Blog: July 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.

Daf bit: Shevuot 31

The g'mara on today's daf presents several laws that are all derived from the command to keep far from a false matter. They include:

  • A disciple sitting before his master (who is judging a case) who sees that the poor man is right and the wealthy man is wrong must speak up.

  • A man who has a claim of 100 zuzim against his neighbor may not sue for 200 zuzim with the expectation of being bargained down.

  • A judge should not hear the words of one litigant before the other arrives.

  • If two come to court, one dressed in rags and the other in fine garments, they should say to the rich one: either dress like him or dress him like you.


I've got a bad feeling about this

This was a locked entry because it was about work, but it's safe to share now.

At work we are going to be required to change to a different tool for source control. We use a tool that works very well for us, but the rest of the company uses a different one. The argument I've heard is economic but leaves out the fact that conversion will cost more than, probably, the next 20 years of support contracts for our current tool. But that ship has sailed, so... whatever.

A few of our people, none programmers, went off for training recently (sort of an advance guard), and reported that the integration with Eclipse (a software-development tool I don't currently use) is pretty smooth. But what about the command-line interface?, I asked. There is one but it was described as "minimal". I sent a query off, describing my usual work-flow and asking how the new tool supports me in that.

What I got back: "So is there a reason you use the command line, are these features not available in a GUI.... Many of the tasks you mention below are very simply and easily done via the GUI, Eclipse...".

Um, yeah. I'm sure that's true for the folks making the pitch, but one size doesn't fit all. My response to this was:

I use command lines for several reasons (in no particular order):

  1. Command history is one control-p (or up-arrow) away. [I had previously described a pattern involving many similar commands, which is best done by editing previous commands.]

  2. No mouse required. (I have intermittent problems with tendonitis in my wrists.)

  3. GUIs tend to make assumptions about font size, colors, and layout that don't work so well for us lower-vision folks. [Yeah, batting about 0.001 on that with corporate IT... no, I didn't say that in the email.]

  4. Scripting.

  5. I already know the interface. Command lines are easy; knowing where in a mouse-based menu system to look for a particular command is harder. Especially if #3 is in play.

  6. Related to #1, command history tells me unambiguously what I have done, so I can answer questions like "did I remember to add that new file to my task branch?". I also sometimes paste commands I've issued into email or IM when instructing newer people how to do things.

No response to that after a week, so I guess, by fiat, one size is going to fit all. Whee.

In the end I found an API, though writing the code would still have been a large task, and we did not change tools.

Vaetchanan / Shabbat Nachamu

This week's parsha begins with Moshe telling the people how he pleaded to God to be allowed into the land but was denied. This was because of the incident in Parshat Chukat where the people were without water, God told Moshe to speak to the rock, and instead he yelled at the people and then hit the rock in anger (and water came out). Many reasons have been brought for what specifically he did wrong there, including denying God the miracle and becoming unhinged. Another possibility is that he chastised the people inappropriately, calling them rebels.

And now, in Vaetchanan, it seems pretty clear that Moshe blames the people for his not being allowed to enter the land. Not only does he blame them but he tells them he blames them -- on account of you, he says, God will not listen to my pleas. If Moshe ever had a chance to learn from this mistake, make teshuva, and reverse the decree, he blew it here.

There is a fine line between issuing blame and holding people accountable. When people do things that cause harm we should expect them to undo the damage. That's not blame; that's holding people to their obligations. When a coworker missed an important deadline last week that affected my ability to get my own work done on time, I think it was reasonable for me to press him to clean up some of the resulting mess. When I was involved in an accident years ago that was my fault, it was completely reasonable for the other driver to expect compensation. That's accountability, and it's an important principle. There's nothing wrong with this.

Blame is different. I can hold my coworker to what he was supposed to do, but I shouldn't send out email to the whole company dressing him down no matter how tempted I am and how justified I feel. The other driver can hold me accountable for damage but -- if there's no evidence I did it maliciously or recklessly -- shouldn't start a whispering campaign among my neighbors about what a bad person I am. Accountability is about the act; blame is about the person. We hold people to actions but we don't attack them personally.

