Blog: June 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.


The latest batch of music to be digitized came with challenges. This was a pile of tapes, most of which were copies of tapes that in turn were recorded from various albums and tapes, not always in pristine condition. I'm pretty pleased with the job I've done in cleaning them up, which I have mostly done with judicious use of Amadeus Pro's wave-cancelling function. (Sample pure noise, then use that to cancel that noise from the track.) On one hand it's basic acoustic physics; on the other hand, it can be pretty impressive. (Not all noise is kind enough to be cleanly samplable, though.)

This reminded me of the first time I saw that trick in action:

On the Mark was privileged to work with several excellent sound engineers over the years. Mike, who recorded our later CDs, had built his studio in his home. We learned through trial and error that, especially for instrumental tracks, we made our best music by all playing (and listening) concurrently, rather than laying the tracks down one at a time with headphones. (We found it especially difficult to do the one-track-and-headphones trick for wind instruments, including voice -- being able to hear the sound you are making in the room, and not just back through the system, was critical for some of us.)

So we were recording some instrumental pieces, I no longer remember which, with everyone miked individually but not completely in isolation. Yes it limits what you can do in post-processing, but we'd done this before and it had worked out well. We knew not to mix or post-process on the day we record; for me at least, the ears are tired by then and the brain is still full of what you just heard live. Mix-down was always on a separate day and without most of the band there.

So, we had this great recording session, and some days or weeks later Mike and I sat down to refine it. And on one song, so faintly we didn't notice it at first, there was a strange sound. One by one we isolated the tracks until we found it on a recorder track recorded by Alaric.

What was that? It didn't sound like it was coming from the recorder or its player. It was not, in fact, coming from inside the room. The studio had pretty good sound insulation, but some things you just can't plan for: the sound was a helicopter that had been passing overhead and had managed to bounce sound into the house just so.

The recording was otherwise very good, so I wanted to try to save it. My first thought was to replace the recorder track (the helicopter was not audible on any of the other tracks), but Mike pointed out that this would alter the sound of the whole because of the way we'd recorded it. But he had a related solution.

So we brought Alaric back in to record that track again as precisely as he could (listening in headphones). He nailed it. And then Mike did the following: he used that recording to remove the recorder from the original track, used the rest of the mix to remove all other music from the original track, and used the result -- which was now helicopter and nothing else -- to then remove the helicopter from the original track. Ha!

Midrash session 3.4

More midrash at the burning bush:

scan of Hebrew text

(Whoops, please ignore the duplicated line in the scans...)

scan of rest

(1) "And Moshe said to God, who am I that I will go to Paro?" -- (2) Rabbi N'horai said: Moshe said before the Holy One blessed be He: (3) You say to me "go and bring out Israel", what can I [do] to stand with all the people (praised??)? [a] (4) How can I shelter them in summer from the heat and in winter from the cold? (5) How do I provide [b] food and drink? [c] (6) How many midwives are there in (among) them, how many pregnant ones are there among them, how many infants are there among them, how many cakes (grains?) have you prepared for the midwives for them, how many delicacies [d] have you prepared for the pregnant ones, how many grains [d] and nuts have you prepared for the infants? (7) The Holy One blessed be He said to him: from the parched bread [d] that Israel raised in their hands from Egypt and [it] sustains them thirty days[,] you will know what will be for them in the future [e].

[a] "ha-okhlusin halalu" -- I wrote "people" next to the first but I'm not now sure why. The "halalu" here is a complete mystery to me.

[b] Approximately; "li l'safeik" doesn't really parse coherently.

[c] These actually seem to be present-tense verbs with a preposition tacked on the beginning, but I'm not sure what to make of that. "For eating and drinking"? Except it's a b-, not a l-.

[d] Taking a translation's word for these.

[e] Loosely; "'atid" as "future" is something of an idiom (that we've seen before).

New paragraph:

(8) "I will be what I will be" -- the Holy One blessed be He said to Moshe: (9) go say to Israel: I was with them in this slavery and I will be with them in slavery [to] kings. [f] (10) He (Moshe) said before him: Master of the universe, it is enough the bitterness [g] now! [h] (11) The Holy One blessed be He said to him: go say to them -- "'I will be' sent me to you". [Meaning, we're only going to refer to this slavery and not the future one.]

[f] The implication is "other kings after this one" (too).

[g] Tzarah, literally narrowness and colloquially "bad stuff". You probably know the Yiddish cognate, tzuris.

[h] The literal phrasing is awkward; more loosely: these current troubles are enough!

See comments (archived) for some corrections.


