Saturday, August 19, 2017
If you are looking for something serious and political, move along. Tonight I deal with dry statistics, probability and current events.
There was a drawing for a 535 million dollar Powerball lottery tonight and I didn't buy a ticket. Allow me to explain why.
I usually don't buy a ticket. This means that though the odds for someone who buys a ticket are 1 in 292 million, for me, they are 0 in 292 million. So, and I have studied this, if I bought a ticket, my chances would increase from 0 in 292 million to 1 in 292 million. That doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me, it is. Think about it -- if I bought 2 tickets instead of one, my chances would increase to 2 in 292 million, a 100% increase. From 2 to 3 tickets is a 50% increase and so on. But from zero to one works out to be an INFINITE increase in my chances. That's a truth -- an infinite increase. That means I would inevitably and unavoidably win! Sounds good, right?
But remember, I have set a threshold for winning the lottery. Tonight the pot was at 535 million. But I figure that there have to be about 5 other people in the country who not only haven't been buying any tickets, but who also have the grasp of probability that I have and who would therefore also buy a ticket and inevitably win.
This would mean that 6 of us would win and my share would be less than my 100 million threshold! So winning wouldn't be worth it. So I sat this one out. You're welcome.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
I'm at a complete loss. This is not new, or unusual but what troubles me is that others aren't at that same loss -- things seem to them to be so obvious and I just don't understand.
Stuff has been happening in the U.S. In a nutshell, there has been a galvanization of people who espouse beliefs based in the hatred of non-whites (racial and religious minorities) and those people have recently massed and protested things which undercut what they view as the fair expression of their beliefs. The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was apparently a flashpoint this week. I don't know. I try not to follow the news because it depresses me.
Our commenter in chief made the error of neither naming/labeling the protesters nor placing blame securely and exclusively on them. A firestorm ensued because even after he decried the hatred he reiterated that there was blame enough to go around. Memes exploded with righteous fury and talking heads went on and on about this. The Tweetmaster reminded us that the counter-protesters were doing the same thing when trying to assemble and strip rights from others and brought up the slippery slope argument -- if we remove Lee then do we next remove all slave owners (Washington and Jefferson)? On one hand these are reasonable concerns:
1. schools named after slave owners are having names changed and people want to separate themselves from that legacy and
2. it seems unreasonable to shout down voices that demean races or religious groups just because they are unpopular opinions to have, since the freedom of speech extends to all,
but on the other hand, totally dumb.
2a. Those shouting down the Neo Nazis seems obviously proper -- we fought the people who acted on those ideas so why would we condone their opinions now, and
1a. Lee isn't being removed because he was a slave owner but because he was a general of a rebelling force, an enemy. We don't have statues to Rommel in German communities in the U.S. He was also a general who denied the primacy of the construct that is the United States. He lost. We don't have to celebrate him, no matter his other (potentially) good personal qualities.
Does that make this all simple? Not by a long shot.
I remember very few things from middle school Social Studies class (apologies to Mrs. Liebman -- I wasn't "not trying" but I was certainly "not getting it"). One thing I remember is the tenet "It is the obligation of the majority to protect the rights of the minority. When the minority becomes the majority, it must do the same." I also have spent some time studying the first amendment (in graduate school). I learned what was protected and what isn't. I learned what is actionable after the fact and what kinds of expression are subject to a priori restraint. And I learned that what developed (either because of the American revolution, or if you are a more honest historian, a bunch of years after that) was a respect for the freedom to say unpopular things. The government cannot suppress a sentiment simply because it is controversial. As long as it doesn't run afoul of those categories which are not protected, people have the right (with a permit) to assemble and shout it.
Now, as much as I'd like to be, I'm not a naive, pie-in-the-sky liberal who buys into the ACLU, no questions asked. If I were, I would be a lot angrier at this invention called a "hate speech" statute which denies people the right to say things that are considered hate speech. On one level, this is laudable -- why should we allow people to say hurtful and (frankly) disgusting things about individuals or groups? Shouldn't one element of the minority we protect be its right to dignity and equal status and not disparagement? But isn't the hater also a protected minority? Whose rights, um, "trump" whose?
