Blog: March 2013

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.

There's one in every class

Today I attended a day-long class on web-service technologies. (Yeah, late to the party.) Being a programmer was not a prerequisite (though it helped), and most people there weren't. This wasn't so much about programming and software design as about getting from WSDLs (web-service specifications) to code and vice-versa, and about understanding all the pieces, the WS-* standards, etc.

I should also mention that at the beginning of the class the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves and say what we do. I mentioned API (programming interface) design, among other things.

One of the exercises was pretty straightforward: they gave us some Java code for a trivial web service, and we were to generate the WSDL from it and deploy the service. We were using Eclipse, which has built-in tools for this, so that's pretty straightforward. Some of my coworkers were asking questions about the Java code to better understand it (which is good, to be clear).

After this had been going on for a little while the instructor walked past me, saw me typing, and said something like "you're still working on this?". Well, not exactly on the assignment, I said; having finished that, I'd noticed a couple obvious omissions from the interface their service offered, so I was implementing them to make sure I understood how to wire it all up. He looked over my shoulder, said something like "that array might bring you pain; consider a Collection", I said I worried that that would be too Java-specific for a WSDL, and he pointed out that I was using a Java-specific tool and it would probably do something reasonable. And so it did.

After the class I apologized to him for being "that student" (I think I also asked more hard questions than everyone else put together), and he said no worries -- students like that keep him on his toes. :-) Me, I just wanted to make sure I got enough out of it to justify an 8AM start (ouch).

"Veggieducken"

I had some vegetarian guests at my Pesach seder, so I was looking for something to prepare for a veggie main dish that's kosher for Pesach (duh), can be made ahead (seder logistics), and is also attractive -- a festive dish for a festive meal, in other words. Isaac Moses on Mi Yodeya pointed me to a "veggieducken" recipe created by somebody who had a similar problem for Thanksgiving. The recipe was easy to tweak to make it kosher for Pesach, so I decided to make that.

photo: two slices on plate

My adaptation (with commentary): Read moreā€¦

Seders

I had two excellent seders this year -- a first!

Monday night I was privileged to be invited to my rabbi's seder. (I have been wanting to experience that for years.) He and his wife hosted about 25 people, a mix of family and congregants with a strong personal connection to them. In addition to the main haggadah that they always use, they had copies of another haggadah with a lot of interesting supplementary readings (A Night to Remember, edited by Noam Zion and Mishael Zion); they had chosen certain readings from this book and assigned them to different guests to read. The assignments were thoughtful, fitting the interests of the individual readers well; this was no random doling-out of parts. We had some good questions and discussions during the reading of the haggadah, and more over dinner in smaller groups. It was easily the most fulfilling seder I've ever been to (and I'm not even talking about the excellent food :-) ).

And I've now seen and tasted shmurah matzah, by accident. All matzah that you can buy in the usual boxes is kosher for Pesach, but some observe an extra stringency. "Shmurah" means "guarded", and the idea is that this matzah was continuously watched by Jews from (if I understand correctly) the time the wheat seeds were planted until the time the hand-baked matzah comes out of the oven. This year the stuff cost about ten times the price of the usual matzah. My rabbi was in the store picking up a few extra bottles of wine on Monday morning and I guess they were having trouble selling it at that price: the proprietor just told him to take some, so he did (enough for the ritual three matzot at the seder). All matzah pretty much tastes like the cardboard box it comes in, but the shmurah matzah tastes like, I don't know, a different grade of cardboard.

Tuesday night I held a seder. There were some last-minute changes in attendance -- half of one couple got sick, the person who was going to drive in from New Jersey based on my posts on this journal (!) couldn't make it in the end, but someone who had initially declined was able to come after all, and the person who had emergency dental surgery that afternoon (ouch) made it and wasn't too loopy from drugs. We were eight in all -- a good size for what we were trying to do, and of course plans were flexible. After all, we say "let all who are hungry come and eat", so there's always the possibility that someone will, y'know?

We had great conversations. I asked everybody to come with questions and/or supplementary readings they wanted to share, and we did not lack for things to talk about. I had copies of Hagada Mi Yodeya? and one of A Night to Remember, someone brought copies of an "atheist" haggadah, someone brought some writings from the Velveteen Rabbi, other people brought other books whose titles I didn't note... and oh yeah, there was a copy of the Santa Cruz Haggadah (very "hippie" in feel) that provided a lot of amusement, particularly with its illustrations. We asked questions, answered many but not all of them, compared translations, talked theology and philosophy (did the exodus really happen as written in the torah? If not, does that matter?), and had a jolly time. It was almost three hours until we got to the meal! (I had pitched this seder in part as "we don't care how late it runs", but I had no idea what would actually happen.)

We did lots of singing, and (possibly for the first time in my experience) actually sang through all the verses of Echad Mi Yodeya instead of singing the first two and then jumping to the end. (It's a counting song, so each verse adds one new line and repeats the rest, but I found I enjoyed the repetition, and it gave the people who were less comfortable with rattling off the Hebrew a chance to get it.) Somebody asked why the song stops at 13 and not at some other number; this made me chuckle because one of the running "things" on Mi Yodeya is to continue the questions -- it's up to, I think, "who knows 314?" right now. But since 13 are the attributes of God, that's a pretty good place to stop.

We definitely have to do this again.

