Blog: January 2010

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.


We finally saw Avatar today. Because we dallied, our only options were 3D (digital or IMAX). To see the plain old 2D version we would have had to head off to the wilds of Bridgeville or Tarentum or the like.

Consensus on the Google-indexed parts of the Internet suggested the the odds were better than 50-50 of the glasses for digital 3D fitting over my glasses, so we opted for that. (Almost everyone agrees that you can wear the 3D glasses over glasses; they'd be crazy not to consider that need. But my glasses are thick and I didn't know if there'd be enough room.) This concern was easy to mitigate; we asked to try out the glasses at the ticket counter before buying. The other unknown for me was whether the 3D effect would work for me: do my eyes work together well enough, or would I just see a blurry movie? Only one way to find out. (The cheapo red/blue 3D glasses of yore never worked on me, at least for 3D comic books. I've never seen a 3D movie before.)

I could in fact see the 3D effects, yay. The glasses would have been annoying if they'd had any weight to them; on the ears they were perched on top of my regular ones, and there wasn't a lot of room on my nose to support them. Since they were made of light-weight plastic that was ok; I just sort of wedged them in place, and I'm not sure to what extent they were even in contact with my nose. If they'd been heavier that wouldn't have worked.

As for the movie itself...

The point of the movie was clearly the visual effects, which were generally well-done. It was a pretty movie. Some of the 3D effects seemed gratuitous to me but none were annoying and some were very nice, so I'm glad we saw the 3D version (even if they did jack up the ticket price substantially for that). In terms of the 3D, I thought they did better with the slower-moving delicate effects, like those floating things that looked sort of like dandelions in seed, than they did with the bigger effects (like large animals running toward you). A few times the 3D-ness was disorienting, like seeing computer screens in the foreground. Yeah, ok, you can do that, but it didn't add for me.

The plot and characters were not very 3D, though that didn't surprise me. The writers played fair in that they never pulled something out of their hat; every significant plot point that hinged on something about this world or these people was set up in advance. They were set up pretty blatantly, though, so I was never surprised; in fact, during most of the set-ups I found myself thinking "ok, set-up; this probably means that..." and I was right. This isn't a point against the movie; it's just a different kind of storytelling than some others. Think of this movie not as a conventional plot that might have some surprises but rather as a morality play where everyone knows the point that's going to be made up front, and you'll be fine.

Because this movie is really about the special effects and not the plot, I suspect it won't age well. In five years it'll probably be passe, having long since been superseded. We'll see.

I noticed that there was a credit for the language and that the name had a "PhD" in front of it. Linguist, I assume? Neat to see if so. I wonder how a linguist goes about landing such a gig. And while I wasn't paying a lot of attention to details of the language during the movie, at the end I found myself wondering: was that an ungendered language? I don't think I heard any differences in pronouns between male and female objects. (I'm thinking in particular of the pair of group-chant scenes, which I'm trying not to spoil for the three people reading this who haven't seen the movie yet.)

Cats and doors

I have noticed that my three cats have different reactions when facing a mostly-closed door that opens toward the cat.

Erik reaches out a paw, pulls the door open enough to go through, and walks through.

Embla does that thing that long-haired torties specialize in where all the cat volume seems to vanish, and then walks through. Or, if that doesn't work, she does as Erik does.

Baldur uses his head as a battering ram, pushing at the space between the door and the frame until the door opens more. He might or might not then walk through.

Each of these reactions perfectly fits the personality (and observed mental acuity) of the cat in question. :-)

Va-eira (last Shabbat's short drash)

"God spoke to Moshe, saying: Go, speak to Paro king of Egypt [...] And Moshe spoke before God, saying: Even the Israelites will not listen to me; why should Paro? I have a speech defect. God then spoke to Moshe and Aharon..." (Sh'mot 6:11-13)

It is early in Moshe's career as God's spokesman and it isn't going well so far. God told Moshe to give Israel an encouraging talk and they ignored him. Now God is telling him to go talk to the king, who would seem to be even more intimidating. And Moshe balks.

Moshe gives two responses. The first boils down to "this proposition is doomed", and God seems to ignore that protest. The second is "I have a problem", which could just be making an excuse, but it sounds like it's a real problem because God responds. Moshe has a speech impediment? Ok, God will send Aharon along to be his spokesman -- problem solved, go do your mission. And he does. I think this teaches us something about how we respond to commands.

