week. Then I was contacted by their webmaster, who followed a link to this journal from his referrer logs. He invited me to come back any time, I said I was thinking about this week, he invited me to dinner, and off we went.

(Inter-movement anthropology: Reform and Conservative (and in my limited experience Reconstructionist) congregations have the oneg shabbat, a social time with coffee/tea and cookies (and maybe more) after the Friday-evening service, at which newcomers and regulars can introduce themselves to each other and chat. In my (again limited) experience Orthodox congregations do not have this; everyone is going home for dinner after so there's presumably no need to stand around and eat cookies. Except when dealing with those newcomers. Hence the institution of the dinner invitation -- it's really about being able to sit down and talk.)

They started a little early this week because of Chanukah (need to light the lights before Shabbat starts), but it took a while for enough people to assemble, so he introduced me to a few people and we chatted a bit before services. One person said "are you the writer?" -- the link got around, it sounds like. :-) One person said that most of their members have dual memberships with other congregations; YPS doesn't have a rabbi or daily services. (You can just show up for daily services, of course, but you might want a rabbi.) I knew they weren't a full-service congregation but hadn't made the connection to dual memberships. I met people who also go to Poale Zedeck, Shaare Torah, and Beth Shalom (which is Conservative). I don't know if they have anyone who also affiliates with a Reform congregation; that would probably be pretty unusual.

One thing I find hard about going to any Orthodox congregation is figuring out the behavioral expectations. Orthodoxy is not uniform any more than any other movement is; there are different flavors and, within a congregation, people who understand halacha a little differently from each other. Some are more liberal and some are more stringent, and I don't want to give offense or cause someone to do what he believes is a transgression. But I, from the outside, can't tell who's who on the stringency spectrum -- so, for instance, am I expected to cover my hair? (I didn't and no one cared.) Could I wear pants if I showed up for a class? (Beats me.) May I sing audibly? (No problem here; that's not universal.) Should I offer a handshake? (I never do, but when I was offered one on Friday I accepted.) The problem with just following the stringent path on the "do no harm" principle is two-fold: first, I may restrict myself unnecessarily, and second, I may give the impression that I am that strict, causing people who aren't to treat me that way. Hello, self-fulfilling prophecy. So I enter any new-to-me Orthodox congregation with some trepidation (and probably too much omphaloskepsis).

YPS is friendly and seems pretty easy-going. Having been there twice, I think I have a reasonable feel for the place now. It's comfortable. No need for trepidation. :-) The congregation they most remind me of is Beth Ha-Minyan in Toronto. Oh, and like Beth Ha-Minyan, they do not use a mechitza, relying on an aisle for separation.

YPS was founded about 60 years ago, so the remaining founders (and there are several) are in their 80s and 90s. In large part their kids moved out of town, so they are feeling demographically challenged now -- they're smaller than they used to be and I picked up a sense of concern for the future. I don't know if in the past they were more active (for example having daily services), but I do know they've never had a rabbi -- they were one of the first chavurot, perhaps before the term came into existence. So they're smaller now, but still there doing stuff. I hope they can keep doing so. I can definitely see myself going there on Friday nights at times (and I can think of a couple people who might be interested in coming along). Saturday morning is unlikely; I love my morning minyan. But that's ok; I don't think they expect everyone to be there all the time, though some people probably are.

After services we had a lovely dinner and conversation. (That's where I got some of the history.) My hosts know I'm a Reform Jew and I never felt even a little bit dismissed for that. We talked about lots of stuff that I'm not going to post about. It was a pleasant visit.

Interviewed by Shalmestere

(1) What advice would you give someone traveling to the Holy Land for the first time?

In no particular order...

  • While tours can be annoying in some ways (you don't get to decide how long you'll stay in each place), having a guide is really useful. Also, don't under-estimate the value of someone who knows the locale making arrangements for travel and lodging.

  • Spend a day walking around the old city in Jerusalem. As a woman, don't expect to get too close to the western wall. The Church of the Sepulchre is pretty nifty. (I don't know the other Christian holy sites.) Do spend some time in the marketplaces; the Jewish, Armenian, and Christian quarters should be perfectly safe except to your wallet (no direct experience with the last). As an American Jew not fluent in the local languages I wouldn't go into the Arab quarter alone; YMMV.

  • You are no good at haggling. I say this not knowing your individual skill. Expect to be taken advantage of, and decide going in what you're willing to spend on stuff. (In a similar vein: every cabbie will claim his meter is broken. Sometimes they get magically fixed if you say you'll find another cab.)

  • You will see more armed guards and metal detectors than you are used to, in places you might not expect (like restaurants). This is perfectly normal there; don't treat it as excessive.

  • Israelis, particularly merchants, cabbies, and the people in line behind you at the fallafel stand, are generally more aggressive than I expected. You might need to mentally prepare for that.

  • If you're going to go all that distance, take some time to see other parts of the country besides Jerusalem. There are some great historical sites along the Med (and elsewhere) and the north is pretty (at least in the winter). TS'fat is a neat town to walk around.

(2) You and Dani have a three-day weekend together! The light timers are on, the catsitter's hired, and the bags are in the car. Where are you going?

Gee, good question. It'd have to be a short flight or a drive of, say, no more than 5-6 hours to not sap too much of that time in logistics, so let's call that east of the Mississippi. We've never actually done the tourist thing in DC, so maybe there? (And we know some semi-locals we could visit with, and perhaps spend Shabbat with since you said "weekend".) Or maybe someplace in Florida, since it's winter and neither of us has ever been there, but I don't have specific ideas. With an extra day or two, and/or the "three-day weekend" not including Shabbat, I'd be interested in either going farther afield (Vancouver? Yellowstone? some place with pretty nature to look at) or in taking a road trip (through the Appalachians? to New England?).

(3) What instrumentation did you have in mind when you wrote your c15 dance-music arrangements?

Rosina and I discussed that before I started. On the one hand, aiming for the instruments specifically mentioned in the relevant sources appealed to me for authenticity reasons. On the other hand, we did this to get these dances played and danced in the SCA, and the dominant instrument in the SCA is the recorder (or at least was at the time). Further, bass recorders are relatively rare compared to the higher ones. So with the exception of the one piece that I had arranged prior to the project and the one piece in Locrian where I took what I could get :-), I aimed for all the pieces to be SAT-recorder-compatible. That said, I took advantage of the test-drivers I had available (which did not include any shawms or bowed strings, alas), so I know that they work reasonably on a few non-recorder instruments, at least.

(4) Do you miss anything about the Christmas season? [assuming that you grew up observing Christmas; if not, the alternate question is What's your favorite fried Chanukkah food? :-D]

Some of the choral music is really pretty and fun to sing.

I don't miss the Santa-fication and commercial aspects. That was kind of a head-scratcher for me when I was nominally a Christian; this was supposed to be the second-most-important holy day of the year but we didn't treat it that way? Mind, I don't like the Santa-fication of Channukah either, but at least I can understand it as "keeping up with the Jones' kids" and Channukah is a really minor holiday, and I think I'd rather a holiday be elevated in importance than diminished, if I have to choose one of those.

(5) If you were going to change careers midstream, what would you like to try?

There are two ways to answer that, depending on whether I'm magically being bestowed with the skills and credentials. :-) 'Cause if I'm not, which I assume is the case in this question, we're looking at down-time for graduate school to make a really big change, and that's just not practical for us now.

Within the constraints of "could work toward it within the confines of my current job", I ask myself that a lot and I still don't know the answer. Quite possibly something in the space of designing user interfaces (not necessarily just software).