When I was growing up there were people who would make my life difficult. My parents, sagacious as they were, often advised "ignore them and they will go away. If you give a bully attention, he wins." That was interesting advice and well-intentioned. The bully does want to be acknowledged so, when ignored, he often then ramps up his attacks. Will he eventually go away? Maybe. I don't know. I was not very good at ignoring because I also heard that "silence equals death" or at least "silence is tantamount to agreement." If you don't raise your voice in opposition, you are tacitly acceding to the bully's position. Those two pieces of folk wisdom are at odds here and this is where I get lost.
Protesters have the right to assemble and shout horrible things. I think. Counter protesters have the same right. Not everyone agrees with any one particular opinion and in the free market place of ideas, don't all have the right to be heard? Or maybe, some positions are so abhorrent that they, by definition, should never see the light of day? Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries. Is this healthy? Words and ideas do infect and influence behavior; is it healthy to expose young people to unchallenged hateful ideas which will lead to violence or repeats of oppression? But censorship creates a backlash and resentment (and hearkens back to "the greater the truth, the greater the libel"). Your hate speech can drive someone to want to strip me of my identity and rights, but if your hate speech motivates me to punch you in the nose should you be silenced or should I have to control myself? Whose rights are paramount here? And, with our recent focus on safe spaces and trigger warnings, that slippery slope reemerges: who gets to decide what topics or words are off-limits? The pope drew one line. A college professor might draw another, and a plumber from Iowa, a third.
So we have the alt-right which marches with swastikas (allowed in the Skokie decision) and the intolerance of outsiders and the alt-left which marches with muzzles and gags, and intolerance of intolerance. One side wants the right to hate, the other, the right to muzzle hate. And both are protected but are both equal? Some people (OK, me) are more of an alt-tab, or possibly a shift-F5 kind who want to go back to playing Castle Wolfenstein. At least there, I knew who the bad guys were.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
The people of Mahwah, New Jersey don’t want me to live near them. I have been wrestling with this truth for a while now. I don’t know what I did to deserve their scorn. Maybe they don’t like that I like walking around in jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe they are afraid that my knowledge of classic rock trivia will negatively influence their children. Could it be that they don’t want empty pizza boxes in the paper recycling bin outside my house? I don’t know. But they have gone on record as saying that they don’t want “the Orthodox” to move in and take over.
Take over. Like I have any interest in anything outside my house.
But they are afraid of me and my dog Sparky. The Jewish community in that area has been working to put up an eiruv – a series of PVC pipes attached to utility poles which creates a legal fiction, an area surrounded by these poles and their wires which can then be treated as a single “private” domain so that those Jews who observe a certain understanding of Jewish law and limitation of behavior on the Sabbath can carry necessary items outside of their houses. An eiruv is what allows Orthodox Jews to push babies in strollers on the Sabbath, to carry house keys, to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house. It doesn’t actually change anything in the nature of the area enclosed except shift its status under Jewish law. Many, many communities have eiruvs and I have no doubt that a bunch of you readers have traveled within the bounds of one in the past. You wouldn’t have noticed. The markers are not recognizable as anything. In fact, Jews living in neighborhoods surrounded by an eiruv often can’t see it – we rely on a map, and the inspection report of the small group of experts who know what to look for.
But in Mahwah, as has been the case in other areas within the last few years, residents are afraid that this accommodation will attract Orthodox Jews who would then want to move in to the area. Which is true. When looking for someplace to buy a house and raise a family, an Orthodox Jew would look for a house of worship within walking distance, schools close by, stores which carry Kosher food and, very often, an eiruv. So its presence would certainly be a lure for Orthodox Jews. And apparently, that’s bad. We are, I have heard, dirty, cheap, criminals on welfare who want to exclude everyone else from our neighborhoods and force others to abide by our rules. I didn’t know this and I have been Orthodox for a bunch of years. Was there a memo to this effect? I didn’t get it.
In Mahwah, they claim to love diversity and are afraid that letting Orthodox Jews move in will change the nature of the entire town. We will lower their housing values. We won’t send our kids to the local public school, but we will demand a say on the board of education that uses our tax money. We are clearly a feisty bunch.
