Blog: September 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.

Game report: Defenders of the Realm

I came out of my previous encounters with Defenders of the Realm, a cooperative board game, with one big question: is it possible for the players to win? Others in our gaming group shared this question, so this weekend four of us assembled to test the hypothesis. We theorized that having the cleric in the game is a huge factor, so we played two games with and two without. There are eight characters total, so we chose the cleric and three random ones, played two games, and then played with the remaining four. Exhaustive trials would have taken longer; the experiment doesn't have to be completed in one day.

The first game was a disaster. The starting board was not good, but we plowed ahead, attacking problem spots across the board. Then, on player turn ten (meaning halfway through round three -- I only got to play two turns!) we lost by having too many monsters in the central city. They appeared quickly; we got four from that "place one of each type that's adjacent" and then the next card involved an outbreak from an adjacent space, which contributed the fifth. Five monsters in the city is a loss.

We won the second game with one character death. If I recall correctly, we started with the cleric, sorcerer, wizard, and dwarf. The wizard died fighting one of the generals and was replaced with the eagle-rider. The cleric's job was supposed to be to just run around the board removing taint markers (since that's what he's good at), but he kept ending up in fights with generals too. It's hard to ignore someone having the cards that will help in a fight, after all.

We lost the other two games, one by running out of taint markers and one by having a general reach the city. So we were very diverse in our losses; the only loss condition we didn't trigger was running out of a type of monster, and we came close on that at times.

We had intended to ignore quests unless they were really good, but some people went after minor ones anyway. I think we need to be more rigorous about that; "because I'm nearby" can still mean a mostly-wasted turn in a game that doesn't support a lot of waste. We did not spend a lot of time in inns trying to pick up more cards; even the rogue (who's good at that) only did it a couple times in two games.

I found myself willing to spend cards quite freely for travel except for whatever color we were currently working toward. As a non-cleric I never went after taint; you have to have the right location card (out of a couple dozen) and spend it for a chance to remove the marker, and I was finding it too hard to keep track of where taint markers were to compare to cards. (The markers are very hard for me to see. Actually, many things about the board are hard for me to see; this is another game that suffers from the triumph of art over function.)

We didn't think to time individual games, but we played for a bit over six hours total and that first game was very short, so I think of it as a two-hour game. For me, that tips the cost-benefit balance away from this game; if it were a one-hour game its added complexity and challenge, as compared to Pandemic, would be an interesting change. At two hours, more complex, gratuitously complex (in places), and hard, I don't get as much enjoyment as I would from the three to four games of Pandemic we could play in the same time.

So to finish off the evening, after dinner we played Pandemic and won on the penultimate turn (five epidemics). Ah, much better. (Dani and I have lately been playing two-player games with six epidemics and winning about half the time; we haven't tried with four players yet.)

Thoughts on the "al cheit" prayer

Al cheit shechatanu l'fanecha... with these words we confess our sins, generally and collectively. We have been stubborn, we have disrespected our elders, we have used hurtful speech... the list goes on, seeming to cover nearly every possible transgression. But is it really a confession without specifics? Does confessing to these general sins cleanse my soul, sort of like an annual "get out of judgment free" card? No, this text challenges me to look much deeper.

Al cheit shechatanu l'fanecha... for the sin we have sinned before you with inappropriate speech -- and I think of the times I fell too easily into making negative comments about an acquaintance without having all the facts. For the sin we have sinned before you in public actions -- and I think of whether I could have achieved my goals at that meeting more gently, without making others uncomfortable. For the sin we have sinned before you by acquiescing to immorality -- and I think about standing silently when a friend made a derogatory joke at the expense of a group not my own. For the sin we have sinned before you privately -- and I think of the times I have "cut corners" with God when I could have done more to deepen our relationship, and I think of how nothing is ever private from HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

To me "al cheit" is not just a confession, a litany of sins. It is a list of reminders, a prompt to really look inward and examine my behavior over the last year. The list includes transgressions committed unknowingly, but how can I correct them if I don't know about them? "Al cheit" urges me to know them anyway, even though it is uncomfortable, in the hope that if I can confront them, maybe I can prevent some of them in the coming year. Just confessing and moving on would be easier; this text calls me to do more to set myself on the right course, one transgression at a time. Al cheit shechatanu l'fanecha... what have I hidden from myself, that this text helps me uncover?

