Blog: March 2011

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 Lost Room

Netflix suggested that I would enjoy The Lost Room, a six-(TV)-hour show that ran on the Sci-Fi channel a few years ago. Boy were they right!

I can't say too much about the plot without spoiling the show, which does a very good job of revealing new information at the right time and in an interesting manner. The show revolves around Detective Joe Miller, who, while investigating a robbery and suspicious deaths, comes into possession of a key to a "non-existent" hotel room. Use the key to open any lock, get transported to the lost room. Exit the room to any door you choose. Powerful, fantastical, and you can imagine the possibilities if such a key existed.

Except that Joe's eight-year-old daughter disappears into the room and vanishes. Joe's quest is to get her back. As he tries to do this he learns that there are other special objects -- and other people interested in obtaining them.

The story is well-written (though the ending felt rushed). I particularly noticed the dialogue drawing me in. The story is on the dark side -- this is not your pixie-dust-and-bright-lights magic -- but has a fair bit of levity in good places (and my favorite line in the entire show made me laugh out loud). I don't usually notice acting (though often notice its absence :-) ) but I did notice it here; Joe and the primary sometimes-friend, sometimes-antagonist were well-done and the others weren't bad. The visual style was appropriate and the room was well-done. The music did a good job of setting the mood.

I found the show very satisfying. If you like "thinky" plot-driven SF, I think you might too.

Vegetarian chili

Some coworkers declared tomorrow to be Wiener Wednesday, with an impromptu pot-luck revolving around hot dogs and things that go on them. Kashrut considerations would normally preclude that, but when someone declared the intention to bring veggie dogs (with suitable preparation), I decided to contribute some veggie chili to go with them. It went something like this:

Heat vegetable oil in a deep skillet. Chop a giant yellow onion and a red bell pepper ('cause green bell peppers are gross) and cook into submission, adding a few teaspoons of minced garlic from a jar. (Edit: Chop about 1.5 carrots small before giving up and toss that in too.) Add half a bag (~8oz) of fake-meat crumbles, half a can of green chiles, a tablespoon or so of chili powder, half that of cumin, and some oregano. Cook for a while, stirring occasionally. Wonder if this will be spicy enough; later learn not. Add a 15oz can of red kidney beans and another of black beans, both drained, and a 28oz can of diced tomatoes, not drained. Stir, turn heat down, cover, and eat unrelated dinner.

Examine mix and decide the liquid is too thin. Find a 6oz can of tomato paste and decide that'll be just the thing. Also add a little more chili powder and cumin (still not enough). Cover and simmer for another hour or so, after which the sauce is nicely thick. Decant into 3-quart (?) casserole for transport to work, taste, decide to write note to future self about spicing in the form of this journal entry. Nonetheless, results are tasty if subdued. Write journal entry.

interview game: metahacker

Interview meme -- questions from Metahacker on LJ: Read moreā€¦

Pekudei: priestly garb

This week is the fourth of the parshiyot describing the construction of the mishkan (portable sanctuary) and all its implements in great detail. This week we read about the garments worn by the kohein gadol (high priest), and it makes me wonder why all the fancy stuff. We read today about the ephod (some sort of over-garment?) of gold with rich yarns, and a gold gem-encrusted breastplate. Who's this for, anyway?

We sometimes ask if God needs the elaborate mishkan and answer that it's not primarily for God but for us, to have a tangible and physical connection. If we believe that God doesn't need the mishkan per se then we can probably say that of the priestly garments too, but I don't think the rest of that reasoning holds here. I don't think the kohein gadol's garments are for the people because the people never see them. This isn't like a king who parades down Main Street with crown, scepter, royal robes, and retinue; the kohein gadol wears these garments only within the sanctuary when doing his job, and most people never get close enough to see that. Non-levites can, at best, get to the outer courtyard.

So if it's not for God and it's not for the people, then who is it for? I think it's for the kohein gadol himself. It's not to encourage his ego; the torah wouldn't suggest or condone that. And it's not needed to remind him of his obligation to God; being in the middle of the mishkan does that already. But our text today gives us an important clue.

The ephod and breastplate have stones set in gold on which is engraved the names of the sons of Israel; the text says this is to remember. Remember? Does anybody really need to be reminded that we are the people of Israel, in twelve tribes descended from the sons of Yaakov? No, but the kohein gadol might need a reminder of what it is to be among the other eleven tribes.

The kohanim (and the entire tribe of Levi) do not have land; they live off of the offerings of the rest of the people. I'm only three generations removed from farmers and I haven't a clue how to keep livestock or grow grain. The kohein might need a reminder of what it is to bring a bull or dove or omer of grain, what the Israelite bringing it had to put into raising or growing that and what he is giving up. Food isn't cheap or easy, but when you're too far removed from its production you can forget this. And I think the kohein also needs to remember what it is to depend on another for your atonement. We modern Jews are used to reaching out to God directly through prayer and other acts, but that came about only after the destruction of the temple. When the mishkan and temple stood the ordinary Jew relied on the kohanim to perform rituals that would make him right with God. To depend on others in that way can be a fragile and delicate matter, one that the kohein gadol will not himself experience.

