Left Eye


Well, here we are again, several years(!) after my most recent post.  You'd think I had nothing to say, but on the contrary, I have an awful lot I should be writing about but never do.  And I'm not going to today, that's not what this post is for.

It's a big weekend for me.  Friday was my last day at Choice Logistics, where I worked for over four years.  Met some great people there, did some awesome things.  Time to move on.

Today I turn forty-eight years old.  OK, maybe not an "important" number in the ending-in-zero sense (it does end in zero in hexadecimal, though), but still a milestone in its way.  I seem to recall that I spent my 30th birthday also at the end of a job, clearing out my office from The College of New Jersey, where I had been lecturing for a year.  Maybe there's something fitting about it.

Spent much of today at the Steampunk World's Fair, which takes place so ridiculously close to my house I have no excuse not to visit it, even though President Obama was in town to speak at the Rutgers commencement, inconveniently scheduled for the same day and on the way to the Fair.  Went with family and a good friend and kids; was a nice day, bought an outfit so I don't look out-of-place at future ones.  Ran into some other friends I had not seen in a while.  A good time.

And tomorrow, things start up anew, all over again: I start at a new job (at 1010data in New York), have to see what the new place holds in store for me.  I know some people there already, and just the job interview was a great experience (I remember thinking during the interview, "even if I don't get a job here, I should stay in touch with these people...")  So, yes, nervous about starting something new, I get to go through my imposter syndrome all over again... but it will be good, and I'll grow, I think.

Someday I'll make good on those promises to myself to write more, either here or elsewhere (probably at least starting here).  Maybe new people at new job will spur me on to do more in that regard.  Went on Facebook and LinkedIn for the first time in ages, so as to update my employment information.  Thanks to everyone who posted birthday wishes on my wall!

So, yes, just a "this is my life" post, no great outpouring of trivia and odd information like you might expect from me.  Such things are part of my life... but I guess the rest of it is too.
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Left Eye


A recent (re)obsession with me these days is playing cards.  I have a small collection of somewhat unusual decks of cards (which I have unfortunately been adding to rather extensively lately), and I seem to have infected my daughter with it as well (hi, Esther!) though she has a particular interest in card manipulation.  Anyway, some of these decks have unusual contents, like five suits (I used to have some with six), extra cards, etc.  It turns out that five-suit poker is actually a pretty good game, and with more cards more people can play it.  I'd first heard about it from a book from 1944 (The Modern Hoyle, by Albert Morehead) that I read ages ago when I was a kid.  I was so interested in the idea I went out to Woolworth's(!) and bought myself two decks of cards with the same back, pulled the diamonds out of one of them, and colored the pips blue with a permanent marker.  Shuffling them into the other deck, I had a five-suit deck of black spades, red hearts, black clubs, red diamonds, and blue splotches (I've since come across several commercially-produced five-suit decks).

So, for fun, I've been re-calculating the relative infrequencies of all the poker hands, then all the poker hands with five suits (which includes a new type of hand, a "flash," which has one card of every suit), poker hands with six cards (which allows for three pairs, two threes-of-a-kind, and a four-of-a-kind plus a pair), etc.  These various permutations of the standard rules all have their own effects on the table of hand-rankings.  I even computed odds for a hypothetical 51-card deck of three suits and 17 cards per suit.  The book I mentioned above mused that it would be really great to have a 60-card deck (either 4 suits with 15 cards each or 5 suits with 12 cards each), because 60 has so many divisors, so I did odds for those as well.

I have various ideas for playing card decks, and the U.S. Playing Card Company (maker of Bicycle and Bee cards, among others) offers some fine custom printing.  There are five-suit decks out there, but not of the quality you'd see in a Bicycle deck.  You can't custom-print one through the USPCC because their deck size is 56 cards.  But what if I printed a deck of four copies of the same "fifth" suit and combined those with four ordinary four-suit decks (with the same back)?  That would be a fine set of cards indeed!  Now all I need is about 400 people who'd want to buy one (100 decks is about the smallest I can get even through the USPCC's "third party" printer).  There's also an ordinary 4-suit deck I'm working on with custom pips; more on that if anything ever comes of it.

