Blog: Parlor Games

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.

"7 things" parlor game

There was a parlor game going around where someone else picks seven things for you to write about and you do -- short or long, meaningful or random.

Justin gave me: Faith. Family. Communication. Study. Music. Language. Service.

Faith: Faith is a combination of commitment, fidelity, and trust. It does not come easily to me; it has to be earned. Which poses a problem: how can I have faith in God, when I can hardly make demands of God? What could God do to earn my faith? This is something of a conundrum, and perhaps the answer is that I don't so much have faith in God as have entered a partnership with him. And perhaps this is why the Catholic view of God I was raised with never resonated but the Jewish view makes perfect sense: we have a contract with God, with obligations on both sides, and however hard it is to explain, I do have faith that keeping this contract will produce -- and has already produced -- positive outcomes.

Family: My parents will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this summer. Their commitment to each other seems as strong now as what I remember when I was a child. That's fabulous, and I wish more of my friends (and my husband) had the benefit of such strong parental relationships.

On this Father's Day, let me list some of the important values my father in particular taught to me, not through words by by modeling the right behaviors. (a) Principles matter, and that can mean not taking the easy, expedient path. (b) Education, and in particular learning how to reason, is critical. (c) Reaching and failing is still better than not trying.
(d) Stand up for yourself, or for others, if you see something that's wrong. (e) You can accurately judge a man by how he treats animals. (f) Power tools are dangerous.

Communication: I communicate pretty well through the written word most of the time. I struggle with the other forms. I am not nearly as articulate and quick-thinking in conversation as I would like to be, and I miss subtle body language. On the other hand, I seem to have developed some sort of perception that can detect when a conversation is going badly (e.g. boring or frustrating someone) when others around me don't seem to, and I don't know what's up with that. But all in all people are hard, and I am most comfortable in environments where people are not afraid to be blunt and don't take offense if people are blunt with them. Fortunately, the software industry is full of such people. :-)

Study: I don't remember who said "when I stop learning, bury me", but that's spot-on. Study is the active pursuit of learning, but more than that, I've come to understand it as a pursuit of its own. I study talmud with one rabbi and midrash with another, both on a regular basis, and for most of what we're studying there is no earthly reason that knowing this material will help me (it's not practical knowledge), yet I love it anyway -- there is a "meta" level to the study that is about how arguments are formed and what factors are important to the rabbis and what implicit or explicit questions they had that needed to be addressed through law or stories. In a way, the same can be said for the historical study I do; knowing thus-and-such about Viking culture, or 15th-century cooking, or Iberian Spain, or military tactics, or any of a number of crafts doesn't really matter in the modern world, but it sure is neat.

Music: I enjoy singing, but spent a long time thinking I wasn't any good at it. (Public-school choir and its crappy alto lines of doom, I'm looking at you.) One of the things that's great about the SCA is that it provides a venue to try things you might not (yet) be any good at, so when a local choir formed I joined and learned some of the things I'd been doing wrong, like that there was something other than chest voice. (Getting some voice lessons also helped.) On the instrumental side, after several years of childhood piano lessons (I think I also wasn't very good at that, in retrospect), I didn't do anything until college or just after, when I started listening to folk music involving non-guitar instruments. I started with mountain dulcimer and then moved to hammer dulcimer, which seemed very natural and comfortable and didn't care how I breathed or whether I could fret chords. For all that the layout looks funky, it's a linear instrument, like the piano that was my introduction to playing instruments. Aside from the challenge of tuning a bazillion strings (and perhaps hearing them go out of tune in the span of one concert in a bad environment), it's a very nice instrument.

Language: I was and probably still am a slow learner when it comes to vocabulary. But when it comes to structure, I have strong instincts. This is a blessing and a curse; it does help me to write what I mean, but I will notice a misplaced "only" or a dangling modifier and wonder what the author really meant, and that can be frustrating when I'm just trying to read for enjoyment. It's kind of what I imagine having perfect pitch must be like. On the other hand, this makes me pretty good at reviewing laws and policies, a skill I've deployed in SCA and synagogue contexts. AEthelmearc arguably has me to thank for preventing the law that said all the crown prince and princess have to do is to choose a champion. :-) (They meant that choosing the champion is solely the decision of...)

Service: Service, to me, is the stuff that has to be done that isn't enough fun to be worth the effort on its own. I realize that lots of fun things are also service, and in the SCA we reward that service and I think that's good, but when I'm doing it, if I'm having fun I don't think of it so much as service. For the not-so-fun service, some people find altruism to be a core motivation. I don't, usually; I take more of my inspiration from the adage "if you want something done right, do it yourself" and the rest from social obligation, recipricosity, and avoiding the tragedy of the commons. Maybe that makes me a bad person or maybe just a realist, but there it is.