And I have no doubt that if I were to meet face to face with a resident, he would size me up and say something to the effect of “Oh, we don’t mean you, just the other kind of Orthodox Jew, the Hassidics.” As if that clears everything up. Here’s some news – I need the eiruv as much as any other Orthodox Jew. You can’t claim to want to keep only certain types of Orthodox Jews out and still embrace others. You are rejecting a whole range of people. There is no “them” that doesn’t include “me.” When you are afraid of them, you are afraid of me.
I think that what this situation has done is highlighted that we, as Jews can’t afford to buy into this game of subdividing our religion. We, as “modern Orthodox” Jews, can’t say “those right wing, ultra-Orthodox ones are crazy and I wouldn’t want them to move in, either.” Yes, I know that it seems that some groups on the right look at us as lesser, not even really Jewish. I have seen it and heard it from their mouths (until they meet us as individuals and realize that we aren’t that different). Jews further to the right DO live in smaller, insular groups, because that's part of their understanding of Jewish life. And I DO send my kids to private school, but still feel that if the town government is going to spend my tax money, I should be represented in that process. And we do the same thing when we look at groups to the left of US. They are not really being the right kind of Jews. Well, you know what? We should all, collectively and as a single religion, just shut up about anyone else’s practice of Judaism for a short while and try, just try, to accept others and work together as a single entity, not a fractured one. There are criminals in every subgroup. None is immune to the evils that beset us through our human nature. When we put blinders on and try to find fault only in those others, we feed into the general anti-somebody tenor which puts hate above loving your neighbor.
I know – naïve, idealistic and ultimately impossible, right? I am not advocating giving up our beliefs or even compromising them. I am pushing for practicing what we practice and recognizing that others understand the laws differently and act in accordance with that different take on things. Their practice doesn’t invalidate who I happen to be, and mine shouldn’t attempt to squelch theirs. And when particular practices cause some form of conflict, we can work it out coming from a place of mutual respect, not disdain. Is it impossible? I don’t know, but we won’t ever find out if we don’t try. If the residents of Mahwah see that we fight amongst ourselves, why should they worry when they pick on one group or another? We do the same thing!
Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, is coming. This saddest of days reminds us of what we lost because we couldn’t stand together as a people – we gave in to partisan bickering and infighting. Supposedly, we pray each day, week, and year for an end to this exile. And yet we are still fighting. What change have we made to address the specific problems of the Second Temple era? Why should we deserve any divine mercy when we look down on “them” because their practice of Judaism isn’t “right”? We should be inspiring others by our own integrity and not trying to dismiss others because of what label has been slapped on them. And I am speaking to Jews of all stripes, across the continuum that is today's religion.
I don’t have all the answers, and, truth be told, I have no interest in moving to Mahwah. But when they paint all of US with a single brush, our response shouldn’t be to distance ourselves and allow their offensive attitude and exclusionary attitude to be valid as it applies to some phantom “them.” Their hate won’t be solved by a court decision favorable to the eiruv’s exponents. But maybe, our goal shouldn’t be to fix their hate until we have fixed our own.
May we all take a moment this Tisha B’Av to look inward and resolve to act in a way which allows us to be one people. May our fasting, our prayers and our expression of our religion, in whatever way we find meaningful bring us closer to deserving to be treated with respect as we respect others.
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Yup – manila folders in a filing cabinet and/or a fireproof safe. A lot of stuff is still done on paper and keeping track can be a daunting task. If it is a digital file or document, make sure to keep your virtual folders nested and labeled (and backed up both on-site and externally), but printing up hard copies isn’t a bad idea. Try as follows:
1. Important life-event papers – birth certificates (slip them into plastic sleeves), Social Security cards (plastic sleeve), marriage contracts (prenup, civil contract etc), Wills, powers-of-attorney, end-of-life plans
2. objects and projects – for each, have at least 4 separate files – Plans and Prices (research), Estimates, Manuals, Receipts. A “Miscellaneous” for associated or complementary paperwork like permits or correspondence is also useful. This might not have to be locked up. This is for both purchases of goods and for services. “Car tires” is a separate folder from “Car purchase” and both are separate from “car detailing.” Service/goods coupons can be clipped to the front so that they are visible, but should be flagged with a date.
