Blog: January 2014

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.

Spamalot (short notes)

That was very silly (as expected, given the source). One thing I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was how "meta" the show is. Several songs comment on the show itself (e.g. "this is the song that goes like this", talking about standard tropes), and the watery tart's solo midway through the second act was hilarious. (No spoiler here, but if it comes up in comments, consider yourself warned.)

Providing the lyrics for the final song (hey, some people might not know all the words already) so the audience could sing along was a nice touch.

There are a few hooks for localization. Some cities scan better than others, but I assume touring companies are up for the challenge. :-)

Wicked (short notes)

We saw Wicked tonight in London. I previously only knew the short (two-sentence or so) description of the show; hadn't heard the soundtrack or much about the show.

Great show! There is a lot of complicated stage-craft (and lighting-craft) in this show and the production we saw was smooth and effective and at times visually stunning. I'm sure I missed a lot of smaller details from row T, but even so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We also had a good cast and (except for the finale) excellent micing, so everything was clear. I loved some of the humorous bits in the show, too. ("Blonde." :-) )

And let me also say how thrilled I am to see a starring female role written for an alto. I was beginning to doubt that these existed.

I hadn't considered the difference between touring companies and long-term residence. Building out the production pays off when you'll be there for a year or ten... I don't think I've ever seen a show that's been in its theatre for more than about three weeks before.

Working with idolaters, infidels, and the impious: can interfaith discourse work?

I've seen interfaith dialogue work really well, kind of ineptly, and really, really badly.1 I've noticed some things that make a difference in where on the spectrum an effort is likely to fall. So, some observations.

To people who are interested in it at all, religion is generally an important and deeply personal subject. If not handled well, it can also be extremely polarizing -- wars, pogroms, and jihads have been conducted over religion, to say nothing of people merely getting beat up. Some perceive a critical duty to convert or "save" others, and setting aside that duty would be wrong. And it seems that everybody has an opinion about those heretics over there who are destroying the world. How do you bring people together under these circumstances? How do you have a civil conversation that sheds more light than heat? It's tempting to say that this is fundamentally impossible, except that, as I said, I've seen it work sometimes.

First, of course, everybody needs to actually be there for the purpose of learning and sharing. If people are there primarily to preach, then just give up -- you cannot have a dialogue under those conditions. (In my experience, this is particularly a problem with evangelical Christians, but certainly not only them.). But even if everybody has the right intentions, there are pitfalls. And that's what I'm going to talk about in this entry -- presuming that people have good intentions, what else can go wrong?

I see two critical elements beyond the right intentions: the language people use, and how these conversations are moderated.


When interacting with people who you know are wrong -- not just wrong, but idolaters, heretics, or blasphemers -- it's critical to avoid truth assertions and to use descriptive language. It's one thing to say that "we believe X" or "we read this biblical passage to say Y" or "we connect with God by doing Z". It's quite another to say that "X is true" or "this means Y" or "the correct way to connect with God is by doing Z". You would think this would be obvious, but it fails over and over and over again.

Look, I know deep in my heart that certain religions are wrong, and that some people have tragically rejected God. And some know deep in their hearts that I'm a stubborn idiot who has thrown the gift of salvation in their savior's face and who is going to hell as a result. These things happen. Get over it. We will never persuade each other, but as soon as somebody says "Jesus died for your sins" or "treating a man as God is idolatry" or, more subtly, "when Isaiah prophesied the messiah as the suffering servant he said...", you've elected to shut down dialogue and fire up a fight. And if the people you're talking with are extremely gracious, they might be able to defuse it... once. Or might not. If you want to have a respectful conversation, you just shouldn't go there.

Why is this hard? It shouldn't be, but it fails enough to make me wonder. I think part of the problem is that some traditions have a bombastic preaching style, plus street-corner and TV evangelists, and this dulls everyone's sensitivities. It becomes perfectly normal to accuse another of killing God or of refusing to submit to God's will or of rejecting the law. It may seem normal, but it's wrong. Unless the terms of a discussion explicitly allow this kind of heated discourse, you have to leave the "I know the truth and I must proclaim it to all!" rhetoric at the door. Because to at least one person in the room, you are Deeply Wrong -- and that person might be willing to argue the point. Loudly, like you. And then we all lose, because you lose any claim that you are interested in learning and listening.


It's human nature to mess this stuff up. It's hard for people to learn a new style of interacting, one that may run counter to what they hear regularly in their places of worship. So the other key is moderation.

