My Fantasy Life

In my fantasy life, the parvo infection I had went away without leaving me with any lasting damage. I’d be able to bicycle to work (and even give MJP‘s bike back, and get one of my own), and my upper body strength and overall fitness level would have been increasing all spring. I’d also be able to devote some serious time to finishing the album – I’ve barely used my amp since it got repaired – and maybe even get some of the half-songs I have half-written turned into whole songs.

Even better, I’d be able to take a new rider class at the best named dealer ever, and hopefully get started on the great-gas-mileage-but-made-of-awesome experience which is commuting by motorcycle.

And a pony – gotta have a pony.

But back in this world, my health isn’t letting me get to riding right away, and music has been on hold. This came up for me today because I saw some of Rolling Thunder, which I think is about the coolest thing ever. Hopefully soon I’ll be over this stuff and can tolerate the vibrations – right now an electric razor is about my limit – because it sure would be nice to enjoy the commute to work a bit more.

A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with some friends about my desire to ride, and the general sense was that I’m sufficiently accident prone that this would be a death sentence. I don’t agree with this – the accidents to which I’m prone are qualitatively different: the bicycle accident I got into was not while I was riding, but rather was walking into a crotch-height bike rack. But time will tell as to whether this is an option of any kind.

Boardwalk + Park Place

There has been a relatively robust debate going on in the DC area on the topic of Kosher supervision. The proximate cause of the discussion is the supervision of the sixth & rye food truck. The arguments reached a sufficient pitch that a thoroughly garbled interpretation made it to the Washington Post.

I have a background which is different than many of my peers – I have (a) worked in restaurants for years, (b) been personally, directly involved with kosher supervision, and (c) keep strictly kosher – meaning, I don’t eat in non-kosher restaurants, and if the supervision of an item is questionable I will not eat it until the question is resolved to my satisfaction (sigh). Further, my management degree program focused on the restaurant industry, and I spent a lot of time analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, my day-to-day professional work is spent designing and analyzing complex system interactions. Finally, as a convert, I have had to look at the rabbinic sausage-making process from the inside, and have seen some of the (legitimate and illegitimate) personality conflicts and ugliness that would be far better left both unseen and unheard.

So, with that preamble, my perspective on this particular topic is quite different than many: I think that the community is better served on the whole by an inept and uncommunicative monopoly than it would be by competing groups. Now, this is pretty counterintuitive – most people prefer competition: they’d rather have Verizon and AT&T rather than just AT&T, and the argument “let people make their own informed choices” certainly has a visceral appeal. However, I find these arguments insufficiently compelling when applied in this particular case, and here are my reasons:

Competition will be better than a monopoly
Sometimes, yes, but it depends on what you mean by “better” – for instance, during the telecom deregulation boom of the 90s, some cities were continually torn up by construction as lots of companies laid brand-new fiber. Most went bankrupt, and the fiber was briefly useful, but was quickly outdated – a substantial portion of this has had to be completely written off and the financial waste, combined with the environmental waste and damage to people’s quality of life should not be overlooked. In the case we’re discussing, for competition to improve the va’ad or to improve the experience of the kosher consumer, the competitors would need to distinguish themselves based on something – this is straightforward differentiation, a standard marketing concept. Given that the consumers in question are not va’ad customers directly, on what basis can a consumer differentiate between a restaurant supervised by the va’ad versus a different supervision? Are new supervisors doing a better job of being more transparent? To which community are they responsible or beholden? Are they publishing their policies or standards to allow consumers to make informed decisions? Up until now, the various attempts at setting up competing supervisions in the DC area have not done these things.

New York has lots of kosher supervisions, and it does fine
Again, sort of – in New York, there are several dozens of supervising agencies supporting many hundreds of restaurants. However, New York is an unfair comparison – ~13% of the population of New York is Jewish, and if the 10% Orthodox percentage can be used as a proxy for “number of people who will preferentially and nearly exclusively eat in kosher restaurants,” you’re left with something north of 100,000 people. In the metropolitan DC area, if you add up the capacity of the Orthodox synagogues, you’ll find that there are under about 5000 people in Orthodox synagogues on Kol Nidre night. One and a half orders of magnitude is a huge, huge difference. If there’s one thing I’ve had pounded into me by Thompson it’s scale matters. In New York, if a given supervisor is not accepted by 3000 people, the net effect can’t be measured. In DC, that would be more than half of the community. I believe that a notable input to the drive for non-va’ad supervision is the transience of the DC community, and specifically, the number of folks who are transplants here from New York – it’s easy to forget that DC is much more demographically comparable to, say, Seattle, than it is to New York.