3. Medical – a separate section for each family member. On the front, place a single piece of paper with blood type, conditions, conditions for which you have a family history, a list of allergies (food and medicine and reactions), prescriptions being taken (and having been taken in the last year), procedures (dates, Dr. names and procedure types). Update that paper as often as necessary. Inside, separate folders for conditions and procedures (which can be further broken down – diagnostic, procedural, billing or the like), and medicines.
4. Insurance – home/renter, life, medical/dental, car. Policies spelled out, appraisals necessary, contact people (including both agents and beneficiaries). Take pictures of objects insured (jewelry, car, house etc and date the printed pictures. Clip them to the other papers)
5. Biographical – a folder cover should have a short biography of each family member (important life dates, educational path, places lived). Inside, subfolders for education (including transcripts), work, awards, memberships
6. Clippings – printouts of articles by or about individuals/family members. Nice notes worthy of being saved.
7. Taxes – keep a copy of completed and filed returns along with the submitted documentation or other supporting information (receipts for donations etc) organized by year. Within each year, if you have more than one form (state, federal, other state) separate. For how many years? No idea.
8. Employment – an updated resume, contracts, other work-based paperwork.
9. Investments and financial documents – agreements and statements organized by account, receipts to be reviewed or held on to
10. A life summary – a master list of assets, holdings, accounts (with relevant numbers) contact people, important dates, numbers and so on. This master document should be in its own folder and should be updated often. You should also have a printout of online accounts, passwords and your electronic footprint.
Yes, this smacks of obsessiveness. Really good organization does require a level of obsession, but the ounce of prevention will really prevent huge headaches later on. Also, if you take something out, make sure to put it back quickly and properly. Important papers will only be where they are supposed to be if you put them there. At the beginning this will all seem overwhelming, but once the file system is established (and if you keep it updated frequently), the amount of time it will take to maintain will be minimal and the amount of time it will save will be huge.
Some material will be obsolesced (who needs that old manual when we have a new item?) so folders can be emptied eventually. But don’t be overly aggressive in throwing things out. Sometimes, old stuff is still worth documenting. Even if that means for some things making an “old” file so that you have a basis for comparison, it is worth it to save some apparently outmoded documents.
Are there area I forgot? Sure – add discrete ones for separate topics. If you need a separate folder for “Military documents” make it and break it down into pieces to keep it organized. Are there other ways to organize these? Sure. Choose one. Will material overlap requiring judgment calls? Yes. Be consistent and clear (and notate within a file if content can be found elsewhere). Does everything have to be hidden or under lock and key? Maybe not – some can be out and accessible at least sometimes. Should you separate between “current” and “old”? OK. Maybe even a third category “timeless.” As long as you have a system.
And if you were wondering this is not at all my innovation. I’m the guy. I have spent a lifetime watching women set up and keep these files. I’m just catching on now.
1. Kitniyot -- the prohibition against eating legumes on Passover. Because of concerns regarding certain agricultural confusion, legumes were forbidden in some communities.
2. Saying Sh'ma in the beginning of prayers each morning -- when a Persian king outlawed the saying, and sent spies to check, the spies arrived later, when the prayer was usually said. So the sages incorporated it earlier, before the spies arrived. This also accounts for the saying later in prayers on the sabbath.
3. Kiddush in synagogue on Friday nights -- guests were staying in the synagogue and needed someone to say the blessing over the wine on their behalf so it was added then for the service leader to say.
4. Baruch hashem l'olam during weekday evening services and Me'ein sheva on Friday night -- to stretch prayers so latecomers would not have to walk back from the fields alone, these prayers were added.
5. The haftarah -- when reading from the 5 books of Moses was outlawed, related sections from the prophets were read instead.
6. Repetition of the Amidah -- as many (some? most?) people couldn't read the prayers, having a prayer leader repeat the text out loud exempted those people who could not do so on their own
7. Mayim megulim -- because of the possibility of snakes' crawling into water and leaving venom behind, water uncovered overnight was not allowed
8. Second day of Yom Tov -- the confusion over the date was solved by having communities outside of Israel celebrate 2 days.
