Blog: March 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.


Friends from my congregation invited me to their chavurah's seder Monday night. There were about 50 people there (largest group they've ever had). I hadn't known in advance that my friend would be leading it, so that was a nice touch. It was a warm, friendly seder, complete enough to be satisfying and expedient enough that the kids present weren't getting too antsy. There wasn't as much singing as I'd expected, but what there was was enthusiastic. It was a good experience.

New insight (reported by my friend, attributed to Rabbi Symons): we can view the four sons as the filling-out of a matrix (ok, he didn't say matrix) of wisdom and piety. The quiet son has neither. The simple one has piety but not wisdom. The rasha (evil son) has wisdom and no piety (he uses his wisdom to rebel). The wise son has both. The rabbis tend to do this sort of 2x2 mapping of attributes to types of Jews, so this is in that spirit.

For the first time (or maybe second?) our congregation offered to match people looking for seders with people who could take guests. (Before that everyone asked the rabbi, I think.) Matching for the first night was very successful. I requested a seder for the second night but it didn't happen -- but I didn't know that early enough to do something about it. So sigh. A second seder isn't necessary for me, but it's nice to do if I can, particularly if it's different in some way from the first. Someone asked on a mailing list tonight why Reform Jews would have second-night seders; what I wrote was: the first seder is to fulfill external obligations -- to God, to family, to those who can't/won't handle some of the content, etc.; the second seder is to fulfill internal obligations -- study, spiritual growth, etc. So next time I'm at home for Pesach I plan to hold my own second-night seder; it sounds like enough of my friends don't go to one regularly that they'd possibly be available to come to mine. (Whether they'd want to come is an open question, but it can't be answered now anyway so why worry?) I think next year we're going to Toronto, though, so probably not for two years.

Morning services on Tuesday went well. The crowd was smaller than it will be next week (seventh day) for Yizkor. Usually my rabbi asks me to read part of the holiday megillah (Song of Songs, for Pesach); I'm lousy at reading poetry, particularly translated poetry, so I'm glad he asked others to do so instead. (I'm always happy to read from Ruth or Kohelet.) Instead he gave me an aliya, which was nice -- I so rarely get to hear my Hebrew name used!

Foodies: my favorite brisket is made in a pan on the stove in tomato sauce and spices. (Simmer two hours, slice thinly against grain, simmer two more hours.) I don't have a suitable kosher-for-Pesach pan. Google suggests that I can cook a brisket in sauce in the oven to good effect; I would welcome specific suggestions that work well for you. The oven-cooked briskets I've had have been closer to the "roast + gravy" model than the "barbecue beef" model -- also good, but not the effect I'm looking for this time.

Omer: day 2. Haven't forgotten yet. :-)

Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol)

Last week we began reading Sefer Vayikra [Leviticus], which largely concerns itself with priestly rituals, including korbanot ("sacrifices"). It's tempting to want to hit the virtual fast-forward button at this time of year; offering livestock on the altar doesn't speak to most of us. Last week [another congregant] brought another way of thinking about this: these were not the acts of a primitive people as the Rambam opines, but rather an awe-filled moment when ordinary Israelites get to stand within a few paces of the presence of God. What an experience that would be!

Since the destruction of the Temple, korbanot have been replaced by prayer. As with the korbanot, we follow a specific ritual in our prayer, hoping to draw closer to God. We don't just make stuff up; there is a specific order, a specific ritual. God may no longer be within a few paces, but even so, there are times in our prayer ritual when we might still make that connection.

The interesting thing about korbanot, to me, is that it's a joint activity. The Israelites need the priest to perform the ritual, but the priest can do nothing if the Israelites don't show up and do their part. Prayer, too, is a joint activity; we rely on our leaders to facilitate our prayer rather than each just doing our own thing, but leaders without people ready to pray can't do much. Our leaders can help us draw closer to God -- and we can help our leaders, and each other, do the same. While individual prayer is possible, it's not the preferred form.

This week's portion begins with the ritual taking out of the priestly leftovers. The priest dresses a certain way to collect the ashes from the altar, changes clothes, takes the ashes outside to a pure (tahor) place... it's all very formalized. Last week we learned from the korban; this week, what can we learn from the after-effects?

What I take from this is that the holy act of bringing Israel closer to God does not begin and end with the offering of the korban. It begins with the selection of the animal or the measuring-out of produce, and it ends with the removal of the ashes. So, too, our prayer need not begin with the opening niggun and end with kaddish. Prayer produces residue, like ash, that is as holy as the prayer itself. What will we do with it? After we leave here, perhaps we will continue to contemplate our relationship with God or, even better, discuss torah over lunch with each other. That's not just passing time; that is a holy, priestly, activity.

In a few days we'll all (I hope!) be enjoying sedarim for Pesach. The celebration of our redemption needn't end with the eating of the afikomen. We should continue to reach out to God, and we should remember that we do that through the reading of the haggadah and the singing of songs, and also from the sweeping-up of the matzah crumbs afterwards.
The Pesach lamb was the first korban commanded to Israel; at the seder that replaces it, may we remember that the experience of kiruv should not end at the altar.

