Blog: October 2016

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.

Airplane reading #2: Wool

A while back a friend recommended Wool by Hugh Howey. She described it to me roughly as follows: a city-sized group of people live in a dystopian underground silo because outside is dangerous. The rule is strict, and when somebody is convicted of a death-penalty offense, the sentence is to go outside and clean the sensors so those in the silo can continue to monitor what's going on out there. (The environment is toxic, which is why this is a death sentence.)

But wait, I said -- if somebody is being sent to die, what on earth is his motivation to help the people who did that to him on his way out? Why in the world would people actually clean?

My friend said that answering that would be a spoiler, but the "books" are not book-length and the first one is free (as a Kindle book). So onto the Kindle it went.

During our trip to Europe I was facing a smaller chunk of time on a plane -- not enough to start a novel, but about right for this. It's a nominal 56 pages -- longer short story or short novella or what, I'm not sure.

The first story stands alone; in fact, from what I've read, the author didn't intend to write any more than that. Midway through I thought I knew where it was going, and the author managed to surprise me later. Yes, we get an answer to my challenge to the premise.

Since then I've read the rest of the five-book series. (There's also a prequel series that I haven't read.) The books increase in length as they go, with the fifth a nominal 264 pages -- so still shorter fiction as modern trends go. The first one is free, the next couple are 99 cents, then $1.99, then $2.99.

Each of the first three books focuses on a different main character; the last two books have multiple foci. As the series progresses we learn more about the real power structures in the silo and how things came to be this way. The series ends in a satisfying place but there is room for more stories to be told.

The first book stands alone. The second can, but ends a little tantalizingly so I wanted to immediately read the next one. The third through fifth are more joined at the hip; I don't think it would be very satisfying to read 1-4 but not 5.

I recommend the series. I especially recommend investing an hour and a half (maybe less for you; I'm a slower reader) in the first book.

A brief Sukkot teaching

At Sukkot services on Monday I heard a teaching I liked, and I forgot to include it in my earlier Sukkot post. I heard this from Rabbi Yisroel Altein, who taught it in the name of the last Lubavhicer rebbe.

On Sukkot we take up the "four species"; this is one of the obligatory mitzvot of the holiday. The rabbis (I'm not sure where and he didn't say) compare the four species to four types of Jews:

  • The etrog (this is a citrus fruit) has both good taste and good fragrance; this is like a Jew who both has learning and performs mitzvot.

  • The myrtle has fragrance but is inedible and the palm is edible but has no fragrance. One of these represents a Jew with learning but no mitzvot, and one represents a Jew with mitzvot but no learning (one who does the mitzvot because he's been instructed to, but lacks deeper torah knowledge).

  • The willow has neither fragrance nor taste, and represents a Jew with neither learning nor mitzvot.

But, the rabbi said, just as you can only perform the Sukkot mitzvah if you have all four -- if you're missing one of them it's not kosher -- we as a community aren't complete if we don't include all four types of Jews. Not, heaven forbid, that we should encourage people to stop learning or doing mitzvot but, rather, that there are people with neither, and they are still Jews and deserving of being included in the community.

Found objects (Bava Metzia 24)

Daf Yomi:

Some found items belong to the finder; others must be announced so that the owner has a chance to reclaim them. In a mishna a few pages back, R' Meir listed items that the finder can keep: scattered fruit, scattered coins, small sheaves in a public thoroughfare, round cakes of pressed figs, baker's loaves, strings of fishes, pieces of meat, fleeces of wool brought from the countryside, bundles of flax. R' Yehudah, however, said that anything with something unusual about it cannot be kept (for example a loaf of bread containing money).

That was Monday. The next mishna, on today's daf, considers the other side, saying that the following must always be announced: fruit in a vessel (or a vessel by itself), money in a purse (or a purse by itself), heaps of fruit (that is, it was placed not dropped), heaps of coins, three coins stacked, bundles of sheaves in private premises, home-made loaves, fleeces of wool from the craftsman's workshop, jars of wine, jars of oil. (21a, 24b)

What are the principles at play here? One is identifiability; there is no way to prove ownership of scattered coins and all baker's loaves look the same. Another is intent; items neatly stacked, even if in small quantity, were put there, so we presume that the owner is coming back for them. Another is whether, upon learning that he's lost something, a person searches for it or gives up hope of recovery. (The rabbis say that small sheaves in the public road get trampled and destroyed, so people just accept the loss.)

I expect value to play in here too, but if so I'm surprised that a finder can keep (many) scattered coins but must announce a mere three if stacked, and that a finder can keep meat and fish but must announce an empty purse. But there's a lot of g'mara here that I haven't learned yet, so maybe this is addressed.

(A comment explains that for meat and fish, the person who lost them assumes they will have spoiled before he can find them.)

High holy days and Sukkot

The high holy days went very well for me this year. It's hard to explain in words, but they did what they are supposed to do. I feel like I'm in a good place for 5777.