These are good projects, I would think, for Kickstarter, but even there I despair of getting needed support.  Just don't feel like I could muster enough marketing.
Left Eye

Most Merciful

It's strange, given my current state of belief, but I find myself often pondering and wanting to write about religious ideas, but not necessarily from the outside.

So the other day I get a phone call (recorded) from someplace telling me that the anniversary of the death of Rachel (the Biblical matriarch) is approaching (how they know this I don't know), and that it is a most auspicious day for getting prayers to come true.  "If you can pick up the phone [presumably to donate money to them], you can make anything happen."

I had thought that Jews generally don't go in for the "praying to saints" thing.  There's one God, that's whom you pray to, nobody else.  I think that's one of Maimonides' Thirteen Articles, in fact.  I have once or twice come across some highly poetic and metaphoric prayers that address themselves to God's Attribute of Mercy directly, as if it were a separate entity, but that's by far the exception and not the rule, and also still technically God.

So, pondering the idea of praying-to-saints, though... The idea, from what I've seen, is you ask St Whatever to intercede on your behalf before God, convincing God to do whatever it is you need.  Now hang on a second.  You're trying to convince St Whatever to take your part and (help) grant your desires instead of addressing God directly because, what, because you figure St Whatever is more merciful than God?  I've seen the prayers; they try to arouse the saint's pity and compassion... are the saints really more merciful or compassionate than God?  Doesn't that fly in the face of a lot of theology?  The idea of a saint being more merciful than God would probably sound blasphemous to a Muslim, at least; should it to a Christian?

I've heard in religions like Voudou, there's the notion that although God is all-powerful, he's also awfully busy, and if you want results you're better off addressing one of the lesser minions who can accomplish what you need.  That could be an answer, I guess, but it still flies in the face of much of mainstream Christian theology.  God who cares about the fall of a sparrow can't be bothered to listen to my request?

Is this ever addressed in Christian thought?  Especially Catholic, since they seem to be bigger on praying to saints than other denominations.  Anyone with thoughts?
Left Eye

Reactions to Awesomeness

Another synagogue experience.

I came into the synagogue just a bit before the sermon this week.  The Rabbi got up to speak, and begins his talk by asking "Does anyone here speak Solresol?  Even know what it is?"  I'm already on my feet; had to wave a bit and even speak up, since I was way in the back.  He describes Solresol, what it is, why it was invented it, the fact that it's hardly heard of now.  "Does anyone here speak Volapuk?" he asks (not Volapük, his pronunciation was bad).  Once again, I stand and wave.  He speaks about Volapük and it history, and finishes up asking "Does anyone here speak Láadan?" (more Ladán, but I knew what he meant.)  And sure enough, there's me again.  In describing Láadan, he remarks that its inventor (Suzette Hayden Elgin) has been known to grouse at her language's obscurity in the face of the popularity of the "hyper-male" Klingon language.  I don't say it out loud, only to the people near me: "I speak that too."  That's actually comparatively well-known (the language and the fact that I speak it, around my synagogue.)

The discussion of conlangs in the sermon was inspired by the fact that today's Torah reading included the Tower of Babel story, and he wanted to speak of that, and of the "Generation of Separation," the generation of people involved, who merited being dispersed by God all over the world.

Meanwhile, though, after the services, I'm getting approached by friends and strangers alike; "how do you know all those languages?"  I talk to some folks about them, even recount my line about how Volapük is the Laura Bridgman of auxiliary languages (maybe I'll explain that in a comment).  Even find myself telling someone, "Yes, I speak or at least know all of those.  I speak Welsh too, and others.  I can show you how to tie a Turks Head knot.  I invented an origami mezuzah.  Here [I was actually holding one!] is a bencher I've been working on.  I drew one of the fonts I used in it.  I can recognize another dozen or so common fonts on sight.  I really do all these things."  All in one person, and there was more I hadn't touched on.  There's so much depth in each of these topics, too, so much to know, so much to cover—and so much more that I know, personally, even in my sometimes cursory studies of these things, than most people. 