This afternoon I was in a meeting when someone else said the room was shaking. I hadn't noticed but did after she pointed it out. I figured it was a large truck rumbling by outside; she said it felt like an earthquake ("but smaller", I said). Who knew that a magnitude-5.0 earthquake on the border of Ontario and Quebec could be felt in Pittsburgh?

The coworker, it turns out, used to live practically on top of the San Andreas fault and is sensitized.

Not my finest hour

Around 2:30 last night I was awakened by the siren song of under-nourished UPSs. (Out of phase with each other, of course, just to maximize the pain. But hey, I will never have to worry about sleeping through a power outage...) First I waited in case it was another power hiccup, but after several minutes I got up to shut down my computer.

Like everyone else I have an assortment of electricity-demanding computer stuff, but the UPS only fuels the CPU and monitor. (The external hard drive spends most of its time sleeping anyway, so it can fend for itself.) Bleary-eyed in the dark I sat down at my computer. I wiggled the mouse -- nothing. I tried the keyboard -- nothing again.

Oops, I thought -- when I bought the wireless keyboard and mouse, did that perchance involve a powered doohickey of some sort? Why yes, now that you mention it... Ok, fine -- I found the laptop bag and the mouse therein by the glow of the monitor and plugged it in. Strictly speaking I didn't need a keyboard for this.

I had just clicked on the apple on my way to the "shutdown" menu item when the battery decided it had had enough of me. Oops -- not my best timing. Well, now I have a slightly better idea of what the battery can manage -- about 8 minutes for a Mac Mini and a 20" LCD monitor. I had higher hopes.


Sunday was my congregation's annual mitzvah day (yes yes, every day is mitzvah day, but they organize a bigger community-service thing once a year). I've had bad luck with projects in the past; that a congregant is enthusiastic about some project does not automatically make him well-organized (cough). The best-run project I've been on, the one where I actually felt like I was doing something positive instead of twiddling my thumbs for the sake of PR, was run by Habitat for Humanity, but we don't do that any more. (And then Habitat for Humanity went over to the dark side so I don't support them any more.)

This year, as in the last few years, one of the projects was with the Humane Society, so I signed up for that. I thought we'd be doing things like walking the dogs and cleaning the cat kennels and whatever else needed to be done. But it turns out that their insurance company has been having words with them about fly-by-night volunteers, so we weren't allowed to do any of that because we haven't been through their formal training. Instead, we joined volunteers from the Pittsburgh House Rabbit Club in exercising, socializing, and generally playing with the shelter bunnies.

They had a large room set up with several low fences, each area enclosing either one or two bunnies with enough room to do stuff. There were about twenty bunnies total, many of them larger than my cats. They tended to be shy, but if you sat in the pen with them and offered toys, they would often come around. The senior bunnies, a pair of large, mostly-white bunnies with a few black splotches, were very mellow. (They had the run of the walkway between all the pens.)

This all reminded me of Stuart, the Dutch rabbit I had as a pet for about six months. I can't seem to find any pictures of him (hmm, I know I took pictures...), but the second one on the Wikipedia page is pretty close, except that Stuart was a stray, not a grand champion.

I hadn't been looking for a bunny in particular. I had just bought a house and so could finally safely have pets, but I hadn't done anything about it yet. Then someone on a local newsgroup was rather urgently trying to find a new home for a bunny, so after bringing all the might of rec.pets to bear on the problem, I decided this had promise. I wasn't interested in keeping him in a cage for the rest of his life (they're both smart and social), but Usenet told me that bunnies could be litter-trained. You know what they say: go not to Usenet for answers, for they will say both 'yay' and 'nay' and 'try another newsgroup', but I tried anyway. I ultimately failed in this task, but I was able to find someone else who already had litter-trained bunnies who was willing to add him to that colony. I did miss Stuart, but he was much better off with other bunnies, probably moreso than I had realized at the time. I didn't know until Sunday just how social they are or that some of them come in bonded pairs that must not be broken up. I also learned that the Humane Society hosts "bunny blind dates", which are mandatory if you already have a bunny and want to add another. Good idea. They also do this with dogs (optional there, I think), but they forbid it with cats -- the person telling me this explained that no one involved wants the amount of trauma that would bring. :-)

So I don't feel like I contributed much to the Humane Society on Sunday (continuing the pattern for mitzvah day), but it was kind of fun and it brought back memories of the pet who preceded the cats.

This week's d'var torah (Sh'lach L'cha)

God told Moshe to send twelve scouts in to check out the land, and it ended in failure -- ten of them gave a bad report, and even though the other two disagreed, they were out-voted. The people listened to the ten, concluding that this whole "promised land" venture was a bad idea, and God followed up by saying that they'd get what they asked for, to stay in the wilderness.

What went wrong here?

