Blog: March 2020

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.

Quarantine cooking

We're under a stay-at-home order (which, granted, isn't exactly the same as a quarantine), so much cooking is happening. I don't think any of my cooking is especially exciting, but since I enjoy seeing what others are doing and coworkers have asked for pictures of some of mine, I'll go ahead and share some. I'm also pretty happy with a soup I made tonight (recipe below). Read more…

Random notes from a pandemic

Boy did it feel weird to be isolated for Shabbat -- no torah study, no services, no shared meals, just me and Dani home all day. Some Reform and Conservative congregations (including mine) streamed services, but I don't use computers on Shabbat. If weeks turn to months I wonder how much pressure I'll feel on that. One bright spot is that we have a lunch-time torah study (parsha of the week) on Wednesdays that I can never go to because of work, but since it's virtual now I can block off that hour from work and attend. So at least I'll have that.

Pesach is in a few weeks. The seder we would have gone to is going virtual. I care about the ritual aspects way more than Dani does; his connection is family not religion, and we won't be with his family. It'll feel weird for me to basically read the haggadah while he plays along, maybe? I wonder if it would be safe to invite, say, one other couple and sit at opposite ends of the dining-room table. Maybe the virtual one will start well before sunset (sunset being late now that we're in DST)? I don't know what to do here.

Local businesses are struggling, as expected. Today we got take-out from a local restaurant to do our small part to help -- got two meals' worth of food, so lunch today and probably lunch tomorrow. I got email from the shop where I have new eyeglasses pending; when they come in I can pick up curb-side, but of course that removes any possibility of adjusting the frames to my face, which is always necessary. So I guess I get my new glasses when all of this is over.

With both of us working from home we've needed to develop some protocols: close the door when in a meeting, use headsets, coordinate lunch times. Eating lunch together helps with the isolation. Both of us are used to casual in-person chatting with coworkers and video chat isn't the same -- it's the difference between bumping into someone at the coffee machine and chatting for a few minutes, which feels natural, and taking a deliberate step to initiate a video chat just to say hi, which feels more forced. Our doc team (which is already remote even without a pandemic) is now talking about a regular casual video chat; maybe that will help. Maybe the Pittsburgh team should do that too.

Dani and I wanted to play an on-theme game yesterday and our copy of Pandemic is missing. Much sadness. We're trying to figure out if we left it at some friend's house or what. It's the older edition, before they changed the board and the game pieces in ways that combine badly for the vision-challenged, so I actually want that one back, or to replace it with that edition, rather than getting the current edition, if it turns out we need to get another copy.


Pennsylvania shut down "non-life-sustaining businesses" tonight. There's a link there with a detailed list of what's in and out -- some oddities (beer distributors are life-sustaining, apparently), but mostly what you'd expect.

And California extended the stay-at-home order already in force in Metro San Francisco to the entire state tonight. Even so, their governor thinks half the state will be infected in the next eight weeks. I haven't heard any projections for PA, but cases here have been following the usual curve so far.

Siderea posted a summary of the Imperial College report that might be spurring the government to take this more seriously. (The report is linked.) They ran simulations of a few response scenarios, ranging from "basically do nothing" to fuller responses. Even with stronger responses, it's looking grim. And it's (at the national level) self-inflicted; we saw what was happening elsewhere and dallied anyway.

The fruitcake of the Laurels of AEthelmearc

Once upon a time, when the kingdom of AEthelmearc was young,1 a mixed multitude of peers and non-peers sat around a camp at Pennsic entertaining each other. And one of the Laurels did observe that the Chivalry have their ancestral chain of fealty, and the Pelicans their ancestral medallion, both of which are passed from inductee to inductee as new people are added to those orders, but the poor Laurels had no such tradition. And someone else did observe that the Laurels could create a new tradition, and in so doing also find a way to mitigate the impression of the order as "stuffy". And then a clever Laurel (who may choose to self-identify) suggested that, rather than a medallion or a wreath or some other such conventional item of reusable regalia, we should have...a fruitcake.

