Pax Romanum

Sarah’s silent retreat was good. Of course, when the cat’s away, I and several other mice go wild.

Now, “going wild” for me involves having pizza for Shabbat dinner and playing board games (gettin’ jiggy with it, oh yeah), so a civilization game came to be. One player had verbally committed, but ditched, so we ended up with six players on a full size board. I think this configuration plays to my strength, because there isn’t a need for a whole lot of conflict, and I excel at peaceful gaming.

I was clearly in the lead at the end of the game (by which point Egypt had had to drop out), and I was extremely surprised that there wasn’t a “dogpile David” moment (and it was even discussed!) but that let me really run out ahead.

Final scores:
Italy (me) 4499 (I think that’s my all-time high)
Illyria (Michael) 3637
Thrace (the other David B) 3304
Africa (Shoshana) 3300
Egypt (Jared) 1568
Assyria (Josh G) 1473

We’re losing David B and Josh to other places soon, so its probably time to teach more new players.

Can I play with [Katniss]?* (spoilers below the ===)

I had had The Hunger Games on my “to read” list for a long time – I had seen a quick synopsis, and it sounded great. Then it started to get more attention, and I heard things like “If you liked Twilight. you’ll LOVE this,” which was a humongo-turnoff, so I put it out of my mind. Sarah read and devoured the books, and she’s normally a slow reader, so I looked at that as a vote in favor, but then again she did actually *like* Twilight, so it was still a mixed vote. When the movie came out, she and I saw it on opening day (!) in good seats at the Uptown (!!) and it was excellent. So it got back onto my list to read.

I figured that it would be a good airplane read, so I picked it up from the library last week when I found out I’d be going away. Well, I was wrong about one thing – I couldn’t wait for the flight, and finished it within about 30 hours of starting, which then left me extremely hungry for the remainder of the series. Happily, the airport bookstore had used copies of the other two, and I made equally short work of those.

These are excellent books – they are everything that a “classic” juvenile novel (in the tradition of Robert Heinlein) is supposed to be: thought-provoking and challenging, rip-roaring, and extremely relatable. To really talk about the book requires spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, go read it and come back: I’ll still be here.

===========Spoilers Below!==============================

Welcome back. The libertarian sensibility of the overarching story is appealing to me – that the biggest enemy is the government, and that the government would think nothing of drafting its children for gladiatorial combat is a classic SF extrapolation of the evils of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. I particularly like the book-not-movie-Tolkien-style demonstration of how being in and complicit to warfare changes a person for the worse – even a just war is still dehumanizing. Apparently the revolution will be televised.

I didn’t catch until it was pointed out that the name of the country, Panem is Latin for “bread” (my old teachers are certainly shaking their heads at the schoolboy fail there), but I should have – certainly the Roman allegory is played up in the dystopian environment.

I thought that Collins did an excellent job of making Katniss appealing and competent without any of the hyper-competence which is all too common in much fiction (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you) – her failures and mistakes are the teaching moments which allow her to grow, and allow us the readers to be brought along in the narrative. Collins did abstract the world – as far as we know, there aren’t any countries other than Panem: if there were, why wouldn’t district 13 (or the capitol for that matter) have enlisted aid?

There was one blind spot – the books had a complete absence of religion, which calls out for an explanation. During all of the other oppressive regimes in human history, religion has been one of the things to which the subject population has turned – think of American slaves singing spirituals, or of the various folks who rebelled against the USSR or currently against China – religion ends up being a non-state-based force (not always for the good). It’s possible that Collins didn’t want to go into it in the context of a YA book (in much the same way that there is no sex, although there are oblique references to it), or it’s possible she’s making some larger point, but if the latter is the case I would not consider the point fully made.

========Spoilers End here============================

All in all, these are fabulous, worth reading, and exceedingly thought-provoking.

* Paraphrased from Iron Maiden.

…, We Have a Problem

Business travel used to excite me, but no longer does so – now I just look at it as time spent in beds which are more comfortable for others than for me, away from Sarah and Kacy. So Houston for me has been a bit of a blur – it’s almost all driving from hotel to work to restaurant to work to restaurant to hotel – I’m certain that there’s interesting things to do here, but I’m not doing any of them.

Except – the (kosher) food here is surprisingly good. Nothing is “fancy” – but they’ve been uniformly pleasant and tasty (2 pizza places, a shwarma place, and a vegetarian Indian place so far…). While the food is a treat, the two things which really have caught my eye are the freeways and the adult stores.

The freeways here are massive – One I’ve been taking (Tx 59) is 6 lanes of freeway in each direction with three lanes of frontage in each direction. For those playing along at home, that’s significantly bigger than the Capital beltway or Interstate 95 near Washington. And that isn’t even an Interstate. Adding to the effect are the number and chaos of the various flyover mixing-bowl lanes – I’ve seen several four and five-stack freeways, all done with a brutalist artless efficiency, as though the engineers agreed to give up their souls for the duration of the construction projects. I honestly can’t think of freeways anywhere else (that I’ve seen) which are as ugly as the ones here.

I had multiple people run Houston down to me before the trip, saying that it was a mess because there was no zoning. Now, living under the thumb of the Old Georgetown Act, “no zoning” sounds like a Libertarian paradise, but reality finds ways to intrude upon the noblest of visions. The way it does so here is the proliferation of adult stores. The funniest I saw is “Zone d’Erotica”, which is on the apropos Westheimer Road, but they’re everywhere. Or maybe Houston is actually just a hornier town than others.