When we're told to do something we don't want to do, it's natural to try to find some way out of it. Assuming you can't just say "no" (saying no to God doesn't work well; just ask Yonah), a common reaction is to predict failure. It's not going to work anyway; why go through the trouble just to fail? It's doomed; just give up. Often this can be spun to make it not really about us; the whole idea is doomed, so it's not my fault when it fails and I couldn't have done anything about it, so let's just cut to the chase and skip it. "It's doomed" is often just "I don't wanna" wrapped up in excuses.

Sometimes we don't want to do something for a specific reason. Moshe has a speech impediment and he believes that will prevent success. That's a valid concern. Now look what happens when he expresses the concern: God fixes the problem. This doesn't mean God will necessarily fix our problems, but the key lesson here is to be honest with ourselves about what our reasons really are. Who knows -- maybe God will fix them? And if not, by naming a problem and, by extension, knowing what is not the problem, we're on the way to fixing it.

This doesn't mean everything has a root problem; sometimes it really is just "I don't wanna", and we have to decide what to do about that. But if there is a root problem, we do ourselves a disservice if we hide beyond "I don't wanna". Instead, may God grant us the strength to suppress the gut reaction and dig a little deeper. Maybe we'll even find that, once we solve the specific problem, we actually wanna.


Haiti is dirt poor, and until a friend posted about it I did not know why. This article explains Haiti's call for $21B from France:

Why $21 billion? It's the modern equivalent of the 90 million francs Haiti agreed to pay France in 1825, in return for official recognition of Haiti's sovereignty. For two decades following Haitian independence in 1804, the former mother country, with the support of the United States, Britain and Spain, enforced a crippling embargo, accompanied by a threat to re-colonize and re-enslave Haiti if indemnity wasn't paid for lost property -- i.e., slaves. Haiti, once France's richest colony, agreed to pay the price -- more than twice the value of the entire nation at the time -- but could only afford to do so using high-interest loans from French banks.

Haitians had to buy freedom with their lives and then again with cash, and the US helped make that necessary. I sure didn't learn that in history classes...

In other news, there have been some interesting reactions to Pat Robertson's drivel about why the earthquake happened. There's Pat's conversation with God, and the devil's response, and, more recently, the Pat Robertson voodoo doll being offered on eBay (all proceeds to to earthquake relief, but listing removed anyway). The creator of this last item later added a Rush Limbaugh doll, which is also doing well.

Restaurant review: Lidia's (Italian)

Saturday night Dani and I went to Lidia's Italian restaurant in the Strip District. We made a reservation; over the phone it sounded like this was necessary, though we saw several empty tables when we were there.

They have a special consisting of three pastas of the day. Our server told us that two of the pastas were made fresh on-site and the third was imported (dried) from Italy; I don't know if that's usual or just what was true yesterday. One of the three had bacon in it yesterday; I assumed they made the pastas in batches and I'd be out of luck, but I asked and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were happy to make a vegetarian version of that dish for me. They serve the pasta by coming around with small pans, not by just bringing you a plate from the kitchen, so I guess they just made one vegetarian pan. The winner for me among the three pastas was the goat-cheese ravioli in a butter sauce.

The pastas are all-you-can-eat, which surprised me in a restaurant that positions itself a couple notches above family dining. That meant that, technically, I could have just gotten the other two if I'd wanted and skipped the objectionable one. (I hadn't noticed it was AYCE when I ordered.) The pasta special is $16 by itself or $28 with salad and dessert; next time I'll order an a-la-carte salad and skip the dessert. The salad that came bundled with it was a pretty uninspiring caeser salad; Dani's arugula with beets and citrus looked much more interesting. (Actually, I would have gotten the greens with pears, gorgonzola, and walnuts, most likely.)

Dani ordered another daily special consisting of the aforementioned salad, a breaded pork chop that he found very flavorful (and was larger than I'm used to seeing, not that I'm an expert on pork), and dessert. Nice touch I've never seen before: his dish came with lemon to squeeze over it, and the lemon half came wrapped in bright yellow cloth (cheesecloth, maybe?) and tied with a ribbon. Why is that neat? Because you can squeeze lemon juice over your food without getting seeds in it or making your hand smell like lemon. Cute.

Dani got a spice cake for dessert that was sizable but not ridiculous. I got a trio of sorbets and ice creams, which were beautifully presented and tasty but quite small in portion size. I think each was about two tablespoons, and each was graced with a bite-sized complementary member of the cookie family (one was biscotti). Pretty, tasty, and nicely embellished -- but not worth the price.