The va’ad takes unreasonable stringencies
I do not agree here – there are a few things the DC va’ad is strict on (e.g. “a single owner can’t own a kosher and non-kosher business”) but when confronted with specifics, I don’t find many folks who think that that principle is a good one on which to be lenient. When I’ve engaged people regarding which particular stringencies they find unreasonable, I tend not to get much of an answer; certainly, when compared to other agencies their approach seems pretty fair (for instance, the Star-K insisted that Stacks not be open for eat-in dining on fast days).

Now, there are benefits to having a monopoly provider too – for instance, when there is a violation of kashrut standards, the mashgiah can pull the supervision, and this effectively shuts the place down. If there were two or more supervision agencies which were well established, an unscrupulous businessman could, after having his supervision pulled by the va’ad, go to the other agency and claim that the problem was merely financial. This would give more power to the business owner, and would incentivize him or her to cheat on kashrut by weakening the financial consequences of deliberate malfeasance. Another benefit: catering for communal functions is straightforward – there isn’t either the “race to the bottom” (embracing the “pay-us-K” where you pay us and you get the K) or a “race to the top” (where the stringency of the week becomes the basis for supervision decisions).

Of course, the va’ad does not help themselves with their thoroughly inept communication: they could be routinely rescuing orphans from burning buildings, and they’d get accused of setting the fires. It’s my hope that they begin to recognize that in the last 40 years, there has been a tremendous shift in the desire of the populace toward transparency – if they adapt, they will thrive. If they don’t, they’ll make themselves vulnerable to whatever populist demagoguery turns up next.

Where you stand on an issue

I’ve heard a lot of discussion about President Obama’s recent speeches regarding the middle east, and as far as I can tell, it is a rorschach blot of a speech (much as Senator Obama himself was during the 2008 campaign). That is, folks who were favorably disposed to him beforehand are reacting favorably, and folks who were unfavorably disposed to him are reacting unfavorably.

To my mind, this is an unsurprising sturm und drang – the actual policy difference between what he’s saying and what prior administrations are saying is small, and there aren’t a tremendous number of shocking statements in it. On the other hand, however, focusing on the Israel-Palestinian relationship now, in the midst of the “Arab Spring,” and after such a garbled and confused 6-months of US policy seems like it’s exactly the sort of cynical approach to politics that the Arab leaders had engaged in – that is, letting something of at best symbolic importance become the biggest issue serves as a distraction from the real and present issues facing the region. Practically: if Israel ceased to exist tomorrow – if every Jew moved to the Moon – would life in Tunisia or Libya get any better? Of course not – thus, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a distraction, and Obama’s speeches merely serve to show the lack of a coherent US policy.

For all of the faults commonly attributed to the Bush administration, there was no doubt where the US stood with regard to the middle east, and the governments therein – if there were a revolution in any particular country, you could reasonably predict on which side the US would come down – but now that is not possible. Why, for instance, would we come down harshly against the Egyptian government, first weakly and then moderately against the Libyan government, and not at all against the Syrian or Bahraini governments?

Obama’s behavior shows his lack of actual foreign-policy chops – he doesn’t seem to be able to articulate any sort of vision which animates his decision making, and for someone whose speechifying skills were so prized early on, this seems like less of a communication failure and more of an actual failure of imagination. In any case, I hope someone close to him reminds him that it’s better to tip the scales in favor of US allies when our allies get into conflicts – if we don’t, then our allies will wonder why they bother with that allegiance.

I fought the law

I was somewhere between Bobby Fuller and Judas Priest recently.

To start from the beginning, back in April, I was driving home from work in Herndon, and as is my typical pattern, I took the Dulles Toll Road (motto: “why pay less?”). I have an ez-pass, because Big Brother watching me sounds like a great idea if it saves me time every day, so when approaching the toll plaza, I got onto the far-left side lane.

Here’s a map of where I was:

This happened to be one of the days that the beltway entrance was backed up all the way to the toll plaza. There’s a join between the inner lanes (the access road) and the outer lanes (the toll road) right after the toll plaza – this is fundamentally so that access-road users can get to the beltway or to Route 123. However, there isn’t a sign indicating that one can’t go the other way, and inherently it is just a typical freeway merge. Seeing the complete backup, a whole line of cars merged left onto the access road (toward I66).

And that’s when I saw the trooper who flagged me over. D’oh!

So I know better than to hassle cops – I had no idea what I had done wrong, but I figured it was something. I noticed that they were pulling over all of the folks who had merged left. I figured this must have not been legit (although why there was no sign saying “don’t do this” or perhaps any of those little poles to make it actually impossible I don’t know)

The citation I received was for reckless driving, which in Virginia, unlike pretty much everywhere else, is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by gigantic fines, jail time, and all sorts of employment-unfriendly side-effects. Yikes! The irony of getting accused of something like this is not lost on me – I’m the person who gets mocked for not jaywalking, so this is pretty rich.