The thing is, in (I think) all of these cases, the societal pressures which drove the sages to innovate the changes/additions/limitations were resolved. The Persian king died. The agricultural confusion between grains was resolved. We no longer pray in fields in dangerous areas. We can read the Torah. The calendar was set so we know when holidays fall. In most of these cases, though, the practices have remained. [Note, I am not discussing Yayin nesech, wine used for idolatry, even though there is an opinion that the non-Jewish worship of today is not identical with the types that counted as Avodah Zarah so the concern that shaking or spilling wine would be a form of worship has been obviated]. The only ones of the examples above that I have heard are no longer normative are Mayim megulim and, in some communities, the saying of Baruch Hashem l'olam in evening prayers. From what I have read, the former is not in effect because there is no concern about snakes. I can only assume that the latter is not followed is because the prompting concern is lo longer a concern. But that line of thinking has not served to overturn the others.
I know that we have a strong tradition of tradition -- holding on to the teachings of previous generations. We feel (as per religious law) unequipped to undo pronouncements of earlier, greater generations. Except, apparently, when we do.
Monday, June 26, 2017
In that vein, I present my article on How You Have Been Writing Checks Wrong.
In the past, you have been confronted with a blank check like this:
For more, click "Next"
The "Next" button doesn't do anything but all the click bait articles have them.
Usually, when a person fills out a check, he writes in information.
And click bait articles have background that is stupid because it increases the number of pages and therefore ads. But I don't have ads because I'm awesome.
And that's wrong.
This is what your checks should actually have on them:
Imagine how much better the world would be if everyone just started writing checks correctly! Stay tuned for more informative articles like, "You have been giving holiday gifts to the wrong person!" and "5 Ways in which you can make Dan's life Easier!"
The answers will shock you.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
I also implore you -- do not fly American Airlines.
I will lay out a fact pattern as dispassionately as I can so that all can see exactly what happened here, and before you pass judgment and decide that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, realize -- I know many people have it worse than I do. I know that in the grand scheme of things, this isn't so horrible. But there is a principle involved and I am loath to walk away when a principle has been violated.
As you might have read on a previous post, my wife and I recently went to Israel to visit our elder daughter. Our flight on the way there was a one-stop (from JFK to TLV by way of Charles De Gaulle airport -- CDG) American Airlines flight. I'm not much of a flier so when we got the deal we got, we decided that we still had money in the budget to pay for "Preferred" seats. For this leg of the trip, the cost was $80.54 per seat. One hundred and sixty-one dollars did not seem like a large expense for the chance at a more comfortable experience.
As we were flying in a 767, we looked at the seat map on the American site and chose preferred seats -- row 20, which happens to be an exit row. We are able bodied and understand English so we felt able to discharge the duties of the exit row.
We arrived at the airport and went through security and we waited for boarding to commence. At a certain point, it seemed like something was amiss -- the gate crew was confused and a line formed. Many passengers seemed agitated. Then an announcement was made -- apparently the 767 expected FROM Europe was diverted so the airline had to replace it with an available 757. As the 757 is a smaller plane, people on stand-by had less chance of getting a seat and people in business class might get bumped down. The representatives were offering a $500 voucher for anyone willing to be seated on a later flight. We were happy with our seats (and were informed that we had not been bumped from the flight) so we simply waited. I did confirm that I would get "preferred" seats as I had paid for them. I was told by a gate crew member that either I would or I could contact the corporate offices for a certain refund.
We boarded (2 hours late). My wife and I DID get row 20, but row 20 was no longer an exit row. I was just a regular row in the midst of the main cabin. I explained the situation to the cabin attendants and was told that 20 was not a "preferred" seat but I could surely get a refund once I contacted the corporate offices. I sat through a difficult flight (as I said, I am not much of a flier) and was only reassured by the understanding that I would get the money that I spent on this perk back. After we got back from our trip, I, as per the instructions, emailed the corporate offices to alert them of this problem.
I received an email in return which told me that American was willing to send me a $100 voucher but not a refund. I responded that I did not receive a particular service and thought it proper that I simply receive recompense relevant to that issue. The next email notified me that I, in fact, DID sit in a preferred seat so I was not eligible to receive any money -- that the service was tendered.
