Blog: July 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.

That escalated oddly

This was originally posted privately to avoid potentially naming my employer publicly.

Recently I traveled for work, which meant I was sometimes using my work laptop "straight", as opposed to with a dock (and external monitor, keyboard, and mouse). I can't do that long-term for ergonomic and vision reasons, but sometimes you need to for shorter periods.

While doing so I learned just how much of a pain it is to work around the trackpad. I was using a USB mouse (because some things are just essential, and easy to carry), but kept brushing the trackpad while typing. Having my mouse cursor be randomly moved was wildly irritating.

I found no help on our internal wiki or by asking random coworkers. Google opined that I could change this in the bios, but I only want to turn off the trackpad if I have a mouse, thank you very much -- not looking for a permanent change. It's possible I won't always have a mouse, after all.

So I tweeted a "does anybody know how to do this?" message, naming the manufacturer via hashtag, and got no response initially. And meanwhile, during the trip, I taped a piece of paper over the trackpad to make it stop annoying me.

Time passed. Then, over the weekend, I got a response from a support account, and we traded a few messages before that person told me to send email to a generic-seeming address. In fairly short order it was determined that the regular consumer support couldn't help me because I have a commercial model (whatever that means; I assume they'll sell to anybody), so I got handed off to somebody in the department that supports corporate customers, and they wanted a serial number and other stuff, and it got escalated once more for unknown-to-me reasons. And I said hey, I have no reason to believe anything's wrong with my laptop and please may I just have some information, but the machinery was chugging along.

Somewhere in there I started to wonder how much trouble I was going to get into when it came out that I indirectly work for the manufacturer. I wouldn't have called customer support for a specific hardware problem, but my request for general information -- to the Twitterverse -- turned into a ticket being handled as a possible malfunction, in a matter of hours once it got going. After a little more email, I got a call from a friendly and competent support person who pointed out the invisible magic button where I can turn the trackpad off (or on), and that completely solves my problem. And she didn't seem to care who I worked for -- bonus.

But it sure feels like I should have been able to find that out without the support call.

Learning new patterns

Coming to the world of SQL databases from the world of object-oriented programming is...different. I'm starting to realize why some idioms are different, and I'm sure there are tons more that I haven't noticed yet and am probably getting wrong. But that's what learning experiences are for.

Consider, for example, a system where you have authors with associated publications. If I were designing a system to track that in, say, Java, I would define an Author class and a Publication class, with bidirectional links (Author would have a collection of Publications; Publication would have a collection of Authors (because sometimes authors collaborate)). But in a database table design you don't do that; you define a Persons table that has columns for some unique ID, name, and anything else about the person, and you have a Publications table that has columns for things about the publication like a (book) unique ID, title, publisher, genre, etc, and also the unique ID from the Persons table for the author -- and I'm not sure if multiple authors means multiple rows in the Publications table or if there's some way to do collections. But the point is that a Person doesn't know about its publications -- when you want that you'll do a JOIN between the two tables and then you'll have what you need. Connections between flavors of data are external to the data. This makes sense, but it's going to take a little getting used to.

(Y'all who are way ahead of me on this should please feel free to point out any errors in the above and save me mis-learning some things. Thanks.)

Lots of comments, as you'd expect.

An Eliyahu story (Ta'anit 22)

Something I learned in the talmud in Ta'anit 22:

R. Beroka Haza'ah often visited the market at Be Lapat (a note in Soncino says this is in Khuzistan during the Sasanian period) where Eliyahu ha-Navi would appear to him. Once he asked the prophet: is there anybody in this market who merits a place in the world to come? None, replied Eliyahu. But then he saw a man wearing black shoes who had no blue thread on the corners of his garment (tzitzit), and Eliyahu said: that one has a share in the world to come. R. Beroka approached the man and asked: what is your occupation? The man replied: go away and come back tomorrow.

The next day he asked again and the man said: I am a jailor and I keep the men and women separate, placing my bed between them so they do not come to sin. If I see a Jewish girl that the gentile men are interested in I risk my life to save her. Once there was a betrothed girl they wanted, and I took red wine and spilled it on her garment and told them she was ritually impure.

R. Beroka further asked: why do you have no blue thread, and why do you wear black shoes? The man replied: so they will not know I am a Jew, so that when the gentiles make a harsh decree against the Jews I am able to go and tell the rabbis so they can pray to God that the decree be anulled. And, R. Beroka asked, yesterday why did you tell me to go away and come back today? Because, the man replied, I was on an errand to tell the rabbis about a decree.

While they were talking two men walked by and Eliyahu said: these two have a place in the world to come. R. Beroka asked them: what is your occupation? We are jesters, they said; when we see men depressed we cheer them up, and further, when we see two people quarrel we try hard to make peace between them.

I love Eliyahu stories. I don't always understand them, but I love them. This one raises some questions:

  1. Elsewhere we're told that almost everybody has a share in the world to come. Is Eliyahu saying "no, not so much", or is this particular market full of people who are especially undeserving, or what? (And what about R. Beroka?) There's one commentary that says this is about who would gain immediate entrance to Olam HaBa, and another points out that most people in the market were not Jews.

  2. R. Beroka seems to think that one's place in the world to come is tied to one's occupation, but my understanding from other rabbinic writings is that it's more about personal traits (which transcend one's job). And, in these cases, it seems that the merit comes from how these people use their jobs to do good, rather than the jobs themselves. I wonder if this is meant to be a teaching moment, or if it's really about occupations as much as anything else.

  3. What's wrong with black shoes? A note in Soncino implies that they are characteristic of gentile dress.

The Supremes


Let me see if I have this right: A corporation that has a small number of shareholders, like a family, is a "person", and a corporate "person" can reject at least one legally-required expenditure it objects to on religious or moral grounds, and thus Hobby Lobby doesn't have to follow Obamacare's requirement to fund contraception. Got it.

A corporation, while maybe a "person", is clearly no more of a "person" than an actual, real live person, like me. There are legally-required expenditures that apply to me that I object to on religious or moral grounds too. So, dear SCOTUS, could you please clarify which of those I can opt out of? If Obamacare or contraception is somehow unique, please specify how. If you say that I can't opt out, why not? Surely you're not saying that, for example, Hobby Lobby has more rights as a person than I do?

(Quite aside from how you feel about any particular law, while it's a law it should apply equally -- or there should be a clear reason that cases aren't equivalent.)