The portion begins by telling us who these twelve men were. They are not soldiers experienced in scouting; they might not even be soldiers at all. They are among the leaders of their tribes; the word the torah uses is "nasi", prince. They're not scouts; they're celebrities embarking on a campaign in the public eye. It reminds me of when governments or federations send prominent community members -- who have no relevant traits other than well-known names -- on so-called "fact-finding" missions. If we wanted to find facts we would send people who are good at finding facts, even though we've never heard of them. These kinds of missions serve a different purpose -- not fact-finding but public relations. Moshe already knew it was a good land; this mission was supposed to confirm that. Unfortunately for Moshe (and everyone else), human nature got in the way.

The twelve men were chosen specifically because they were leaders of their tribes. Naturally, first and foremost they represent the goals of their tribes. It is their tribes who will hold them accountable for the outcome.

So what happens when these men see a challenge in the land? Does Amiel perhaps wonder how his mother will react if he has to be part of the force that will conquer the land? Will Yig'al, perhaps a new grandfather, be willing to send his son-in-law to fight? Does Gadi think the land in the wilderness is fine for grazing his tribe's flocks and why risk it? All sorts of concerns can be on their minds as they explore a land of giants and fortified cities.

It's not that they didn't have good intentions; of course they wanted to do a good job. Moshe hand-picked them for this assignment and everyone was watching. But there is a natural tension between what the mission needs from them and what their constituents need from them, and they have been chosen as tribe leaders, not as individuals. Naturally their concerns for their tribes are going to win out.

This kind of conflict of interest is common. People are complex; they have multiple allegiances and multiple factors that can affect what they say. When you listen to people you have to consider all that and try to tease out what's really driving them. That doesn't mean we should be cynical, nor does it mean there is necessarily anything untoward going on; it just means we need to consider what else might be influencing them, to ask ourselves some key questions, like: Whom do they work for? Who benefits if we heed their words? What might they be afraid of? What are their qualifications? I'm sure we can all think of obvious examples here, but we could easily miss the less-obvious cases if we aren't careful.

Before we make up our minds about the facts, we need to try to understand the perspectives of the people who are reporting those "facts" to us. This is the mistake the Israelites made -- they listened uncritically to the reports of ten of the men, men they were pre-disposed to believe. Even two prominent men with contradictory views, one already Moshe's heir apparent, weren't enough to give them pause; it seems they did not even consider the possibility that the ten were exaggerating or mistaken.

Being afraid of conquering the land wasn't the problem. Paying heed to their tribal leaders, in and of itself, wasn't the problem. Listening selectively to the reports they wanted to hear and dismissing those they didn't, on the other hand, was a big problem. And it's a problem that is human nature, one we all need to be careful about, whether people are speaking to us one-to-one or via the media. May we learn the lesson the Israelites missed; may we get better at listening and analyzing what we're told.

Later republished on the Reform Judaism blog.

Sh'lach L'cha question

If any of you have relevant knowledge or opinions, please chime in.

This week's portion is Sh'lach L'cha, which starts with the twelve men scouting out the land. In the end ten of them say this is a bad idea and the people believe them, which leads to that generation spending 40 years in the wilderness. The other two, Caleb and Yehoshua, say it's a good land and we should go, so they get to live to enter the land, but the rest of their generation won't make it.

At the beginning of the portion the twelve men are named with their tribes. In general these names follow the pattern "from the tribe of [tribe], [somebody] ben [somebody]", with (generally) the same trope (cantillation). There is one exception to the text pattern, and since tradition takes the precise wording of torah pretty seriously (and holds that there are no unnecessary words in torah), I wonder what it means.

The twelve tribes include the two "half-tribes" descended from Yosef. (Yaakov had 12 sons, but one is Levi who doesn't count in the 12, but another is Yosef whose portion split between his two sons, Efrayim and Manasheh, so 12 but not the original 12.) The text for the first is "from the tribe of Efrayim, Hoshea bin Nun" (he doesn't get renamed for a few more verses). The text for the second is "from the tribe of Yosef from the tribe of Manasheh, Gadi ben Susi". So why does Yosef get mentioned explicitly for one of them but not for the other? Is it just that Hoshea (Yehoshua) is a big name and everyone knows who he is? But this is about the tribe, not the individual...

By the way, these are the two who get non-standard trope, too. In the latter case there are extra words to be covered so the pattern used for the rest wouldn't work, but that's not true for Yehoshua. He gets different trope anyway. One might think it's foreshadowing of the outcome, except that Caleb doesn't get any special trope. (Poor Caleb; he's just as meritorious as Yehoshua, but Yehoshua gets most of the glory.)

A commenter pointed me to an interpretation from Chizkuni, which I turned into an answer on Judaism Codidact for posterity. Thanks, 530nm330hz!