I co-led the Ruach service on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mornings again (with the associate rabbi). That went well, and I was particularly tickled by the person who privately asked me if next year I could do it all by myself. (She likes the way I lead.) I pointed out that it would be rather awkward for me to bring that up with the folks in charge.

We started this service several years ago because the sanctuary service, still being done out of Gates of Repentance which has many deficiencies, was hard for some of us to engage with. It's not about formal music; I'm all about some of the formal music of the season. But it sometimes felt like we were being performed at instead of being invited in. So we started this service to do things differently. This year we bought the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, for the whole congregation (previously we had enough copies for the Ruach service, and previous to that we used draft photocopies). And we've just concluded our first year with a real cantor, who is working hard to make the sanctuary service more engaging. So, it is possible that in the not-too-distant future we could get to a point where we no longer need this service. Some (like my fan from the previous paragraph) might think that's a bad thing for me, but I'd actually be delighted to bring more of the congregation to the level that our smaller cohort strives for. We shall see. None of this has been discussed yet; it's just ideas kicking around.

On Sukkot morning I went to Chabad. I met the Chabad rabbi a few years ago when I took what would be the first of (so far) three classes that I've taken from him. He's friendly and welcoming and he encourages women to learn. So I showed up (unannounced) and I felt welcome. There was one other woman there at the beginning, and we got two more by the end, with maybe 15 or 20 men. (Kind of hard to see with the mechitza and some left immediately after.) Most of us went to the sukkah after for a little food and drink, and the conversation was friendly. I chatted with a woman who's a cancer researcher (i.e. she works, in a professional position) and we talked about technology and medicine and conducting clinical trials and stuff.

I only had one problem. Well, two I guess -- I can never keep up with Orthodox prayer; I'm just not that fast. So that wasn't unexpected. But the other was the language barrier. Not Hebrew; while I'm by no means fluent I do ok there. No, I mean that even though they were praying in Hebrew I found it really hard to follow because of pronunciation. There were times when I knew exactly what words I should be hearing, had the siddur in front of me -- and couldn't match up what I was hearing with what I was reading. I wouldn't have expected that to be the steepest learning curve...

(This isn't just about Ashkenazi versus Sephardi pronunciation; I've got a reasonable handle on that. Chabad seems to change vowels compared to other Ashkenazim, so that's two steps removed for me and my Sephardi pronunciation.)

This Chabad, unfortunately, doesn't have their own Friday-night services; part of the reason I'd gone was to scout for alternatives to what are often unsatisfying Friday services at my own synagogue. Bummer. But there will be other occasions to visit; I went on Sukkot because my congregation and another join forces for the festivals, alternating locations, and I wasn't interested in walking two miles each way to the other synagogue.

Sukkot (reminder to self)

I realized today what I need for my sukkah for next year: cable ties.

Not for the sukkah itself, but for the lights. I use strings of lights of the "plug one into the end of another" variety, to make a long chain of them, but they all lead with a fairly long expanse of cord without lights. That makes sense for the first set of lights in a series, if they're assuming these would be plugged into a wall somewhere (instead of my outdoor-rated heavy-duty extension cord run from the garage), but the result is expanses of non-light or wrapping up that extra cord length somehow. I wrapped up the extra cord length in a suboptimal manner, and then remembered that a solution exists.

Onto the shopping list, then.

Sukkot starts pretty soon here, so chag sameach to all who are celebrating.

Hacking my body: study results

I drink quite a bit of caffeine, which poses a problem come Yom Kippur each year because of the 25-hour fast (food and drink). Every year I start ramping down the caffeine on Rosh Hashana (10 days earlier), try to reach zero caffeine the day before Yom Kippur, and soldier through. But I always get a caffeine headache anyway. Somebody once suggested that I needed to be at zero caffeine for more like three days, which I haven't managed to do yet. (Yes, I admit my substance addition. Moving on...)

Monday night we were wondering how quickly caffeine leaves the body anyway, and Dani found this article. Lookie here (emphasis mine):

The dosage of caffeine consumed can impact how long it stays in a person’s system. Someone who ingests low dose (especially relative to their body mass) should clear caffeine from their body quicker than someone who ingests a high dose. Though other factors play a prominent role in clearance, the body can only metabolize and excrete a set amount of caffeine at a time; if this threshold is exceeded – metabolism and clearance is compromised. [...] A heavy caffeine consumer may ingest over 400 mg per day (equivalent to 4 cups of coffee). At this point, enzymes in the liver may be overtaxed and more caffeine (and its metabolites) may accumulate within the body. This accumulation may prevent efficient clearance and result in reabsorption, prolonging excretion times relative to dosage consumed.

Oh really? I had never considered the possibility that one could slow down caffeine loss by overloading. This, I decided, called for science.

Tuesday I drank three cups of coffee, about 12oz of iced tea (equivalent of two teabags), two cans of Coke Zero (Cherry, if we're being precise), about 12oz of apple cider, and about six cups of water. I ate as I normally do in advance of the fast. Then at dinner I had a glass of Coke Zero (maybe 8oz?), followed by a glass of orange juice and a glass of water.