The weird part is how experiences like this make me feel.  I'm not sure I can explain it well, and not sure I should, here, even if I could.  It makes me feel... weird.  Maybe partly guilty or presumptuous: How do I deserve to be this awesome?  And if I know all this stuff, why am I not writing it down, teaching it, making something useful out of all of it?  And how much longer can I expect to stay this awesome?  (For that matter, is it really awesome?  Am I justified in feeling like it is?)  I was too wound up to stay after walking home; I turned around and went back outside to walk around for a while, maybe run into some other people from services (it happened).

All in all, an... experience, I guess.  I guess it's a strange thing for the other people to recount to co-workers... it's even weirder from the inside.  That's a whole different discussion, though.
Left Eye

Shouldn't it apply to everyone?

So, was in synagogue today; it was the second day of Rosh Hashana.  OK, ok, so I got in late, in time for the end of the sermon.  And the Rabbi was talking about the famous gemara in Yoma page 35b, which says how the Heavenly court will demand of a person, "why did you not study Torah more?"  And if a poor person responds "I was too poor," he will be asked, "were you poorer than Hillel, who was so poor that... and yet went to lengths such as...?"  And a wicked person will answer, "My Evil Inclination was too strong for me," and will be countered with, "Was it stronger than Joseph's, who was tempted by his Master's wife...?"  And the rich person will answer, "The demands of my wealth were too great," and will in turn be asked, "Were you wealthier than R. Eleazar b. Harsom, who had 1000 villages and 1000 ships to look after...?"

It's the last one that makes me wonder.  Because of course, how did R. Eleazar b. Harsom manage his great wealth?  Why, of course, he hired other people to look after it for him (my Rabbi even said that in his sermon.)  To which I might ask, what if the Heavenly Court tries this on someone and he says, "I know, I was one of the people he hired!"  R. Eleazar is to be praised for hiring people to look after his possessions... but the people he hired are to be reprimanded for being hired by him‽  It is praiseworthy to cause someone else to "sin," so long as you don't yourself‽  I'm not really happy with answers I hear.  In a sense, R. Eleazar is essentially selling his "wasted time" to me, so he won't have to deal with it, or even more accurately, he's buying my Torah-learning time to fill his own needs.  I'm guilty because I'm selling?  Or am I therefore claiming poverty, like Hillel?  No, because then I should be listening at skylights of houses of study, and then where would poor R. Eleazar be?

Should we say, then, "well, that just means that all real work is supposed to be done by gentiles, and we Jews are meant to sit and study all day"?  Against that, in addition to the general moral repugnance I feel at racism implied in that viewpoint, there are also Biblical verses, "Six days you shall labor" (Ex. 34:21), "For six years sow your fields" (Lev. 25:3), and the same sentiment repeated all over the place.  It would seem that doing work is actually a commandment, so what's the problem?  (Apparently there really is an opinion that Jews are only supposed to be studying, and actually doing things is to be left for the hoi polloi/gentiles, but that isn't the way the law goes, and there are lots of rabbinic statements against such an attitude).

OK, OK, I know, I guess the real answer is that I'm over-analyzing.  The point of the gemara is "don't make excuses for why you didn't do better, there's always someone else who has it worse than you (and maybe is managing anyway)."  I guess it just strikes one wrong hearing it put this way.