Somebody has to oversee the conversation and nip problems in the bud. If a particular community has an ongoing interfaith dialogue it might be possible, in time, for the community itself to perform this moderation -- the regulars will help guide the newcomers, gently steering them toward the kinds of interactions that work, and if necessary being more firm. That's a great goal -- but you don't get it right out of the gate, and sometimes you never get it at all. So it's important that, regardless of the good intentions of everybody in the room, there be someone who has the community-granted authority to say "stop" or "let's talk about X instead".

This is a skill and must be learned. Some seminaries teach "people skills" and psychology and systems alongside bible and theology, and plenty of lay people are exposed to training in these areas professionally. And we all (I hope) know someone who's a natural diplomat, who may not have any formal training but just knows how to defuse problems and redirect discussions. These people, whether trained or instinctive, are essential.

There's a challenge to being a moderator, though -- you're there at all because you care about the subject, but moderators are accountable to the whole community. So, first and foremost, your job is to be fair. You've got to be willing to call out the people who are right, not just the ones who are wrong, so to speak. And that requires a special type of perception, to be able to listen to somebody who is speaking the Truth but doing it disruptively and to step in and say "no".

The usual failure of moderation is not having it. But sometimes the failure is of the other type -- there are moderators, but they're caught up in the content enough that they lose the ability to do their job for the whole community. They're great at challenging the heretics but not so great with the defenders of the faith. And once you lose the perception of fairness, it can be really hard to recover.

Bottom line

So, bottom line -- I think it's possible for interfaith dialogue to work, even on deeply personal and polarizing topics, if everybody works hard to keep it respectful and descriptive and if there are moderators who keep an eye on the discussion and apply correction as needed -- even at the cost of some of their own participation.

If a community can do that, it can have a productive discussion. If it can't, you may as well just give up on those idolaters and infidels -- it's not like they're going to listen to your preaching anyway (since they are, after all, idolaters and infidels), so you may as well just go home.

1 The original version of this post linked to a user-profile page that has since been deleted. I've updated the link to point to an explanation of that problem.

There is discussion in the comments about Clay Shirky's A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy, which I had not previously seen.

Polar vortex, day 1

This morning on my way out of the house I said to myself, "self, given how cold it is outside (-9F, predicted high 1F), if you let the regular programming on the thermostat stand, the house'll never warm up enough this evening when you'll care". So I overrode it.

That turned out to be prescient. The astute will notice that I am posting to LJ during the work day but LJ is blocked at work. No I'm not using my phone to do this.

I missed the "the office is closed" robo-call by approximately 1 minute, it seems. No heat, and soon no water. (I assume because water-filled pipes in an unheated building during a cold snap are a hazard, but I didn't ask.) I wonder how many days it will take them to get that repaired; our landlord is not very attentive to building maintenance even in the best of times, and I imagine that furnace-repair people are hard to come by right now.

I stayed long enough for my manager (in a more-westerly timezone) to get in so I could ask for clarification on relevant work-from-home policies. Most people have laptops and took them home last night just in case. I don't, and we're not allowed to access the corporate network with personal machines (even via an approved VPN client), except for some hacky system that requires IE and so doesn't work on my Mac, and I really didn't feel like carrying a tower, at least one monitor, and other peripherals home. We found a way for me to not have to take mandatory PTO today, so yay.

At lunch time, the house has warmed up one degree since I left this morning. But I have warm clothes, tea, and if I'm lucky, a cat on my feet.

Vayeira: And Avraham arose early

I gave (approximately) this d'var torah back in October for Parshat Vayeira, Genesis 18-22, but it took me this long to get around to cleaning it up for publication. (Specifically, I had to "vague-ify" some references; there are details I'm willing to share "live" with 30 or so friends that I'm not willing to publish for posterity to the Internet, y'know?)

Vayashkem Avraham baboker -- and Avraham arose early in the morning. The torah tells us this three times, all in Parshat Vayeira -- three times that Avraham hastened not for a pleasant reason but due to a struggle.

First, after extended strife between his people and Lot's, Avraham and his nephew parted ways. Lot, given his choice of the whole land, settled in the wicked city of S'dom. Avraham rescued him once afterward, when S'dom was looted in battle, and we don't hear of further contact between them. Did Avraham at that point take the simpler path, avoiding a struggle with his kinsman instead of continuing to try to influence him? It's tempting, and not necessarily wrong -- I think of disagreeable people in my life who I've simply walked away from, because it's not worth the trouble to keep trying. I assume that happens to all of us.