A conversation with a dear friend who is an attorney let me know that this was something where I was going to need to hire someone to represent me – it turns out that the court date you get is an arraignment, where your options are (a) plead guilty and receive punishment, (b) plead not guilty and get a trial date or (c) have your lawyer negotiate with the prosecutor to agree to a different charge, and then plead guilty to that. He was able to get me a referral to an attorney who was pleasant and good, and she agreed to represent me – she said the airport police are pretty aggressive about calling things “reckless,” and that statutorily, “reckless driving” was supposed to mean “a danger to people around you.” Interestingly, unrepresented individuals are NOT allowed to negotiate with the prosecutors – to me this smacks of being a jobs program for lawyers, but what do I know?

After a nerve-wracking month, during which I had Passover, the death of my father-in-law, shiva, and continued inflammation / likely severe long-term inflammatory problems with my hands, I finally had my day in court yesterday. By “my day in court” I mean “my day waiting in the coffee shop of the court house, followed by 90 seconds in front of the judge.” My attorney negotiated this to “improper driving conduct” (which makes it sound like I flipped someone off or something), and I pled guilty to that. I’ve rarely been happier to pay $300 in traffic fines than yesterday – that was a simple infraction of the “got a traffic ticket” variety rather than the “do the crime, do the time” variety.

My bandmate Patrick includes this verse in the song Silver Line Special, on our forthcoming album Movers and Shakers

If you’re ever in Herndon, you’d better use your brain
Don’t let the troopers pull you over, in that HOV lane
Cause the sheriff will get you, gonna take you down
And the next thing you know, your penitentiary bound

So that is one chapter closed, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, it’s to avoid the Dulles Toll Road whenever possible.

The brilliance of John Lennon

John Lennon had occasional flashes of truly profound insight, intermingled with juvenile politics, asinine philosophy, and very, very good drugs. In particular, his lyric “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” stands out to me – I think that it captures the essence of human fragility before the might of providence and fortune. A lesson I take from this is not to wait to be “ready” – one can never be ready for the myriad twists and turns which will come our way.

At its best, life is a blind leap into the unknown, and on a good day, one has companionship while making the leap.

Lessons I have learned from shiva

I had attended shiva minyanim and gone to comfort mourners in the past, but this is the first time I’ve been through the Jewish mourning practices from start to, well, not finish per se, but into shloshim (the thirty days after burial). I’ll put my observations in chronological order.

  • Life cycle issues, specifically death and dying, are advertisements against intermarriage. At a time when emotions are high, and everyone involved is in the throes of fear and grief, it’s very, very easy for what one person thinks is helpful to be deeply offensive to the other.
  • Lots of folks avoid reading The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning until it’s relevant. This is a mistake. Once it was clear that Sarah’s father was not going to get better, she tried to start reading it, but found herself unable to focus given the needs of the moment. It was a lot more helpful for me to read it and summarize for her.
  • It’s worth it for anyone to have some straightforward end-of-life preparations completed, even when they’re young: buy a plot (or join a synagogue which will make arrangements), write a will, and make sure that the rest of your family knows your wishes. This will help prevent conflict.
  • I have revised my opinion of Chabad. I had previously judged Chabad unfavorably due to specific actions with specific individuals, and I had tended to judge them unfavorably as a result. However, the experience of meeting Rabbi Allouche and his sensitivity in handling the aforementioned cultural and religious issues has caused me to realize that I was not judging them in the scale of merit – I accept this gentle reminder that I should behave better.
  • I had previously thought that the Jewish mourning practices were superior to the Gentile ones I had encountered, and I believe that much more strongly now – even in sub-optimal circumstances, I think that shoveling dirt on a casket is superior to simply walking away and letting the cemetery elves do the actual burial.
  • We have really good friends, and are part of a loving community
  • Most people who visited were appropriate, and they tended to have a desire to be helpful. The couple of people who were inappropriate are folks who are inappropriate in lots of other areas as well, so this is no surprise. However, it doesn’t take many flies to spoil the perfume. It is a service to a mourner to run interference between the mourner and these individuals.
  • It was very weird to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut – I wanted to sing, but it didn’t feel right to do so. However, it was a nice reminder that we need to acknowledge communal miracles even in the face of personal tragedy.
  • People are very uncomfortable with silence. I don’t know whether this is a function of the overstimulated world in which we live, or if there’s some other explanation, but the degree surprised me. I have always found myself tongue-tied with regard to what to say when confronted with tragedy, and my response to it is to be silent. I think that my approach is uncommon.
  • I’ve never been in the situation where the community cooked for me before, and I had no idea how wonderful it felt.
  • Shiva taxes the ritual resources of the community – additional minyanim and the like. I appreciated the men who come to minyan both at our house and at the shul all the more.
  • The Artscroll siddur for a house of mourning is good in some ways, but highly frustrating in others. In particular, the mishnayot that their editors pick for the alphabetical study are really not terribly suitable for most people – they’re highly lomdish and appropriate for yeshiva-based communities rather than the one in which I live.
  • We were really touched by how many people came, including folks from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
  • The spouse of the mourner has to do the “keep the house functioning” tasks. It’s therefore tremendously useful for family or a close friend to offer to run errands – my parents came from New Mexico, and it was tremendously helpful to have them here