I think in a broader sense this reflects an attitude that one sees a lot not only in religious outlook but basically in anything reasonably old.  It is a comparatively new concept that all people are even approximately on equal footing (or at least that such an idea can be taken seriously).  An old cookbook remarks that beating eggs or something is a strenuous task, and should therefore be delegated to a manservant (what if I am the manservant?  No advice for me then?)  The Code of Hammurabi says that if a craftsman kills someone's son, then the craftsman's son is to be killed.  But isn't everyone someone's son?  I guess here the implication is not a class one so much as an age one: when they're underage, children aren't full people yet, and we don't punish according to the hurt you do to them, but to the hurt that hurting them causes to more important people (their parents).
Left Eye

Remember Bobby Tables

You would think the guardians of Scottish culture (inexplicably unavailable at this precise moment) would be more careful.  I had trouble logging in because of an apostrophe in a password, and the error message was very obviously a sanitation problem ("Error in SQL at string..." obviously because the quote ended too early).  An apostrophe in an input field should not cause a server error.  (I really hope I've not made that mistake in anything I've coded.  I think I've watched for it all the time, but maybe I missed once, or didn't sanitize enough..?)

I sent them email telling them about the problem, and suggested they show http://xkcd.com/327/ to their DB techs.  They have fixed the problem (or I wouldn't be telling you who it was in a blog right now).  You can't be too careful.
Left Eye

Biblical issues

Just something that came up and was on my mind lately, may be worthy of sharing.

In my rôle as Samaritan Pentateuch Guy, I am on a mailing list for students of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible (if only they would fix the misspelling on the group page...)  In fact, hardly anyone actually posts there except this one person (I doubt she reads this, but if so, hi Misty!)... and me, answering her (though I probably shouldn't).

She often posts questions involving "seeming" contradictions or difficulties in the Bible, usually asking if the Hebrew text offers some resolution or something, if the translation is bad or whatever.  Usually it doesn't, and you have to find reassurance in some other source to support your faith in the Bible (if that's what you're trying to support).  More on that below.

This time around, she was looking at some quotes in the Bible that "seem to imply" that the Bible speaks of a flat earth (which would be a problem, I guess, since we know that the Earth is not flat).  So, specifically things like Isaiah 40:22, the word חוג is translated in various ways... does it mean a circle, a sphere, a vault, etc...  (there are actually more explicit places, like Psalms 33:13, "God looks from the heavens and sees all people": you can't see all the people on a sphere while looking from the sky.   Or the classic Isaiah 11:12, telling us that the earth has four corners).  And I went through some possibilities, found other places where the root might be used, found where the modern word for "sphere" (כדור) occurs in the Bible, etc.

Anyway, when I realized that the exercise was intended to "answer" the "question" of the Bible saying that the Earth is flat, I realized that the whole question is ridiculous and ill-posed.  Even assuming that the Bible really was written by some Supreme Being or with his inspiration, there's no reason to expect it to be right about incidentals like this.  Biblical inerrancy is absolutely not implied or required for believing in Biblical divinity.

Look, assume that Isaiah, or David, or whoever was writing the Bible down, did know that the Earth was spherical, due to Divine revelation or something.  Well, that's a world-changing(!) piece of knowledge for someone of that age, why wouldn't he tell other people, be more explicit in his words?  I know it's a silly question, there's an obvious answer (and one that doesn't require the question in the first place, once you know it).  You could very rightly answer me that it wasn't what the prophet was talking about.  He had a mission, a message to deliver, and chatting about the shape of the earth would be at best distracting.  Maybe the prophets knew all kinds of scientific facts we are only just discovering, but perhaps were forbidden from revealing them before their time (that is actually a common way of thinking.)

In that case, what difference does it make what he wrote?  We already know that he won't be telling the secrets that he knows, that he has to conform his words to the beliefs of the time.  So why should we be surprised that his words conform to the beliefs of the time?  The Bible wasn't trying to be right here, why should we be surprised that it isn't?  I say "We already know," based on an assumption I made in the preceding paragraph, and maybe you don't believe it, but even so, consider it on your own.  Obviously the Biblical phrases were consonant with contemporary (and later) beliefs, or we would have had ancient commentators asking questions ("Gee, the Bible seems to say that the world is spherical here, and we believe it's flat.")  So when it was said, did it "mean" that the world was flat?  Was that how people who heard it, if they thought about it, understood it?  Yes!  Is that what the composer of the words meant?  Probably, though of course there's no proving it.  Can we find that the wording is also consonant with our knowledge of a spherical earth?  Yes, without straining too terribly hard.  Language tends to be fairly imprecise about things we're not actually talking about; there is enough vagueness in wording, especially after several millennia and language change and so forth.  Does that mean that it was "really saying" the earth was spherical all along?  Not at all.