Moshe fell into an easy trap; when we're angry we are often more focused on blame than accountability. Moshe blamed the people twice for God's judgement against him. He was angry and he let it show. God couldn't let that stand.

But I noticed something interesting in the text. When Moshe repeats God's decrees about crossing the Jordan it repeatedly says "ha-yarden ha-zeh" -- this Jordan. There's only one Jordan; what's that about?

I think it's a nechemta, a comfort, to Moshe. He can't cross the Jordan into the land now but this is not the only barrier he has faced or will face -- it's not his only Jordan, metaphorically speaking. He has been barred from this crossing, this Jordan, but God has not banished him completely. Even though he lashed out at the people and blamed them, which had consequences, he can return to God. That God takes his life personally, with a kiss, privately, instead of striking him down in front of the people, is I think a sign that Moshe and God are still on good terms even after all this.

This past week was Tisha b'Av, which marks the destruction of the temple. Tradition holds that both temples were destroyed on account of our people's sins. But on the heels of that, this week we begin seven weeks of comforting haftarot leading up to the high holy days. We have been punished, but we can also be comforted. As a people we didn't cross that Jordan, but we have other chances. As individuals we have surely been barred from some Jordans, but others are still available to us. The haftarot of consolation tell us that even though we've blown it, God will take us back and wants us to return.

As we make our journey through the coming weeks, may we be comforted with the knowledge that we have more chances, more Jordans, and return to God in love.


Friday night I led services with our cantorial soloist. Both she and I were pleased with how it went, and I got several compliments afterward. I hope I will have more-frequent opportunities to do this.

One oddity, though -- somehow we picked up about ten minutes! I asked afterward and the consensus of people I trust to tell it to me straight is that no, I was not rushing. We do know that my rabbi is more prone than I am to fill in extra explanatory bits and the like; this is not a criticism of him by any means (it's not excessive or anything), but more a comment on my comparative lack of skill and tendency in this area. I just don't ad-lib as well, and he's done this about a bazillion times more than I have so he's had more practice.

It is possible that some of the time came from musical choices. Not clear. And we did start on time, because I'm like that. This doesn't always happen.

Saturday morning I led both torah study and the service. (The lay torah reader had a sore throat, so while she would have led part of the service normally, she asked me to do it.) The second rabbi was there for this and he seemed pleased with the job I did. Another member of the minyan plays guitar and led some of the singing; I'm happy to see her be more involved. The torah reader asked the rabbi to read haftarah (I think on account of her voice). I hadn't heard him read before; I really enjoyed listening to him. He read more expressively than I'm used to.

After I prepared for discussion of the post-flood rainbow, we didn't actually get there. This is the nature of Jews studying torah sometimes. :-) (We spent the entire half hour on the three or four verses immediately preceeding that part.)

Yes we talk like this

At the Giant Eagle pharmacy:

Me: Here's a prescription, and a gift card from Big Pharma that will pay for three months' worth. If I mail-order it I can get three months' worth at once; can you do that for me?

Her: I don't know; I'm just the front-desk flunky. Do you want to leave it and we'll give you as much as we're allowed to?

Me: Sure.

After I did my grocery shopping I returned.

Her: Sorry, we're only allowed to do one fill-up at a time.

Me: I understand. Have we completed this transaction, then?

Her: Um, yes?

Me: Will you take as given that I walked out through that exit and then came back in, or do I need to actually do it?

Her: Nice try, but you have to wait a month.

Oh well. I have until the end of the year to use the gift card.

Dani: So you can read on Shabbat; can you use a Kindle?

Me: No, because you have to manipulate the controls. It's like changing the channels on TV; technically you can watch it if it's on but you can't change the channel or volume. (Pause.) I suppose if, before Shabbat, you set in motion a smooth scroll at a readable pace, that would be like programming the lights. But it seems unworkable.

Dani: What about software that tracks your eye movements and turns the page at the right time?