"7 things" #3

There was a parlor game going around where someone else picks seven things for you to write about and you do -- short or long, meaningful or random.

Alaric gave me: Pittsburgh, writing, your favorite song, chicken, D&D, knowledge, and al-Andalus. Read more…

"7 things" #2

There was a parlor game going around where someone else picks seven things for you to write about and you do -- short or long, meaningful or random.

Unique_name_123 gave me: computer, spirituality, laurel, rules, games, travel, artichoke. Read more…

Parlor game: let's talk about... (7 things)

This parlor game comes to me via TalvinAmarich: "Comment to this post and I will pick seven things I would like you to talk about. They might make sense or be totally random. Then post that list, with your commentary, to your journal. Other people can get lists from you, and the meme merrily perpetuates itself."

He gave me: Lisp, On the Mark, Accessibility, Books, Role-Playing Games, Filk, Faroe Islands (one of these things is not like the others).

LISP turned out to be a longer story. On the Mark, ditto. Read more…

On the Mark: origins

Part of that "7 things" meme:

On the Mark:

So it's like this. I enjoy making music, both singing and playing, and while the SCA was providing opportunities to do that, it couldn't scratch the folk-music part of that itch. Filksings at SF cons, while also enjoyable, couldn't scratch much of the itch either; I don't play guitar and I don't write my own songs, so I felt like my offerings there amounted to "reasonably-well-done a-capella songs we've all heard before". But there was this group playing at cons called Clam Chowder that was doing the kinds of music I wanted to do -- rich arrangements, a variety of instruments, a mix of folk songs and filk and "found filk" and the occasional oddball piece. And I wondered if there was room for more of that kind of thing in fandom and perhaps occasional coffeehouses and stuff, so I asked three musical SCA friends if this sounded interesting to them, and it did, and off we went. (Because we were all in the SCA, we could easily incorporate the renaissance music we were already doing there into other performances -- bonus!)

Now this all worked pretty well when we were in our 20s and didn't have such demanding jobs and I wasn't yet paying attention to Shabbat and the only group members who were married were married to each other. We had a lot of fun for about 15 years and then shut it down on a high note. We didn't want to be one of those groups that slowly degrades while its friends sigh and hope you'll put it out of their misery, y'know?

I still listen to our CDs (well, mp3s now) sometimes and, well, gosh, we were pretty good. In my biased opinion. :-) I wish we'd done more music that we'd be free and clear to post online; I'd like to be able to share.

How LISP changed my professional life

Part of that "seven things" meme:


The most valuable part of my education as a technical writer was my student internship with the Common LISP project. It was also either the first- or second-most important part of my education as a software developer. Yes yes, the classroom stuff was important and the software-engineering project course was essential for putting the pieces together, but this was the real world and the real world is far less tidy than the classroom.

I was brought on to help write the documentation for this then-in-development language. (Other varieties of LISP existed; this was an attempt to unify them.) But unlike all my previous tech-writing work, this was for a thing that did not fully exist yet, and I was part of the ongoing design process. I was there in the (virtual) room with the lead designers, Guy Steele, Dave Moon and dozens of others big and small, and if my contributions had merit it didn't matter that I was an undergraduate with no real experience. On the ARPAnet nobody knows you're a dog undergrad. Mind, being an undergraduate with no real experience, I didn't necessarily have a lot of design ideas to contribute, but even then I was pretty good at catching inconsistencies and asking key questions. I learned to write software-interface documentation there, but even more importantly I learned to be part of a real software-development process, to ask questions even if they might seem "stupid", to argue for technical positions and support those arguments, and to be a full member of a team.

When I graduated and met more of the real world I would learn that it usually doesn't work like this. In a lot of places, tech writers are not part of the development process (and may not even be in the development department) and the attitude is that they can come in after the big boys are done developing the product. Phooey on that; this important early experience taught me that it doesn't have to be that way, and I have held firm on this in every place I've ever worked. If I hadn't had this early lesson, I might well have fled the field.