Getting back to the bigger question, though, of bothering to try to reconcile issues in the Bible, I think there isn't much new to be found there.  We have been picking at this book for three thousand years, do you really think that you're going to find a question/contradiction that someone else never noticed?  And that commentators and apologists haven't spilled gallons of ink answering?  How much you accept their attempts to reconcile it is another matter; sometimes it seems that they are capable of explaining anything; it's hard to imagine what the Bible could say that would actually not be answerable by some of the reasoning I've seen proposed.  But probably all the real "problems" have been analyzed to within an inch of their lives (and more) in the course of the centuries.

I guess there are new things to be found in answering perceived contradictions with new discoveries that have not been known for very long (we've known the Earth to be round at least for some centuries). Germ theory would be a good one, but I don't recall anything in the Bible that really reqires spontaneous generation (there are problems with that and statements in the Talmud, but that's another issue).  Most of the really new discoveries are about things sufficiently invisible to everyday senses that I'm not seeing many of these problems surfacing.

(Sigh.  Though I wonder why I bother with things like this anyway.)

Left Eye

Cultural Changes and Risks

I seem to have a much greater capacity for being bored lately, and find myself trying to do all kinds of hard thinking to keep busy during boring tasks. And I sometimes come up with possibly interesting stuff. Unfortunately, I usually forget them when I get a chance to write them down. But I'm trying to buck that trend, and managed to scribble down some notes on some things I thought about yesterday (still just a small part of it, alas) and I hope I have been able to flesh it out into some sort of article. If I'm lucky, maybe I can do this more often.

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Left Eye

The U.S. Army Did Something Wrong!

Maybe I should use a title that's a little more surprising, in order to grab the eye.  It's hardly news that the Army gets things wrong.  But I have a feeling this one hasn't been noticed before.

I was in the local public high school's guidance office this morning, as my son was starting there and there were apparently some things that needed taking care of.  We wound up waiting there a very long time, and it's amazing how bored you can get sitting around the office.  On the table with various recruitment brochures was one from the Army, in the form of a Periodic Table of the Elements and various useful science-y formulæ and data (on the other side), with “join the Army” information in the margins, etc.  Presumably this is the usual advertising strategy of putting your name on something people will see and look at, to get them thinking about you.  It's like companies giving out calendars.  And perhaps while they're at it, trying to combat any lingering stereotype of the Army as being anti-intellectual or whatever.  OK, fair enough, and like I said, you can get very bored there, so I started looking over the table.

Take a look at this scan of the periodic-table side.

And I found a mistake.  One so subtle and bizarre my wife has classified this as a “Mark, you are so weird” incident.  I'll give you a hint: it's in the square for Berkelium (element #97).  Here's a scan of that.  Don't read ahead if you want to try to work it out on your own!

Berkelium is element #97.  That means it has 97 protons in its nucleus and 97 electrons in its electron shells.  But the list of electron shells in the upper right corner of the square adds up to only 96 electrons.  Or, if you don't feel like doing the arithmetic, just notice that they are all even numbers, and we are expected to believe that they add up to an odd sum.

There may well be other mistakes, this is just the one that I noticed (I'm not such a chemistry geek that I know the electron shell filling of all the elements by heart, but I can at least add up numbers and check for parity).  Just imagine what other horrible mistakes the Army may have committed!

(Whom do I write to about this, anyway?  “Dear Army, I found a mistake on your recruitment flier...”?)

Left Eye

Counting and Geometry

Just a quick note about something I saw in the drugstore last week:

Note that the device is being advertised as a “Hexagon Gazebo.”  Note also that just to make the point clear, we have a little image of the “hexagon,” clearly labeled as a “6-sided Structure.”  Now take a close look and see if you can figure out why I felt it necessary to post this.