Me: Seems like manipulation to me. Next you'll be bringing up sentient lightbulbs again.

Dani: How good does the programming have to be before your software qualifies as a servant?

I have no answer to that. Halacha geeks?

There is a lot of discussion in the comments (archive) about the halacha question.

Pulpit time

Still not king a rabbi, but I get to do stuff anyway. :-)

My rabbi will be away for three Shabbatot this summer, with the first being this week. The (until-recently) associate rabbi has moved back to Israel, and the third rabbi is not looking for a large role on the bimah (though he will get some now). And the cantorial soloist has enjoyed co-leading with me in the past. So the two rabbis and the soloist all agreed that I could lead tomorrow night's service, and maybe others. I'll also be leading torah study and the morning service on Saturday; I wanted to spread that around by having someone else lead study, but it didn't work out. Our assignment is the rainbow in the Noach story; need to read up on midrash and commentary.

The third second rabbi will be present Shabbat morning, so with luck I'll get some constructive feedback, particularly on the torah study. He might come Friday night, or he might stay home with his family.

Meanwhile, for the other two times my rabbi is away there will be b'nei mitzvah. While the other rabbi is of course capable of reading torah, he doesn't feel the need to keep it to himself. So he asked me and another of the regular torah readers to read for those services. The bar mitzvah will read some, of course, but I'll be leaarning about 30 verses. This should be interesting; it may be the first tiny step toward bringing the regular morning congregation and the bar-mitzvah service together a bit.

I also just received my high-holy-day torah-reading assignment. This year they gave me Yom Kippur mincha (the afternoon service). Should be interesting to see how well I can chant that far into the fast.

I'm feeling pretty good about opportunities to lead currently. I hope we can keep some momentum going come fall/winter; I'd like to be leading services more than I am, and it sounds like there is interest from people other than me in my doing so. Nice.

Pennsic policy games

The big new bit of stupidity -- this time not from the SCA board of directors -- is a new Pennsic rule that minors, meaning people under 18, cannot attend classes without being accompanied by an adult. I guess it's just too dangerous for a 16-year-old to learn Italian dance or a 17-year-old to learn how to spin wool, or something. This is totally bizarre, as there is not a general restriction on teenagers at Pennsic. They can go (unaccompanied) to shop (even to the blacksmiths!), or to shoot archery, or to watch the fighting, or to any private camp they choose. (Kids under 12 are more restricted.)

Sadly predictable is the reaction of many people in the face of the ensuing discussions. The original rule said minors had to be accompanied to classes by a parent or legal guardian, which is totally crazy, and in the face of much protest they "clarified" that they really meant a responsible adult, meaning any adult appointed by the parents, and not something involving legal process. And today, with that change, people are saying "oh, well that's not so bad then" and "that's reasonable" and "we can find people to take our kids to classes, then". It's as if they've forgotten that the fundamental policy itself is broken. They're saying "oh, if you're just going to take an arm rather than costing me an arm and a leg, that's ok then". Hello? And it only took a day! Amazing.

I'm not saying people need to Stand Up And Do Something Now, because I don't know what we can do. Yes, I want to fix it, but I don't know what to do today to do that. (I can think of small, tactical things to do to mitigate the damage, but that's not a solution.) It seems obvious to me that there is something deeper going on, and I'm not dialed into it. But I do know that it's a short step from "well, that's less bad" to "that's ok" (we're seeing this already) to "of course that's reasonable and you're a reckless idiot if you don't agree". We've seen this before from the SCA (mandatory membership, no wait an unjust tax instead, to point to biggest but not sole case) and it's certainly not unique to this organization. Heck, we see it in marketing too; remember New Coke?

Regardless of where it happens, its success depends on people focusing on the here-and-now and not taking the longer view. I guess hill-climbing is a popular algorithm. (For the non-geeks, this means you take an alternate path if it will directly improve on where you are, but you rule out paths that make it worse -- even if those paths then lead to something much better.)