Baruch atah Adonai, 'ozreinu lizkor.
Blessed are you, O God, who helps us to remember.

-- My rabbi asked me to write something about this prayer to be read in the Yom Kippur morning service. (He specifically requested some sort of chatimah, the part at the end, in case you're wondering.) Normally I don't publish work intended for presentation before said presentation, but this is more relevant if it's available before Yom Kippur is over so I'm breaking my rule.

Unplanned-for obsolescence (sic)

You probably have several devices or software applications that periodically phone home. OS upgrades, anti-virus updates, your cell phone if you go off the network (I assume this is why my battery is sucked dry in a few hours in Toronto), any modern version of Windows for validation, and so on. We live in a wired world and we make things that take advantage of that.

I wonder how often the producers of such things take into account that such support will someday end -- there will be no more updates to this OS, for instance, so why bother continuing to check? This thought was brought to mind by my series-1 TiVo, which occasionally hangs and requires a hard reboot via the power cord. Today after reboot I was greeted by the message that the device would be unable to serve my needs until it phoned home, which it wants to do once a day and which it assures me it needs to do for software updates and the program guide. So I had to let it.

There have been no updates to the software for years and the program guide would not be helpful to this box in these modern DTV days. (The box doesn't contain a digital tuner.) There is nothing they could possibly be sending to my TiVo via the internet that could make my box perform any better than it does today. And yet, because a periodic check was programmed in without apparent consideration for expiration conditions or even support for a "stop calling" message from the server, my box needs to go through the motions.

(Yes, all it can do is record manually from channel 3, and I have to control what channel 3 points to externally. For as little current TV as I watch this is just fine and it's not worth spending the money on a new TiVo with new contract.)

Hmm. I just realized that this means that if TiVo should ever decide to, they could disable older boxes remotely -- even ones for which a lifetime contract was purchased (like mine) -- just by not answering that phone call. In other words, TiVo was in the "you're really just renting content" business years before some of the other players. They might not have intended to be in that business, but by programming their devices to require a useless service call, they have built in a weakness that they could later decide to exploit. I wonder what it would take to hack around this.

Rosh Hashana

I felt kind of rushed going into Rosh Hashana -- not so much physically but definitely spiritually. The holiday helped set things right again.

I'm not real familiar with the more-traditional liturgy (just recently acquired a machzor that will help me with this), so everything I write here is from a Reform perspective. I said I felt unprepared going in, and the evening service didn't really change that for me -- after the opening "hineini" prayer where the service leaders gravely ask not to be accountable for the sins of the congregation and vice-versa, it felt very much like "yay! new year!" and not so much like "season of repentance". We did have an excellent sermon that brought in these things, but the liturgy itself didn't do that for me. It's the same liturgy we use every year; don't know why I didn't notice that before.

No, the theme kicked in fast and furious in the morning service instead. When we proclaimed the day of judgment and read the prayers leading into the Unatana Tokef ("today it is decided...who shall live and who shall die, who shall be comforted and who shall be restless..." etc), I felt it keenly. Even if we cast this as kivhachol, as if it were, and not literally, it is still enough to focus the mind. I assume this is what it is designed to do and it works well.

We have double services on the high holy days (you know, fire codes and all that... it's the only time of year that everyone comes at once), and the two are stylistically different. The later service caters to the "classical reform" model of a choir singing fancy music (for which the congregation can only sit and listen) with an organ. The earlier service is more participatory and less pretentious, while still being serious enough to not seem light and fluffy. You can tell which service I favor, I trust. Timing considerations usually force me to attend the late services on Yom Kippur, but for Rosh Hashana I attended the early ones. But I had been asked to read torah at the late morning service, so I went to my preferred service, then stayed through the torah reading of the next one and then left. (I asked; this was fine with the rabbis and they did not think it would reflect badly.) That exposed me to enough of the late service to remind myself just how off-putting I find it; I felt myself actively disengaging during it, which is bad. So now I am trying to find a way to make Yom Kippur work with the early morning service, at least. (I think Kol Nidrei, the evening service, is still a lost cause.)