Pharma mystery

I don't understand the drug industry. Ok, ok, nobody does. Let me be more specific: I don't understand what's going on with one of my glaucoma drugs, Xalatan.

This drug has been on the market since 1996 without a generic option, meaning it costs more than $100 a month if you pay for it yourself (which of course most people don't, but delving into insurance-based pricing in this post would be scope creep). My co-pay is higher for a name-brand drug than for a generic, so I have personal interest in this going generic.

About a year ago word on the street was that the patent was due to expire last September, but something seems to have happened because it's now, according to the patent office, locked in until early 2011. According to my doctor, some insurance companies are applying pressure to ophthamologists, pushing them to use different drugs instead to treat this condition because of the expense. One way or another, it appears that Pfizer has about another year to collect the big bucks from customers before they have to accept that a 15-year monopoly is a pretty good run.

Given all that, I was surprised at this morning's checkup to receive not only a free sample (a month's supply) but also a card that I can use four times or up to $350, whichever comes first, getting my prescription filled. So my next four bottles of the stuff will be free. Before I use that up I'll have another checkup, at which I might score another freebie and perhaps another card. Even if the promotion is over by then, they'll have given up four months' worth of monopoly pricing on me in their final year of being guaranteed to collect it.

How is this in their interest? I'm happy to pocket the savings; I've been pouring money into keeping my glaucoma at bay for as long as I've been paying my own bills. (It was diagnosed when I was a child.) But I don't understand why I'm getting these savings at this time.

How do you tag your MP3s?

MP3s ripped from CDs or bought digitally (usually) come pre-tagged, including "genre". "Genre" has an eclectic set of options including folk, rock, soundtrack, children's, Christmas, gospel, international, electronic, and electronica/dance, to name just a few. Some CDs of Jewish music came tagged as Christian (!) or gospel, and I changed those to Jewish (a new category) at the time. An MP3 can have at most one genre (hence options like folk-rock, I guess).

Some of these genres are orthogonal to each other. Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds", "Pirates of Penzance", and "West Side Story" are all soundtracks, but they are not similar musically. Children's isn't a genre; it's an audience or application. "Nowell Sing We" and "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are both Christmas songs, but they're not the same at all (I would sort the former with "early", another category I had to invent because "classical" just doesn't fit the middle ages and renaissance). (Ok, I wouldn't have the latter in my collection, but work with me here...) I have no idea what the difference between "electronic" and "electronica/dance" might be, and how the latter differs from "dance".

I think the makers of the tagging system conflated style and purpose. We're running into this a lot with international dance music (often dances are set to folk songs), or with everything from folk to blues to rock ending up together because they're "Jewish", or SCA dance music being scattered across "SCA" (this must have been a custom category for someone), "dance", "classical", "folk" (?), and probably others. And I'd like to be able to tag the subset of folk music that is children's music (for selective exclusion), without losing its folk-ness.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the correct way to do this is to use "genre" for what it is musically and some other tag for usage (if it has a primary usage). Looking at the tags available to me in iTunes, it looks like I should use "grouping" for this. (I've never seen this field filled in, so I don't know what conventions surround it.) So early music is early music and some of it might be grouped as "dance", folk is folk and rock is rock and some of each might be grouped as "Jewish" (or perhaps "Jewish liturgical", since that's what I'm really after), and the Hebrew folk songs that are used for Israeli dances would "folk" (genre) and grouped as "dance", and so on. (Maybe we want to distinguish SCA dance and international folk dance; that's an implementation detail.) But before I try to do anything along these lines I'd like input: how do you capture multiple dimensions of your music? (Another option, just to throw it out there, is to use playlists as buckets. We're doing some of that but it doesn't feel sustainable to me.) I want to be able to find music by genre or by purpose, which says to me I want two searchable fields.

We are currently using the comments field to support tags iTunes doesn't give us. For example, there's no off-the-shelf way to tag the language of a song! So for the languages we care about we have entries in the comments field like LANG_HEBREW. We're also doing something similar to tag the Child ballads (TAG_CHILD_#_) so we can easily find the dozen variations on "Maddy Groves" scattered through the library. (Child ballads are a special interest of Dani's.) We're also using this field for meta-data about our own recordings (e.g. TAG_WEAK); "comments" probably isn't a good place for that but those were the first tags we added so we grabbed the obvious field and now we're kind of stuck unless we want to do a lot of work.

A problem with using "comments" is that you can't systematically add to a comment field, only replace it. So if we wanted to use it for other tags (like usage) and wanted to apply those in bulk, we couldn't without stomping some of our existing tags. Well, we could write a perl script, I guess, but I looking for something a little closer to the GUI.

So how do the rest of you track extra information? Or are we the most finicky among our circle of friends? :-)

There's lots of discussion in the comments.


The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is mostly concerned with the operation of the priestly and levitical system. One of the main functions of that system is to offer korbanot ("sacrifices", though that's not really a good translation). It can be pretty hard for me to connect with most of this book.