Pesach

I did a better job than usual of eating up the chameitz before Pesach, so there was not that much to pack away and sell. The dishwasher is running the last few days' worth of regular dishes; the kitchen is otherwise turned over, and I am about to sit down with the TV, a couple of cats, and the last bottle of beer from the fridge. This afternoon I did a big load of shopping (with lots of fresh produce to offset the matzah). Tomorrow I will go out for lunch. Then, prep for two seders -- guest at one, host for the other, and I'm looking forward very much to both.

Season of our freedom, here I come! :-) Chag sameach to those who celebrate, happy Easter week to my Christian friends, and happy spring (cough, snow?, cough) to everybody else.

Haggadah Mi Yodeya!

I am thrilled to announce the publication of Mi Yodeya's haggadah supplement! At the Pesach seder we are supposed to ask questions (about the exodus from Egypt and about the rituals of the seder, and anything else that comes up along the way). Mi Yodeya, a top-notch Jewish Q&A site (if I do say so myself :-) ), is all about questions. So we compiled some of ours that are on-topic for the seder into a book, a supplement to the haggadah. I hope you'll download a copy for possible use at your own seder (or just to read) and that you'll tell all your friends.

Go to http://s.tk/miyodeya for more info and a download link.

Daf bit: Eruvin 13

In debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai the former almost always win. The g'mara on today's daf tells about a debate that lasted for three years, with each side saying "the halacha is in agreement with our view". Finally a voice from Heaven (a bat kol) announced: these and these are the words of the living God, but the halacha follows Hillel. Why did Beit Hillel merit this? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied both their rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and they were humble enough to mention the deeds of Beit Shammai before their own.

Another dispute between them lasted two and a half years, with Beit Shammai saying it would have been better if man had not been created than to have been created, and Beit Hillel saying it was better for man to have been created than to not have been. They finally took a vote and decided that it would have been better for man not to have been created, but since he already was, let him examine his past deeds (to make amends) and his future actions (before committing them). (13b)

Some questions arising out of this:


Also, there was a lot of discussion in the previous post, which introduced the concept of an eiruv to my readers.

Internet time

This is how Internet time works.

Late Tuesday night, somebody made the following observation in the Mi Yodeya chat room: hey, the text of the Pesach haggadah is freely available in digital format, a key element of the seder is asking questions, we're all about asking and answering questions, and we've got a lot of good Pesach-related content...so why not publish a haggadah with material drawn from our site? Reality set in soon thereafter and the proposal was amended to: why don't we publish a haggadah supplement this year, as a free PDF download that people can print and take to their sedarim?

The real discussion started on Wednesday, with people posting lots of suggestions, voting positively, and volunteering to help. Someone asked how we were going to organize the content since some copy-editing, filtering, reformatting, and whatnot would be needed and we'd need a template and... and I said leave that to me. (Organizing multi-author writing projects on tight deadlines? Been there, done that. :-) ) So I proposed a format that could be easily transformed to the final product, mocked up a couple questions as proof of concept, and got buy-in. We were, by this point, collecting links for questions to harvest, and somebody collected a list of useful tags to search for questions. I said I hoped we could ask our site's designer to design a cover page for us. Style and review guidelines were suggested somewhere in here. I started planning the formal call for submissions and its logistics.

Today Stack Exchange's lead designer showed up saying he has permission to do our design and production for us if we can give him the content. Awesome! And he can work quickly. I never would have thought we would get that kind of support (and asking for it had not been on my radar). So tonight I posted the call for submissions with detailed instructions (designed to make this as easy as possible for everybody), and off we go.

I'm excited because not only is this a cool project, but I can personally benefit from it this year. I'm not going to Toronto with Dani, and if I can round up enough interested people I'll be holding my own seder on the second night for adults who want to engage with the text and who don't care how long that takes. In other words, I'm aiming for the opposite of the "when do we eat?" seder.

I will, of course, share a link to the results later. Meanwhile, if you have any burning questions about Pesach this would be an excellent time to ask them, and if you're somewhat knowledgeable in this area and inclined to do some editing, drop on by. :-)

Sunk costs

Friday I closed a (previously-)permanent browser tab. A web site that I've been quite active in helping to build over the last year has gone in an unpleasant direction in recent months with no sign of improvement, and recently the badness has accelerated. Badly-behaved people do not have my permission to live rent-free in my brain, so it was time to sadly say "enough" and move on. (No, I won't be naming the site here. It's nothing I've ever promoted in this journal, to be clear.)

This was hard because I struggle with sunk costs. In principle I know that once you've spent money or time or effort on something it's gone and you can't get it back -- so if it's not paying dividends, hanging on "to preserve your investment" does not help. There's no such thing. If it's a faulty product and you can possibly get some of your money back that's one thing, but otherwise, sunk costs are gone and should not affect current decisions. This idea usually applies to investments (if the stock is tanking and you don't think it'll change, get rid of it), but sunk costs aren't just about money.

Yeah, intellectually I know all that, but it was still hard to close that browser tab. I want the time I spent on that site to matter; I want to feel good about what we built. It was hard to start to walk away from the SCA years ago too -- same principle, though measured in years rather than months. (I'm still minimally active, but I choose carefully what I want to do.) And historically I have had a great deal of trouble leaving jobs that are no longer fulfilling because I've invested in them. In all of these cases the answer is to be happy for the good times and recognize that things change and that can mean that things you invested in are no longer worth sticking around for. My intellect knows this; could it please arrange to convince my heart of it too?