It is also because of the Common LISP project that I went into programmer documentation (and expanded from there). I wouldn't have pursued tech-writing jobs that were all about walking the menus in the UI and stepping through wizards and such; I want to look under the hood, understand what's there, and use that knowledge to help users. Building software development kits like I do now is exciting and nourishes my inner geek. When I went to college I hadn't even heard of technical writing (I went there to do computer science), but I came out as a technically-proficient writer who knows the good that is possible. I have Common LISP to thank for that.

interview game: metahacker

Interview meme -- questions from Metahacker on LJ: Read more…

Interviewed by hrj and ichur72

The interview meme is going around again, and in starting to respond to my questions from hrj I stumbled upon a way-overdue set from ichur72. Oops! And, ironically, there's some overlap. :-) Read more…

Interviewed by Justin

I've been writing this off and on over the course of a few days. I hope it's not too choppy.

1. Which appeals to you more, the emotional or intellectual aspects of Judaism?

If forced to choose, I'll have to go with the intellectual aspects. Mind, the emotional aspects are significant too, but if it were only about emotion, I'm not sure it would be any more meaningful than getting high. There has to be something else going on too.

The strong tradition (commandment, actually) to study and probe and turn the torah over and over looking for new insights is very appealing to me. It says that there isn't one pat Answer, and when someone tells it to you you're done. It says that the mere process of engaging is meaningful, even though it's inefficient to have imperfect humans try to figure out stuff than an omnipotent God could just tell us. There are no (well, very few) stupid questions, and it's ok to ask "why?".

But it's not a complete free-for-all, or at least when it is that's a lot less interesting to me. The quest, the struggle, and the what-ifs are within a certain context. It's bounded but very open within that. There's lots to learn and explore and not enough time in a lifetime to cover it. That could be scary or futile, but to me it's exciting.

2. Which of your engineering-related positions have you most enjoyed? Why?

While I've enjoyed various aspects of all of them, the overall winner would be the company I most recently joined, before it was acquired. It was at the time I joined it a team of about 30 smart, passionate people with a very flat organizational structure. I was the sole technical writer within the engineering group (which was most of the company), and the engineering manager gave me free rein. It was pretty clear that most of my coworkers had not previously worked with a tech writer with strong technical clues, but it didn't take too many interface challenges, bugs found in source code, and exploits of gaps in specifications to fix that. :-) So I became "one of the guys" in what was much more of a meritocracy than usual, and it was great. And we were doing some very nifty work, technically speaking.

I don't think my being a tech writer was actually all that significant in terms of my satisfaction; that I was working with good people on interesting stuff in an environment where your skill mattered more than your official rank was what did it for me. It's been a while since I was anything like a full-time tech writer and that's fine too.

Somewhere around 50 people the character of the place started to change; not everyone knew what was going on everywhere anymore, and of course by then we had middle management. We got bought and some of our technical focus changed, and we continued to grow. I'm still there so it obviously doesn't suck, but it's not what it was. It probably wasn't what it was since sometime before the acquisition, actually; I think the departure of that original engineering manager was in retrospect pretty significant. He didn't posture and hide stuff; you always knew where you stood with him. Too few managers are willing to be that direct.

3. Having had some years in it, was the Pennsic house worth the effort?

Yes, definitely, though if I were doing it again I would make some changes in the construction. I think it would be worth the loss of a little headroom in the loft, and a steeper ladder, to make it a foot or so narrower, which would make it more stable when being moved without costing much in usage. (And also buy the camp a few more square feet of land.) I would put (mesh-covered) drain holes along the bottom of the wall cavity, so moisture that gets in wouldn't do so much damage. (We had to replace a fair bit of the sheathing a couple years back.) I might make the railing on the loft hinged so that it could be opened for loading large stuff up there, which would support an actual mattress rather than an air mattress. Oh, and given how much stuff we want to store in it, I would look into a beefier trailer in terms of supported weight.

But just to be clear, these are small things (aside from the weight issues on the trailer). The house is great to live in during Pennsic and I'm fortunate to have a camp that supports it.

4. What single characteristic matters most to you in a political candidate?

If I thought I could judge it, integrity. But since that's pretty much impossible to evaluate, I'll say a demonstrated record of valuing individual liberty. In particular, I'm looking for evidence that the person supports liberty in areas where he personally disagrees. This would be good evidence for viewing his role as serving the people and not just his own agenda.

5. What TV show do you most wish had not ended the way it did?

Restricting this to shows that I watched to the end... I have two candidates. First is "St. Elsewhere", which was an excellent show (that I haven't seen in 20 years) with a cop-out last episode. (I'll elaborate in comments if asked but want to keep the entry spoiler-free.) Second is "Earth: Final Conflict", where I resent the entire last season for taking a previously-good show in a sideways, banal direction and never recovering.