I'm talking here mostly about process and meta-issues. As for the base question of how we treat children (of all ages), the best comment I've seen has been from Cariadoc, who wrote: "I have long held that there are two fundamental views of children: That they are pets who can talk, or that they are small people who do not yet know very much. The wrong one is winning." This non-parent says: yes, that.

Added in a comment:

They have been quite unwilling to share any rationale for this.

The A&S area is way safer than random private camps in secluded areas, just to pick one example. The idea that a teen can't go to a well-attended class on Viking clothing, but can go hang out at Vlad's until dark, is broken. What behavior are we trying to encourage here? I want event attendees of all ages to feel welcome, not ostracized. The very young require special handling, and all parents need to be held accountable for the behavior of their children (up to evicting them from events if they are persistently negligent), but that's nothing special about the SCA -- the same should apply in any public or communal place. Yet the folks in charge are trying to make rules way more restrictive than those of any place else I can think of. It's probably a CYA thing (fear of liability) without much regard to the effect it has on the people involved.

If I were teaching this year I would adopt the following policy: anyone who wants to attend my class is welcome. Some adults are short, incontinent, or inarticulate; that someone is three feet tall or in diapers or unable to participate in discussions is not my concern, and it would be rude and invasive for me to inquire. People with limitations are constantly hounded by nosy people, after all, and I would never want to put them on the spot. So there. But as I alluded to the original post, that's tactics and mitigation, not strategy and a fix.

There are lots of other interesting comments (archived).

New game: Agricola

At Origins Dani played Agricola and found it worthy of more exploration, so he bought a copy. We've played several two-player games and yesterday we played a four-player game. The game is evocative of Puerto Rico and Caylus and plays in about half an hour per player. I've found it a lot of fun so far.

The description from BoardGameGeek starts:

In Agricola, you're a farmer in a wooden shack with your spouse and little else. On a turn, you get to take only two actions, one for you and one for the spouse, from all the possibilities you'll find on a farm: collecting clay, wood, or stone; building fences; and so on. You might think about having kids in order to get more work accomplished, but first you need to expand your house. And what are you going to feed all the little rugrats?

In each turn you can take one action per person in your family. Each action can only be taken once per turn, so there is competition for certain spaces (not always the same ones). A new action becomes available each turn. Some actions provide resources, some allow you to plow and sow fields, some let you build things (which consume resources), and some let you acquire skills, and, later, some let you expand your house and then grow your family. You start the game with a hand of two types of cards, minor improvements (these are things you can build) and occupations (skills). Both give you some sort of advantage and there's a great variety. For example, the fishing pole (cost one wood) lets you take extra food from the "fish pond" action. The woodworker (occupation) lowers the cost of building wood improvements. The oven (costs three clay and a stone) lets you bake bread (one grain becomes five food).

At set points during the game there are harvests: you take grain or vegetables from your sown fields, must feed your family (if you have a fireplace you can cook animals or vegetables for this), and then can increase your flocks/herds (if you have enough fenced pastures to hold them). As you increase your family you need more food and as the game goes on the harvests get closer together.

Scoring is based on how well you did in several factors, and, like all optimization games, you have to choose which ones to pursue and which ones to accept lower scores for. You lose points if you didn't touch a category at all (for example if you had no plowed fields or no grain). Points are given for plowed fields, fenced pastures, three different types of livestock, two different crops, upgrades to your house, and number of family members, and some improvements also give points. So you'll find yourself facing quandries like "if I don't get a vegetable to sow I'll lose points for that, but if I blow that off I could build this improvement that'll be worth points, but it requires materials I might not be able to get in time".

I find that the cards add a lot of variety to the game without adding a lot of complexity. When I play Puerto Rico I'll probably settle into one of the established strategies (corn king, builder, variety, etc), depending on what the other players are doing. In Caylus (which I have not played as much) there also seem to be some basic strategies that players fall into, again depending on what others are doing. All of that is true of Agricola too, but the occupations and improvements in your hand can play a big role in this, so, at least so far, it feels like there are more strategies available. Or maybe it's just that the tactics are more varied. Either way, I'd like to play more.