This should be sounding alarm bells to most people experienced with Yom Kippur. All of this is in extreme contrast to the near-universal advice one hears about caffeine and fasting. Possibly that advice is geared more toward the folks who drink a couple cups of coffee a day; I don't know. Also, caffeine is a diuretic so I was concerned about thirst, even with all the water/juice.

But I am here to report that I did not get a caffeine headache today, and I didn't feel any more thirsty than I usually do. In fact, after some thirst pangs this morning, I pretty much didn't notice thirst for the rest of the day. (Also: yes, I slept as well as I usually do on Yom Kippur last night.)

Wow. It's only the one data point, so further research is called for, but initial research results show promise.

(Monday night we also discovered the existence of caffeine patches -- like those nicotine patches smokers wear, but for caffeine -- but there was no way to get some in time.)

Things I learned on the way to looking up other things

I forget how I got there, but I recently found two interesting posts about my curious-but-not-very-useful "superpower". This Guardian article (from 2002) talks about animals (and people) that can see into the ultraviolet spectrum. Did you know that raptors can see into the UV? Do you know why that's important? Because rodents -- that is, prey -- emit urine trails, and urine is visible in the UV spectrum (as anybody who's tried to find and clean pets' urine stains knows).

And then there's this fascinating post from someone who sees into the UV (due to aphakia), in which he describes and shows what he sees and talks about some cool testing he did. It's hard to evaluate such things when monitor calibration is in play (do you see what I do on my monitor? probably not), but it looks like "black lights" are lighter and more purple for him than for me.

One of the ways he tested the bounds of his vision was with a simple prism. I never thought of that. Now, where can I find a prism? :-)

On fighting cancer

I came across a thought-provoking post from Pieter Hintjens, who until two days ago was dealing with terminal cancer. I found it a cogent commentary on things that I have been blessed to never have to have thought through.

So this is my first point. Everyone fights cancer, all our lives long. From birth, our immune systems are hunting down and killing rogue cells. I grew up in the African sun, pale skin burned dark. Do I have skin cancer? No, thank you very much, immune system! Much of my adult life I drank a bit too much, ate too much red meat, too few vegetables. Do I have bowel cancer? No, thank you again, you over-active beast of an immune system, you! Hugs. And most of us can say the same thing, most of the time. We are all cancer survivors, until we're not. Secondly I want to attack that notion that we can and should "fight", as a conscious effort. Then third, I'll try to explain some of the real fights that we the terminally sick do have. ... I'd much rather not die, yet if I'm going to (and it does seem inevitable now), this is how I'd want it to happen. Not fighting the cancer, with hope and positive thinking, rather by fighting the negativity of death, with small positive steps, and together, rather than alone.

Go. Read. Worth five minutes of your time.

Pictures from Barcelona and Montserrat

I'm slowly sorting through the pictures from our trip. We spent a couple days in Barcelona, where we took two tours: a half-day tour of Montserrat, and a full-day city tour. The latter had lots of architecture by Gaudi. (There was a Picasa link here but it's broken now. Thanks Google.)

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Airplane reading #1: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I recently spent a lot of time on airplanes without an Internet connection -- a perfect time to catch up on some reading. First up: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Somebody recommended this to me but I don't now remember who. I'm very glad to have been exposed to speculative fiction from a culture not my own. (This will be a continuing, though unplanned, theme; book #2 was The Three-Body Problem.)

The story is set in Lagos, Nigeria (the author's home country). Aliens have just landed in the nearby ocean and they bring change. These aliens feel alien; they are not just humans in different skin or with different appendages like aliens sometimes are in fiction. Their motives and methods are mysterious, and I'm still not sure if they're good guys, bad guys, or...something else. I like the ambiguity.

To this American reader, Lagos feels a little alien too, and the author does a good job of conveying the feel of the city.

There are three primary characters, and a whole bunch of others, some major and many minor. The three have been chosen by the aliens for, well, something. They're an unlikely group -- a marine biologist, a soldier, and a rap singer -- who don't know each other at the start. Over the course of the book we learn their individual stories.

The storytelling jumps around, showing us vignettes involving different characters whose stories, naturally, will come to intersect. And they're not all human (or alien); the point-of-view character in the opening scene is a swordfish, and there are others later. A bat that seems to be a throw-away detail in an early scene shows up later; it's all connected. We see characters grow, change, scheme, and sometimes fall apart.

In reading the book I was challenged by one thing: the author sometimes writes characters speaking Pidgin English, and I came away from those scenes thinking I had the gist of it but hadn't gotten everything. It was also a reminder that the rest of the time these characters weren't speaking English at all, but of course the book is in English. Having the dialogue that, in the story, is the closest to English be, in written form, the farthest from English took some getting used to. I didn't notice until I got to the end of the book that there was a glossary in the back.

I enjoyed getting to know the people and the world of Lagoon.