The kohein gadol works for God but he serves the people -- but he is isolated from the people, and to serve someone well you need to have empathy and a common understanding. The kohein gadol wears a reminder that there are eleven other tribes out there and their circumstances are very different from his. It's a reversal, in a way: ordinary Jews wear tzitzit as a reminder to think about God and the mitzvot because it is so very easy to lose track while going about our daily lives in the world. The kohein gadol, on the other hand, lives immersed in God and wears something to remind himself of the world outside that would otherwise be so easy for him to forget.

It's easy to remember what's in front of us, what we interact with every day, whether that be our families, God, our work, our social circles, or something else. Each of us has somebody or something that we need some help remembering to pay attention to. This parsha encourages us to look for it.

"It was obvious, Dr. Kovacs"

Originally filtered, but time has passed and I don't work there any more, so it's safe to share.

Yesterday, five minutes after receiving a notice of a company meeting without a topic, I created the following and shared it with one trusted person:

flow chart: company meeting - agenda? - (no) end of month? - (yes) some of you no longer have jobs / (no) somebody important leaving

Five minutes after that I walked through the following reasoning:

  1. A change in $dominant_project leadership would have been announced at that team's regular meeting first, so not $project_leader.

1a. $related_project isn't quite $dominant_project, so this doesn't necessarily apply to $other_project_leader.

  1. People don't announce their own resignations at meetings, so not $business_unit_manager.

  2. $my_boss would have told his people before a broad announcement, so not him.

  3. $functional_area is currently in some flux up the chain but it's too early for an announcement of $their_manager moving up, I think.

  4. $remaining_founder wouldn't leave for anything short of death.

  5. $chief_architect is at the top of the heap; it'd be hard for him to find a comparable position in Pittsburgh.

  6. $engineering_department_manager (my grand-boss) has been distracted and somewhat erratic for the past few months. Match found.

A complication arose this morning when email went out about another important person leaving. (I had considered him yesterday -- I considered everybody with a door -- but decided they wouldn't call a meeting over him but just send email. Prescient.) But, sure enough, the meeting started by saying that we've had a rough week with that other person, a couple others, and $engineering_department_manager deciding to leave. That's not why they called the meeting; that was just the lead-in to a discussion about morale and future direction.

We have certainly been drifting away from some of the culture that made people want to be there years ago. Some of that is inherent in being bought by a large company, but some is not and I'm glad to see some real consideration of that. So time will tell, but I believe this is a good sign.

We don't yet know who, if anybody, will replace $engineering_department_manager. Possibly nobody; that part of the corporate structure seems to be part of the problem so they may rework that. (Essentially, we used to be one company with one person at the top, and now various of our managers report outside our location, carving up our people and leading to coordination problems and less of a feeling of being one team. And we apparently have permission to revisit that now, which is good IMO.)

Castle Schola

We had a very nice schola event this past Saturday at the baron and baroness' castle (hence the event name). The classes I went to were quite good, lunch was tasty (including a nice vegetarian soup), and the feast (cooked by Illadore) was excellent.

We missed the first couple class sessions (it would take an awful lot for me to willingly miss Shabbat morning services...). The session that was just about to start when we got there didn't have anything that grabbed me (good stuff but topics I already knew); I wish I had noticed the last-minute addition of a battle-tactics class. I would have taken that for the novelty. But I didn't notice it so instead I ate lunch and talked with people.

Leifr and Hraefna gave a slide show on their trip to Scandinavia -- not the typical vacation pictures you might expect, but lots and lots of stuff from museums off the beaten path. It appears that in Scandinavia, like in the parts of Israel I visited, they are perfectly content to let people crawl around ancient ruins instead of protecting everything behind glass. That definitely enhances my experience of such sites. (In contrast, I remember visiting Plymouth Rock decades ago and being surprised to find that it was roped/walled off so you couldn't get near it. Also, that it was much smaller than I had imagined.)

After that I went to two cooking classes taught by a visitor from the Cleftlands (we had a bunch of people from Ohio, which isn't usual for us even though it's nearby). The first was on mustards and the second on sauces. Mustard might be worth getting a blender for; mmmm. :-) (A tip he gave: mustard seed can be gotten in quantity from Indian groceries. I wouldn't have thought of that.)

At dinner we sat and conversed with some visitors from Cleftlands. The feast, as I said, was excellent. It was all from Forme of Cury (except one sauce that was ~20 years later, Illadore told me) and it hit that rare combination of tasty and well-balanced and vegetarian-friendly (without short-changing the meat-eaters) and aesthetically pleasing and well-timed and a plausible re-creation. It had chicken with mustard sauce, roast beef (with sauces), tarts for ember day (cheese/onion pie, more or less), cheese, nuts, fruit, pickled vegetables, a salad of greens, peas, mushrooms, and more, with apple pie and gingerbread for dessert. We often eat well in this barony, but especially well this time.

This was a free event with a lunch and feast that cost money. I don't think we've tried that model before; we've had completely-free pot-luck events (usually though not always with a donations basket set out), and we've had events where there is a site fee and food fee (the usual event model). A (good) feast adds a lot to an event for me so I prefer that to pot-luck, but I also want us to do free events, so I'm glad to see this combination being tried. I wonder how we did on donations.