We found the service to be earnest but a little disorganized. They were pretty good about keeping my Diet Coke filled but it took a very long time for Dani to get a refill on his hot tea (including another tea bag). When I asked for more of the ravioli our server typed a few things in a nearby console immediately, and a few minutes later someone came to serve ravioli to the next table, but that person then left without visiting us. It took another 5 minutes or so, and our server stopping by to ask if I'd gotten it, before it appeared. (They seemed to be using a computer network to track orders, at least for things requiring refills; Dani and I were both curious about it but we decided not to ask for a closer look on the way out.) Our meal took an hour and a half end to end, and I'd guess that about 10 minutes of that was wasted time on their part.

The decor seemed fine to me; such things do not matter much to me, so take that for what it's worth. The lighting was good, which is often a failure mode in restaurants trying to play at this level. The seats were unusually low (or the tables unusually high), which felt a little awkward to me at 5'3". They are another of these places that uses what appear to be full bottles of wine as decoration (in this case on shelves at different heights, where they could not realistically be accessed to serve). That always makes me wonder -- are they not filled with wine, is this where they store next week's wine and they serve from a stash in the kitchen, or what? The acoustics were very good; we were not bombarded by noise from other tables, nor was it so quiet that we felt our conversation intruded on other tables. I didn't notice if there was music; since there probably was, that means they did a good job of keeping it unobtrusive.

We overheard an entertaining conversation at the next table as we were getting ready to leave: the waiter described one of the specials as "excellent" or some such, and one of the people at the table asked what dishes weren't excellent. (Dani and I have always wanted to ask that in this situation...) The waiter, not missing a beat, said "I think the manicotti is only very good". Good to know. :-)

I would go back again and, as noted before, would order a la carte. In addition to the pasta special I spotted a salmon dish that appears to be a mainstay of their menu. Most of the rest of the menu was meat or shellfish, so there's not a big variety for pescetarians or vegetarians, but there's enough for me -- I figure if there's more than one thing on the menu I can eat I'm doing ok.

Open letter to Habitat for Humanity

Dear Habitat for Humanity,

I helped you build a house once, and later gave you money. You spent far in excess of that donation sending me solicitations, making me less inclined to send you more. (I know other charities that use their money more wisely.) Then you started sending me spam and ignored cease-and-desist notices. I used your next postage-paid envelope to send a final cease-and-desist on the spam thing, and that didn't work either. You went onto my "do not donate, ever" list.

And today you called and were irritated that I considered this a problem. The proper response to "your policies have led me to re-evaluate and I do not want to hear from you" is not "but we do all this good work!" but, rather, "I'm sorry" followed by either "I'll take you off all our lists" or "how can we make things right?". I have now directed you not to call me and I'm sure it's been 18 months since I sent you any money (which is the timeout on the do-not-call law). If you call me again I will invoke the attorney general. If you want to set matters right, you must send me a physical letter (not email, not a phone call) actually addressing my complaints. Have a nice day.

Chicken stoup

Johan used to use "stoup" to refer to something between a soup and a stew. I made a chicken stoup for Shabbat and it was pretty tasty.

Put four chicken thighs in a slow cooker, along with about four sliced carrots, two sliced parsnips, two chopped yellow onions, a generous helping of a spice mixture recommended for chicken (this one had sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, paprika, and black pepper), several shakes of minced garlic, and a pint of vegetable broth. Cook on high for four hours. Pull the chicken pieces out, pull off bone, render into bite-sized chunks, add everything but bones back to pot. Add half a bag or so of frozen spinach, stir everything together, and cook for another four hours or so on medium. Serves about four people if that's the meal, maybe more if you serve over rice or with sides.

Talent show

My congregation's talent show was last night, and I thought it went really well. We had 14 performers (some individuals, some groups), three of them kids (two piano players, one violinist). A trophy was awarded by audience vote, and the ten-year-old violinist, who played really well, got it. I'm glad. Populace-vote systems have all sorts of problems, but fortunately, no one was really treating this as a competition and the winner performed very well, so it wasn't just that he was a kid. I'd estimate that there were about 200 people there, which is more than they were expecting. This was announced as our "first annual" talent show and the organizer confirmed later that yes, she has been asked to do this again next year. Yay! Maybe next year I'll get that Rossi quartet together. Or compose another song. Or both.

Material covered a pretty broad range -- show tunes, Yiddish songs, blues, jazz piano, baroque, old-timey banjo, and original poetry. One performer is a pro (someone said he sings with the Pittsburgh opera) and it showed. He didn't do operatic style (which I loathe -- can't understand the words and the vocal qualities are grating, though less so with basses I guess). He sang a couple of Frank Sinatra songs, very well.