"Honorable" mentions go to "Star Trek: Enterprise" (same class of complaint as "St. Elsewhere", but Enterprise wasn't nearly as good a show so it didn't fall as far) and "West Wing", where I was really hoping they would have the courage to have Vinick win the election. A spin-off series with Alan Alda as President Vinick could have been excellent; Matt Santos just isn't compelling.

Sorry, I couldn't do just one. :-)

Interviewed by Shalmestere

(1) What advice would you give someone traveling to the Holy Land for the first time?

In no particular order...

  • While tours can be annoying in some ways (you don't get to decide how long you'll stay in each place), having a guide is really useful. Also, don't under-estimate the value of someone who knows the locale making arrangements for travel and lodging.

  • Spend a day walking around the old city in Jerusalem. As a woman, don't expect to get too close to the western wall. The Church of the Sepulchre is pretty nifty. (I don't know the other Christian holy sites.) Do spend some time in the marketplaces; the Jewish, Armenian, and Christian quarters should be perfectly safe except to your wallet (no direct experience with the last). As an American Jew not fluent in the local languages I wouldn't go into the Arab quarter alone; YMMV.

  • You are no good at haggling. I say this not knowing your individual skill. Expect to be taken advantage of, and decide going in what you're willing to spend on stuff. (In a similar vein: every cabbie will claim his meter is broken. Sometimes they get magically fixed if you say you'll find another cab.)

  • You will see more armed guards and metal detectors than you are used to, in places you might not expect (like restaurants). This is perfectly normal there; don't treat it as excessive.

  • Israelis, particularly merchants, cabbies, and the people in line behind you at the fallafel stand, are generally more aggressive than I expected. You might need to mentally prepare for that.

  • If you're going to go all that distance, take some time to see other parts of the country besides Jerusalem. There are some great historical sites along the Med (and elsewhere) and the north is pretty (at least in the winter). TS'fat is a neat town to walk around.

(2) You and Dani have a three-day weekend together! The light timers are on, the catsitter's hired, and the bags are in the car. Where are you going?

Gee, good question. It'd have to be a short flight or a drive of, say, no more than 5-6 hours to not sap too much of that time in logistics, so let's call that east of the Mississippi. We've never actually done the tourist thing in DC, so maybe there? (And we know some semi-locals we could visit with, and perhaps spend Shabbat with since you said "weekend".) Or maybe someplace in Florida, since it's winter and neither of us has ever been there, but I don't have specific ideas. With an extra day or two, and/or the "three-day weekend" not including Shabbat, I'd be interested in either going farther afield (Vancouver? Yellowstone? some place with pretty nature to look at) or in taking a road trip (through the Appalachians? to New England?).

(3) What instrumentation did you have in mind when you wrote your c15 dance-music arrangements?

Rosina and I discussed that before I started. On the one hand, aiming for the instruments specifically mentioned in the relevant sources appealed to me for authenticity reasons. On the other hand, we did this to get these dances played and danced in the SCA, and the dominant instrument in the SCA is the recorder (or at least was at the time). Further, bass recorders are relatively rare compared to the higher ones. So with the exception of the one piece that I had arranged prior to the project and the one piece in Locrian where I took what I could get :-), I aimed for all the pieces to be SAT-recorder-compatible. That said, I took advantage of the test-drivers I had available (which did not include any shawms or bowed strings, alas), so I know that they work reasonably on a few non-recorder instruments, at least.

(4) Do you miss anything about the Christmas season? [assuming that you grew up observing Christmas; if not, the alternate question is What's your favorite fried Chanukkah food? :-D]

Some of the choral music is really pretty and fun to sing.

I don't miss the Santa-fication and commercial aspects. That was kind of a head-scratcher for me when I was nominally a Christian; this was supposed to be the second-most-important holy day of the year but we didn't treat it that way? Mind, I don't like the Santa-fication of Channukah either, but at least I can understand it as "keeping up with the Jones' kids" and Channukah is a really minor holiday, and I think I'd rather a holiday be elevated in importance than diminished, if I have to choose one of those.

(5) If you were going to change careers midstream, what would you like to try?

There are two ways to answer that, depending on whether I'm magically being bestowed with the skills and credentials. :-) 'Cause if I'm not, which I assume is the case in this question, we're looking at down-time for graduate school to make a really big change, and that's just not practical for us now.

Within the constraints of "could work toward it within the confines of my current job", I ask myself that a lot and I still don't know the answer. Quite possibly something in the space of designing user interfaces (not necessarily just software).