I think (please correct me if I'm wrong) that the first korban that Israel is commanded in is the Pesach lamb. (Tha patriarchs, and others, offered sacrifices before that, but I think this was the first commanded one.) The korban and its public after-effects, the blood on the doorposts, were necessary to get us out of Egypt. They were essentially private offerings (one per family). After this the priestly system took over, with the priests acting as agents for Israel.

Today we don't offer korbanot; we offer prayer instead. Since prayer replaced korbanot, can we take any lessons from the text about korbanot and apply them to prayer?

The big thing I notice is that the korban was a joint activity: the individual brought the animal (or grain or fruit) and the priest provided the ritual. Both are needed: without the individuals the priests have nothing to do, and without the priests the individuals can't do much. It's like this with prayer too: we have leaders who act as facilitators, but we are each individually responsible for doing our parts. The person on the bimah can lead us in the right words, but we have to bring our intentionality. Either one by itself isn't enough. Our tradition does support individual prayer, just as Israel was individually commanded in the Pesach korban, but in neither case can we act only individually. It's not enough to stay home and be spiritual; we also have to come together and support each other.

[Approximation of the mini-d'var for tonight's minyan, mentally assembled on the drive home from work.]

Midrash session 3.1

Rabbi Symons and I have continued to study midrash, but I fell off the wagon when it came to posting translations. When I was only a little behind I had some notion that I would catch up. But no, those things never get better with time. :-) We just started our third series, so I'm going to just start here. (The first was the akeidah and the second was the crossing of the sea of reeds. Now we're doing the beginning of Moshe's leadership.)

As before, I'm generally trying to translate pretty closely, rather than finding the phrasing that flows most smoothly in English, because part of the point is to improve my language skills. Well, except for the parts where I waved my hands more broadly because I got the gist just fine but fell down on some individual words. As always, comments, corrections, and improvements are most welcome.

And let me just praise Rabbi Symons here: not only did he make me nice large photocopies of this text (the original lines were maybe 3" wide -- tiny font), but he cut out and taped together all the resulting pieces to make nice continuous columns for me! That's kindness!

Read more…

The phishers are getting bold (a cautionary tale)

I got a surprisingly-slick call this weekend. The caller said he was from my credit-card company (which he named) and proceeded to offer me a deal intended for people who don't do math. I interrupted him to say no. He kept talking and used the phrase "opt-out", implying that this unrequested service (with accompanying monthly fee) was going to start unless I took steps. That sure didn't sound like my credit-card company, which has treated me well for something over 15 years. I interrupted him again and played along:

Me: Ok, what do I need to do to opt out?
Him: I just need your city of birth.
Me: Whatever for?
Him: To verify that you're the account holder.
Me: You called me; don't you know who you called?
Him: I'm sorry, I need that to continue.
Me: I understand. It's important to protect customers from identity theft. Speaking of which, what's my mother's maiden name?
Him: Oh, I'm not allowed to reveal confidential information to strangers.
Me: You called me, remember?
Him: (babble)
Me: Ok. Topeka.
Him: Thank you. You've been opted out.

(No, I was not born in Topeka, nor have I used that response for any account.)

After I hung up on him I called my credit-card company. They do offer such an insurance plan (through a third party), but I was not scheduled to be called. I said I couldn't remember -- do they use my city of birth for a challenge question? No, they don't. The rep gave me the phone number of the company they use (which doesn't answer the phone on weekends), so tomorrow I will attempt to find out what they know about this. (Either they have an employee who stepped way out of bounds or it wasn't them.) Meanwhile, my company says they have noted that I declined this offer and if anything shows up on my account it will be squashed. Is there any place else I should report this? I don't have caller ID so we can't track the caller, but I'd kind of like to record somewhere that if someone tries to use my name plus a birth city of Topeka to open an account, it's fraud.

By the way, at no point in the conversation with the caller was my credit-card number mentioned. Hmm. (My company offered to change my card number, but that's a big hassle because of automated payments and they advised waiting to see if any suspicious charges show up. I am already in the habit of reading my statement carefully, so we'll catch it.)

I'm a little creeped out by this. It would have been pretty easy to be fooled, I think -- you can't "read back" on phone calls the way you can on suspicious email and the call went on for a while, so it would have been easy, I think, for people not especially fluent in phishing schemes to forget that credentials had not been established. This is not the Nigeria-style scam that plays on the stupidly greedy; this one could easily catch smart people who just aren't up on this stuff, I think.

Office 2007: accessibility problems

The word came down from on high at work: Office 2007 is being pushed to our machines, no opt-out. (Yes, we're slow adopters. Big companies are often like that.) We've known this for months, so since I have to customize my environment for vision reasons, I asked a coworker who already had it to give my Windows theme a spin. The result was pretty terrible, so I sought help from the IT folks. Uncharacteristically for large-company IT departments, I got routed to someone who both cares and has a clue, so he's been experimenting for a while on my behalf. He had to consult Microsoft, but he finally sent me a screen shot asking if this was acceptable. It was, so I accepted the push at a time that he'd be available to talk me through the re-configuration.

Before I describe the horror that resulted, I need to explain my situation. Read more…