A couple of side notes:
1. I know, $161.08 is not a huge amount, but I'm a teacher with kids and bills and a mortgage and every little bit helps.
2. I have and am about to make a series of claims and representations -- I assure you I have diagrams, pictures, documentation and support for each thing I claim (other than my reporting on conversations I had - I didn't record them).
I have tried to explain myself to American Airlines in a series of emails. They have presented no counter-factual claims and have simply restated "you did get a preferred seat" over and over. I asked, repeatedly, for a phone call. I finally received one, but it was while I was in the middle of proctoring a test. The woman, Shannon Tatum, said she could call me again the next week. I agreed.
Here are some facts (which I can support with diagrams and seating charts).
A. On a 767, row 20 is an exit row and has a bit more leg room.
B. On a 767, row 20 is for sale as a preferred seat.
C. On a 757, row 20 is not a preferred seat
D. In fact, on a 757, there are NO preferred seats. All exit rows are "Main Cabin Extra".
So getting row 20 on a 757 meant not getting a preferred seat. Pretty straightforward. Except that American, and Shannon Tatum repeatedly insist that row 20 is a preferred seat.
I have gotten more emails from Shannon Tatum insisting that she tried to call me back. In this day and age of cell phones, I find that hard to believe. My phone registered no missed calls or voice mail messages. SO I called back this morning and left a message asking for a return call. A later email indicated that there needed no continued follow-up because they had not changed their position. (in the interim, there were other emails where they made confusing claims about whether row 20 specifically was always an exit row, or whether an exit row was always a "Main Cabin Extra" seat or anything else, all the while never dealing with the precise facts that I laid out for them)
Today, Shannon finally called back. She had nothing to offer except the insistence that
I. Row 20 on a 757 is a preferred seat
II. My focus was only on leg room but not all preferred seats assure extra leg room. When I tried to explain that my focus was on getting the preferred seat that I paid for and it just so happened that on a 767, the preferred seats in row 20 have extra leg room she interrupted me and refused to let me finish.
I tried to stay calm and explained that I had diagrams and seat maps of a 757 going from JFK to CDG on which row 20 is clearly NOT a preferred seat and, in fact, there are NO preferred seat. I said that in any discussion, when one participant presents proof and facts it is reasonable for the other side to present different facts which would either disprove the offered evidence or substantiate an opposite claim. She asked me to send the diagrams I had. I said I would but when I asked her to present any maps or diagrams on which row 20 is labeled as a preferred seat she said she had none. She said "I don't have to send anything to you." I tried to explain that it wasn't about "having to" but that in the absence of any countering evidence, it would be hard for her to prove that row 20 is a preferred seat on a 757. She hung up on me.
I want to repeat that.
Shannon Tatum, of American Airlines Customer Relations told me I didn't have the evidence I had, said she had no proof of her own to support her position, and because I was not simply taking her word for it, hung up on me.
I'm sure there are plenty of honest, hardworking and sincere employees at American. My flight back from LHR was fine and my preferred seat had a huge amount of legroom.
But Shannon Tatum is everything that is wrong with American. She refused facts, made claims that displayed an ignorance of the situation and facts, did not communicate in a timely fashion and did not value that a customer took the time to appeal to American in pursuit of what is right and fair. I didn't ask for repayment for an entire ticket. I didn't ask to be compensated because the flight was late or even because the seats were uncomfortable. I fly with my eyes open -- I know what is in and out of the control of an airline. But refusing to honor a provable purchase and not being willing or able to show that my claim lacks validity is insulting. If she can show me that row 20 is a preferred seat on a 757, I will shake my head but will have no leg to stand on. I accept that. But I have been told by AA employees that it isn't. I called a ticketing agent, I spoke to gate and cabin crews, I checked the website.
I have to give a big thumbs down to the corporate structure of American and to Shannon Tatum specifically. This is not how business is done and it will be a long time before I even consider flying American again. All because of Shannon Tatum.
I adjure you -- if you are flying any time soon, do not fly American and if asked why, simply tell them that Shannon Tatum and American's Customer Relations department have made it clear that American Airlines doesn't care about its customers.