All in all, it’s a powerful experience, and I am deeply grateful to all those people who came, called, made minyanim, cooked, and otherwise have assisted Sarah and I in a difficult time.

Shiva etiquette

My father-in-law passed away this morning. I had written part of the guide below for my basic Judaism class, but as it is now timely, it is posted here in full:

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After the death of a close relative (parent, child, sibling, spouse), Jews observe a seven-day mourning period called shiva, during which many normal activities of daily living are not done, and during which others come to the mourner’s house to offer condolences and consolation. Typically, the mourner(s) do(es) not leave the house except on the Sabbath, sits on a low chair, wears torn garments, does not bathe, listen to music, or read for pleasure – pretty much most normal pleasure activities are not done. Mirrors in the house are covered.

It is customary to visit a house where shiva is being observed. When coming, do not bring flowers, anything festive or celebratory, hospitality gifts or the like. Don’t bring young children. Greetings are not exchanged – don’t knock, just come in. Wait for the mourner to speak before talking. Do not eat or drink in a house where shiva is being observed unless explicitly invited to do so by the mourner.

While Jews believe in an afterlife, the mourning period is a time for focusing on the loss of the relative in this world. “He is in a better place” is not a good thing to say at that time. It is not appropriate to try to “cheer up” the mourner – s/he is going through the process of learning to live with a loss which cannot truly replaced. Instead, merely being present and able to listen to the mourner is itself the comfort.

In the morning and late afternoon (near sunset) there will be minyanim (prayer services), where men from the community come to make a quorum. Those times are relatively crowded, so if you want to spend more personal time with the mourner, it’s best to come well before sunset (~7:45PM in May). There is no fixed length of time for a shiva visit, but visitors tend to rotate through.

When you are ready to leave, it is customary to say to the mourner “Hamakom y’nahem etkhem b’tokh sha’ar aveylei tziyon viyrushalayim.” which means “May the Omnipresent One comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” There is normally a printed sign with this in Hebrew and in English near where the mourner is sitting.

Complexity

A thread regarding the recent Amazon cloud outage on NANOG pointed me to this excellent post by John Ciancutti regarding Netflix’s approach to managing cloud services.

The most profound lesson I draw from Ciancutti’s post is #3 – “The best way to avoid failure is to fail constantly.”

As someone who works on large complex, highly-interdependent systems, this is absolutely essential – anything which can fail, will, and will do so in the most unexpected way. The best systems I’ve seen (from a resilience point of view) have a whole lot of engineering work put into separating functions so that while a single event can be disruptive, recovery is both possible and quick.

A significant website (>$50K / minute) had a 10 minute outage caused by a routine maintenance. After the sleuthing, it turned out that a little performance analysis widget on the site had a hidden dependency on a single-homed server in the “non-critical” portion of their server farm, and the routine maintenance had rendered that inaccessible.

That website, had they followed the Netflix “chaos monkey” approach, would have discovered this dependency and either made the widget more robust or scrapped it entirely – as it was, a good business case can be made that the value of the data learned by the widget was far less than the $100K which the outage caused.

chop wood, carry water

I’m not doing what I’d like to do today. You see, today is the 16th anniversary of my first date with Sarah, and what I’d like to do is perhaps go to a nice restaurant and then snuggle on the couch while watching a decent movie.

Instead, Sarah is in Phoenix, attending (with her sister) to her (very, very) sick father. I’m at home, caring for the dog and trying to clean and de-clutter the house, but I find it hard to focus on anything here.

So I’ll think about the fragility of life today – it is only due to countless daily miracles that any of us can survive, much less have any dignity in the world, and I’ll be comforted in the fact that I have had the pleasure of being with Sarah for very nearly half my life.