Think about it, this Laurel said! They had cakes containing fruit in the renaissance (Digby small cakes), which are tasty, but the canonical modern fruitcake2 is often a thing you give away, perhaps several times in sequence over a period of years, but never actually consume, it being rock-hard and coated in sugar to the point of seeming shellacked, and would you eat something containing those bright green cherries anyway? The Laurels could have an ancestral relic, one that would pass from member to member (perhaps like the matham of fandom -- a thing you receive and immediately seek to divest yourself of), in the form of an ancestral fruitcake.

The company present was delighted by this idea and promptly had another round of ale.

Time passed, and one of those present received a writ of summons for the Laurel, and another (who was not yet a member of this order) researched cakes of fruit in the renaissance and set out to produce the cake and its reliquary box besides. And this was introduced as the Ancestral Fruitcake of the Laurels and presented to the new inductee in court.

Others thought this was great fun, and that it did have the effect of making the Laurels seem less stuffy and more down-to-earth, and before long another candidate received a writ of summons and asked that the fruitcake be included in the ceremony. And others followed, and the fruitcake became part of AEthelmearc tradition. Along the way the fruitcake was actually shellacked to prevent unfortunate surprises, and a custom arose of new inductees adding some sort of token to the reliquary alongside the cake, over time accumulating quite the entourage to accompany the relic. That first fruitcake-receiving inductee wrote a poem that, for a time, was extended by a verse for each new member, though I do not recall how long that tradition continued. The fruitcake, cared for by so many Laurels over time, was said to have acquired mythic properties, though legends conflicted about the nature of these powers and whether they came from eating a small piece or not eating. The creator of the fruitcake was later inducted into the order and received the cake.

This ceremonial element is silly, which some inductees do not prefer, and other inductees create ceremonies specific to a particular time and place into which the ancestral fruitcake does not fit. It has always been up to each inductee to decide whether the fruitcake would appear in the ceremony -- most have, some have not. There is something entertaining about hearing the herald ask the assembly: "Is there a medallion? Is there a cloak? Is there a wreath? Is there a fruitcake?", especially when it is a newer herald who has not read the script in advance. But it is not for everyone, and the custodians of the fruitcake do not impose where the relic is not invited.

In recent times the ancestral fruitcake of the Laurels of AEthelmearc has come under attack and faces banishment from public view. And it is long past time for its story to be told, which I have endeavored to do from my own observation and memory, having been present for that initial discussion and at many of the ceremonies thereafter.

1 I think this happened in 2002.

2 In which category the delightful cakes made by my friend MinoanMiss do not fall, let me be clear.

Location services + police

We know that any device (like a phone) with location services turned on is generating a large pile of data about your every movement. If you don't want Google or Apple to know that, you turn location services off.

And if you're about to commit a crime and you're planning to get away with it, you leave your phone at home, or you turn location services off well in advance and keep them off so you don't create an obvious window.

These things I knew. What I hadn't previously heard of is geofencing warrants, where police can subpoena location data for everything in range of a crime scene, dig through it, and then get an arrest warrant for the owner of a specific device. Fortunately Google gave the target a heads-up; unfortunately I do not know if that is them "just being nice" (so they could decide not to) or if they have to.

A day of song and story (SCA)

Yesterday Earl Sir Byron and Countess Sir Ariella hosted an SCA event at their castle. The day was focused on song and story, with classes interspersed with performances. It was a fun, intimate event with about a hundred people, including visitors from outside our group.

I attended a class on commedia dell' arte -- practicum, not history, meaning it focused on techniques for getting on stage and doing improv. There were some "improv games" as part of the class. I am not a comfortable actor, which is why I took the class. I had fun and learned things. Our local commedia troupe also demonstrates that there are strong female roles available besides lover, love interest, and servant-girl; in the alternate reality where I have time and skill to consider auditioning for commedia, I'd be looking for something that fits me less badly -- at my age (and, frankly, body type), I'm not going to be convincing as a young lover.