My performance was very well-received; lots of people praised my singing, and I got lots of positive feedback for composing the song myself. ("I didn't know you composed music, too!" "Well, it's been mostly renaissance dance music and the like until now." "Um, ok." :-) ) The pianist told me he would like to play this again. I said that he is much, much closer to the decisions about what music gets done for services than I am and I hope he understands that it would be awkward for me to push at all. So we'll see. I also made sure he knows that transposition is a matter of a few keystrokes. (I'm betting that our cantorial soloist would want a different key.) The pianist also agreed to (later) give me some feedback on a few parts he found a little awkward to play, which I would definitely like to get. I had sent the music in advance with an invitation to do that, but he and his wife had their first child a few months ago so I don't imagine he's had any cycles to spare for that. (I asked if he is getting to sleep through the night yet and he said heck no.)

The pianist described the style of the song as "American" and "Reform" (he didn't elaborate), while a fellow congregant thought it sounded "renaissance". I'm not sure what it is, but not that last. :-) I would enjoy doing renaissance-style Jewish music, but that pretty much means choral works, not soloist stuff, so there are additional hurdles there. (We have a choir, but would they do work written by a congregant, or would that be all kinds of awkward if people didn't like it?) I wrote a singable (not "artistic") piece for solo voice and piano because (1) I could perform that in this show (I wrote the piece for the show) and (2) it has the best chance of future adoption. If it never gets used again well that's life, but I wanted to at least have the chance. The opportunities for a regular congregant like me to sing on the bimah are practically nil, so writing material that others sing on the bimah is as close as I'm going to get to sharing my work beyond one-offs like this talent show.

I understand that the show was being recorded; I hope to get a copy of that. Meanwhile, if anyone can point me to a summary "idiot's guide" to Garage Band or Logic Express toward the end of combining a MIDI piano track and my voice, I'll see what I can do. (I've played through the tutorial videos that Garage Band offers and worked through some Logic Express exercises from a book, but I'm not really getting it yet, and nothing has talked about real-time recording as opposed to just using samples.) I don't have good equipment, mind, but my USB headphones also have a mic that's at least Skype-grade. This would be so you could hear what it sounds like with the words as opposed to just MIDI instruments.

A new-to-me spin on Kayin and Hevel

Our torah-study group has been in the fourth chapter of Genesis for a few weeks, studying the rivalry between Kayin and Hevel and the first recorded manslaughter (or murder, depending on whom you ask).

The torah text tells us that Kayin brought an offering of grain and Hevel brought an offering of the best of his flock, and God accepted the latter but not the former. (How this acceptance was communicated is left unstated.) Kayin gets pouty, God says "be careful about that", and then the text says "and Kayin said to Hevel... they were in the field (etc)". What did Kayin say? There are various takes on that, most of them leading to an argument that leads to the killing. Whether the killing is intentional or accidental is unclear (no one has yet seen a human die, so how much do they understand?). A common view seems to be that they got into an argument and Kayin acted hastily.

A midrash I saw on Shabbat gives a different spin on this:

Kayin said: God is playing favorites, and that's why he liked yours better. Hevel replied: heaven forbid! Mine was superior to yours, and that's why he liked it better. (Ah, the snotty younger sibling. :-) ) This started as a dispute but then they came to blows.

Hevel was stronger than Kayin and pinned him. Kayin said: if you kill me, who are you going to blame? There's no one else you can pin this on. Hevel let him up, at which point Kayin smacked him down and killed him. How did he kill him? He had seen Adam sacrifice an animal, so he took a knife and slit his brother's throat.

Well, that sure casts Kayin as more cunning and nasty than I'm used to seeing. The book I was reading (at shul, so can't easily check now) cited something like "tanchuma Yonatan", which I've been unable to find via Google so that's probably not exactly it. I found part of this midrash in B'reishit Rabbah 22:8 (thank you, Soncino Classics) -- that has the part about "who are you going to blame?" and the killing (with alternate opinions, including R. Yonatan saying the knife), but doesn't include the first part. (It records a different argument.) I don't yet know where that part comes from.

Interesting stuff. Maybe this week I'll be able to find the book again and remember what it is.

Correction from comments: targun yonatan, and the first part of the midrash I described.

Two days of gaming

We spent two long days this week playing board games. (Not adjacent. Dani can go to conventions and play games for four days solid, but I'm not that hard-core.) Read moreā€¦