So the verdict is that I can’t wait to be home.

A beautiful tragedy of the commons

Discovery with carrier 747 and escort T38 approaching IAD

Discovery with carrier 747 and escort T38 approaching Dulles Airport, as seen from Herndon

So I got to see Discovery on her final flight today, and was able to watch from both from the Roosevelt bridge and from Herndon. This is the first time in my life I’ve seen a spacecraft in flight, and she was beautiful. I had previously written about seeing the Enterprise docked at Udvar-Hazy, and this had a similar effect on me.

In one way, this is beautiful: American engineering at its most triumphant – this is the culmination of vast quantities of time and treasure spent in an entirely peaceful pursuit. But in another, this is tragic: this marks the end of an aspirational era. Now our horizons are that much closer, and our world is that much smaller.

Now I know, there’s other countries out there doing stuff – the Chinese are aggressively working on developing their space program, the Europeans have a well-established commercial industry for LEO work, and of course the Russians are still keeping the ISS going via Soyuz. I have some hope that the various private American firms working on commercial manned space work will have some success – heck, I saw that the SpaceX Dragon has received permission to dock with the ISS on April 30, and that’s an excellent accomplishment. But honestly the Dragon looks a lot like a more slightly larger, more modern version of a Gemini (Titan II) capsule. I know it’s more cost effective, but it sure doesn’t seem like this is much of a step forward. Then again, the success of Ethernet and IP over the past 30 years was significantly aided by them being cheaper and easier than their competitors, so perhaps cost-effective really is the thing for which we should aim.

But it sure doesn’t feel like we’re swinging for the fence on this one.

Iacta alea est

I have been kicking this around for a while now, and have finally decided that I was done with cutting bait.  I wrote up a paper outlining my vision, have now submitted my name for consideration to become president of my synagogue.  I’d have to resign from the mikvah board, but the central things I had wanted to accomplish (more formal governance and improved website) have been done, so I can sleep contentedly there.

I’m certain that there will be a chorus of “sucker!” coming from many corners, but I have a hope that some of the things I care deeply about will get a lot more attention and focus.  We’ll see how it goes.

עת רצון

Yom Tov nusaḥ (words + melody of prayer) is one of my favorite synagogue things.  Leading shaḥarit (morning services) yesterday was more emotionally challenging for me than I had expected. The first paragraph of Hallel (psalm 113), concludes triumphantly with the following verse:

מושיבי עקרת הבית אם־הבנים שמחה הללו־יה

(He makes the childless housewife a happy mother of children).

This is, of course, the end of a psalm which is specifically talking about how God is great and glorious, but that he is immanent rather than distant.  This is the same vibe which permeates ps 147:3-4 as well –

הרפא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם׃

מונה מספר לכוכבים לכלם שמות יקרא׃

(He heals the broken-hearted, binding up their wounds:

He counts the number of the stars, calling them all by name)

The order of those is significant – we get a clue about God’s priorities, that caring for the grieving is more important than the entire physical universe.

But back to yesterday – I wasn’t ready for the emotional impact of that verse to really hit me in the moment, but it did.  All of a sudden, I had an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and desperation – it hit me that only God’s decision will change the reality in which Sarah and I find ourselves.  And in that moment, I felt myself change from singing about God, to singing to God.

Intellectually, I know that requesting prayers aren’t supposed to be said on Shabbat or Yom Tov, but it’s a horse of a different color to actually step outside of that sort of moment.

Besides, if we were really that serious about not making requests, we wouldn’t include things like “And as for me, may my prayer come before you, Lord, in a favorable time – God, in Your great loving-kindness, answer me with Your saving truth.” (ps. 69:13).

Wearing craziness on the outside (part 2)

Sarah has an extremely limited diet.  She’s gluten and sugar free, among a whole bunch of other stuff,not the least of which is keeping strictly kosher, and therefore any additional restriction is a real challenge.  She normally eats a cereal which is largely flax and sorghum daily.

Pesaḥ is coming, and we wanted to see whether she could have that cereal, and while I was waiting to talk to RDBF, my pal M mentioned to me that the OU had said that sorghum was a problem as an ingredient in medicine.

Now, those things which are ḥametz are barley, rye, oats, spelt, and wheat.  Wheat, rye, and barley and spelt are subfamily pooideae (tribe triticeae), and oats are genus avena, while sorghum is subfamily panicoideae, genus sorghum.  The closest relative to sorghum which is even listed as kitniyot is maize (subfamily panicoideae, genus zea).

The order of taxonomical classifications is (in old-school terms): kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  There have been a few more additions – subfamily and tribe between family and genus, but the important thing is that genus is above species.  Humans are closer to chimpanzees (both subtribe hominina, chimpanzees are genus pan, while we’re genus homo) than sorghum is to the nearest (slightly) problematic maize – those aren’t even in the same subtribe.

So the OU is nuts for Pesaḥ this year – but should we be surprised?  As is said in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9, ואין כל חדש תחת השמש (there is nothing new under the sun) – or in a more timely way of putting it, מה נשתנה, הלילה הזה מכל הלילות (What makes this night different from other nights?).

And for those following along about the actual question, RDBF’s answer was “yep, this is fine.”  This is something I love about Kesher Israel – sane p’sak.  I don’t think the value of that can be overstated, and I feel sorry for other communities which don’t have leadership which allows orthodox judaism to be practiced with common sense.

(crazy part one is here)