I also attended a class on trumpets, which included "make sound 101" with mouthpieces and plenty of sanitizer. I had wondered where pitch comes from; is it like a kazoo, where you're responsible for producing the pitch and the instrument then shapes it, or what? No, nothing like that -- the vibration speed coming off your lips is what regulates pitch. Huh. I did manage to make sound come out of a trumpet by the end of the class, though I think I was the slowest learner in the room. (Yes I can get sound out of a shofar, though not reliably!)

The Debatable Choir concert went reasonably well, I thought, though the effect of some sick members was noticeable to us (don't know how noticeable it was to the audience). We had some "sunlight through the windows into the eyes" moments, a challenge when we haven't memorized everything. One nice thing about an event like this is that you get an appreciative audience and can do a longer concert, which was nice!

The food was excellent, and the cooks for both lunch and dinner took extra care to provide ingredient lists, avoid cross-contamination of ingredients, and account for all the dietary restrictions they knew about. I had a full meal despite not eating the meat and without having to bulk up on bread. Read more…

Topical Purim Torah

I was pointed to this piece of Purim torah from Mi Yodeya. The question asks, based on a text, "why is Mi Yodeya so angry?". Isaac Moses, site founder, posted this answer, which I'm copying here for personal posterity.

And it was in the days of Ahashuar. Who? Ahashuar, who reigned over the royal treasury, from a throne in a palace, high above Shushan, the capital. And Mi Yodeya was at that time a province of the kingdom. There came to be promoted one hundred and twenty-seven governors of Personnel and Media higher than any of their fellow officials in the palace.

There was a Jewish woman in Shushan, the capital, by the name of Mordeca. And she was foster to many of the provinces of the kingdom, including Shushan, the capital. And she was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of her colleagues, bearers of the royal signet. And she found favor in the eyes of the ministers of the court.

Now the one hundred and twenty-seven governors said to themselves, "there is a certain individual who is spread out among many of the provinces of the realm, whose language is different from the language of the palace, and who does not follow the laws of the kingdom, and it is not in our interest to tolerate her." And they were filled with rage, so they hurried messengers posthaste to remove the royal signet from Mordeca's hand, and they impaled her upon the book of records. And the governors sat down each week to celebrate, but the city of Shushan was confused.

In every province that the governors' command and decree reached, there was great mourning, wailing and weeping. And many of the people of the capital cast off their signets, for the fear of the governors had befallen them.

Some time afterward, a royal edict was issued, including in the laws of the kingdom that "the people in all the provinces of the kingdom shall speak the language of the palace, omitting nothing of what we have decreed."

And many of the residents of Shushan came before the court, and said, "if we have won your favor and the proposal seems right to you, let dispatches be written countermanding those which were written, and let the royal signet be returned to the hand of Mordeca." And they spoke to them day after day, and they would not listen to them. Then the governors dispatched their ministers to say, "if Mordeca will kneel and bow low before the palace, then there will be a poor ... that is, a chance, that she can be returned to her place in the palace gate." But they said to their ministers inside the inner court, "Now that this decree has been written in the name of the palace, it may not be revoked. The royal signet will not be placed upon her hand." And Mordeca would not kneel and would not bow low.

Some time afterward, when the anger of Shushan had subsided, the one hundred and twenty-seven governors thought about what they had done and what they had decreed against Mordeca. And they asked themselves "What should be done to a person whom we desire to honor? And whom should we desire to honor more than ministers who are beloved of Shushan and who intercede for the welfare of the people of the realm?" But the opposite happened, and they impaled Shaashgaz and Carshena upon stakes, for they were ministers who were beloved of Shushan and who had interceded for the welfare of the people of the realm. And Harbona, another of the guardians of the signet-bearers, who is also remembered as good, went out from the palace. And the city of Shushan was again confused.

Yes, "Shaashgaz" and "Harbona" have seen it. (I'm not in contact with "Carshena".)

Followup to the followup (GoFundMe)

Following up this update, I've received a receipt for the donation to The Trevor Project and have added a link on