But some ties aren't easily broken, particularly ones where people were previously close. God tells Avraham of his plans for S'dom and accepts some haggling over numbers, but the events are set in motion. Vayashkem Avraham baboker -- Avraham got up early in the morning to watch what would happen, saw the destruction of Lot's city -- and perhaps wondered what happened to Lot, who exits the story soon afterward.

Avraham avoided a struggle for good reasons, and as a result may never have learned that Lot didn't perish in S'dom but was still alive. This is a natural consequence of avoiding a problem; we may lose out on something later that would comfort us. Insulation works in both directions; when we need to protect ourselves we also make ourselves less open to positive changes.

Vayashkem Avraham baboker -- Avraham arose early in the morning to expel his son Yishmael and his mother Hagar. Poor Avraham. He followed Sarah's instructions and had a child with Hagar in pursuit of destiny. He did everything to cooperate, to heed his wife, to pursue shalom bayit -- and then, once she had a child of her own, the strife began... strife between the children and strife between their mothers, with Avraham caught in the middle.

When do we step into someone else's fight and try to bring peace? Am I being a busy-body if I do? Am I being cold and aloof if I don't? Just recently I learned that someone I'm close to is near her wit's end dealing with someone else I'm close to -- do I step in and try to get each of them to see their own part in the fight? Can I bring them together, or will I just make it a three-way struggle? Is it better to bow out, or do I just want it to be because that seems easier?

Avraham bowed out, preserving his marriage at the cost of the less-wanted son -- a terrible choice to have to make. And it seems like he was in such a hurry to get it over with that he didn't think it through -- Avraham, rich beyond words, who could have easily set them up in another home, sends them out into the wilderness with... a loaf of bread and a skin of water. If I do step into someone else's struggle and choose sides, am I at risk of not seeing it through, of not fulfilling my obligations to both of them? What do I owe the person who is almost certainly in the wrong as I support the one who is almost certainly in the right? Do I owe both more than provisions for one day of a journey?

Vayashkem Avraham baboker -- Avraham received a divine command, and this was his response. No arguing this time, no questioning, and certainly not a word of explanation to either Sarah or Yitzchak on that fateful day. Avraham didn't stuggle with God at all this time -- his strife was internal. For three days he and Yitzchak and the servant-boys and the donkey loaded with firewood -- but no lamb -- walked in silence to Mount Moriah. What must have been going on in his head all that time? In Yitzchak's?

I think about my own inner struggles, the things so personal or so confusing that I don't even want to share them with those closest to me, and I wonder if I should. Sharing is dangerous -- telling Sarah about the true purpose of their journey could not have ended well. But not telling her didn't end well either -- the midrash tells us that Sarah died on hearing the news, alone and uncomforted. And not telling Yitzchak didn't work out well either. Yitzchak left the mountain and settled elsewhere; we don't know that Avraham ever spoke with him again, and Yitzchak grew up to be the weak link in the trio of patriarchs, distant from both his father and one of his sons.

It's easy to clam up and not share. Often it's the right thing to do. But other times, sharing could relieve pain or open the door to a much-needed conversation. Knowing which it will be is hard -- that's the struggle before the struggle, to figure out whether and how to engage and whom to involve.

Vayashkem Avraham baboker -- to watch calamity involving kin, to hasten to end a family conflict, to carry out a horrifying command from God -- all hard choices with no clear right answers. But maybe it is enough if it prompts us to ask what we arise early in the morning to do -- to what do we hasten? Am I engaging in a struggle or avoiding one? Should I be? Have I thought it through?

Sometimes there are no answers, only questions -- but struggling with the question to find an answer may be more important than the answer itself.

A visualization I'd like to see

We went to see the second Hobbit movie today. Now we already knew, of course, from (a) the fact that it's a trilogy and (b) seeing the first movie, that there was going to be a lot of extra stuff. Even so, I found myself wondering if as much as a quarter of this movie was in the book, or if my memory is faulty.

A visualization I would really like to see (and see updated when the third movie comes out): a "timeline" showing elapsed film time (not plot time), with a set of (discontinuous) lines or bars representing segments that are in the book. I want to know not just how much of the movie is in the book but where and for how long those stretches run. So, for example, the first bar wouldn't start until about 25 minutes into the first movie (as I recall), because all that preamble stuff was new.

Can we get the XKCD guy to do this? This seems like it would be right up his alley.

I'm not picking on the movies (well, maybe a little, but I'll still see the third one so it can't be that bad). I'm just curious, but not nearly enough of a fan to do the data-collection myself.

(I am assuming that the movies are a superset of the book, meaning there's nothing in the book but not in the movies. Is that assumption correct?)