The torah reading went well, I thought. I had the climax of the akeidah, when Avraham is about to sacrifice Yitzchak and the angel intercedes. I gave a little dramatic pause between when the angel cries out and when Avraham answers, and the room was silent. Even though most people don't know Hebrew, they can recognize that part. (And I knew what I was reading, word for word, which certainly helps.)

At the second-day service I ended up being more of a functionary -- greeter, redistributor of prayerbooks (we didn't have enough; it's different from first day) so the people sharing were the ones who could more easily do so, etc. This made it harder to actually worship, but I found I didn't mind in that case. I read torah at this service too -- stumbled in a couple places because I didn't get to look at the scroll in advance and it's been a year, but it still went well. (We read creation; I read day six.) Then after Rosh Hashana was Shabbat with its special additions for the season, and I finally feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be. (Even if Shabbat day ended up being decidedly atypical, but more about that in another entry.)

The night sky

For the expanding grandeur of Creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies, filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations, modim anachnu lach. - (Mishkan T'filah, adapted from Eugene Pickett, approximate complete text)

On a dark night far from civilization I gaze up at the heavens -- flickering stars beyond counting, the fuzzy smear of the Milky Way, one or a few distant globes that must be planets -- and this is just what I can see with my near-naked eye. God spoke to Avraham of stars in the sky and grains of sand on the ground; looking at the former I can only feel like one of the latter. There is so much out there, and I will only ever see a small portion of it, never getting any closer. Maybe future generations will see them more clearly, even walk on some of these anonymous globes, but I know I am to remain as a grain of sand.

Yet I am not saddened by this. Sure, I'd like to be up there -- who of us growing up during the space race never dreamed of being one of those in the spaceships? -- but I am content to remain here, appreciating what I can see and setting my imagination loose.

The bible teachings of my youth assured me that all of this was made for us alone. The scientist in me clamoring to get out screamed "no", we could not be the only ones. The torah of my adulthood leaves the question open.

It doesn't need to be all about us. Somewhere out there on a distant globe I imagine another sentient being gazing up at the night sky, wondering if he or she or it is all there is. What about that distant blue-green globe -- could anything of worth be there? His religious leaders might tell him that's ridiculous, to stop daydreaming and get back to work -- or his mind and imagination might lead him on a quest to find out.

Wouldn't it be grand if, some day, that being and I could meet? He could show me how he relates to the Creator and I could do the same for him. Somewhere in the vastness of that night sky, there must be another grain of sand with dreams and aspirations.

Mustn't there?

A writing prompt at a recent writing circle was to choose one stanza of this reading (click the link above for the rest) and react to it. This was shortly after Pennsic, which, while having a fair bit of light pollution, still lets me see more sky than I do the rest of the year. This is what came out of my head that day.

High holy days

First I was asked to chant torah on Yom Kippur afternoon, which I accepted. Then last week my rabbi asked me if I could also do so on the second day of Rosh Hashana, which I accepted. Then today the second rabbi (knowing all this) asked if I could also do so on the first day of Rosh Hashana. (One short aliya each, not everything.) I am pleased and flattered by the amount of trust and confidence they show in me. I had told both of them that I've done these latter two portions before and could refresh them quickly if a last-minute fill-in was needed, and they took me up on it.

(I did tell the second rabbi that I felt funny taking three before the other regular readers capable of doing this on short notice had two. He said he had other gaps to fill too.)

Two of these three should be a fairly quick refresher. It's possible, actually, that I can still do one of them cold. (pause to check) Ok, not completely, but not far off.