Wednesday, November 1, 2017

What hath the Internet Wrought

Recent articles (no, I'm not linking it...you can find it yourself; that's going to be important later) have discussed the impact of the spate of electronic devices on the mind of the young person. I thought it meet to add my two cents in on this. I'm sure I have, at some point previous, written about the loss of random reading and the problem of subcontracting memory to the cloud, but I have come upon another negative consequence (unintended though it may be) of the ubiquity of the hive mind.

There has been a loss of imagination and creativity.

This might sound counter-intuitive. The plethora of apps and the ability to free up the brain from the shackles of lower order thinking should be allowing our minds to soar free and high, going places that were previously reserved only for the intellectually elite or vocationally idle. But that isn't what has happened. What I have seen is a reversion to an even more concrete worldview because, once anything can be found on the internet, there is no reason for anyone to think of anything else.

Case in point -- I assigned my class to find, in their every day experiences, examples of the actual use of rhetoric which manifested particular logical fallacies. I wanted them to become sensitive to these errors in thinking and see how rife our common discourse is with them. Instead of tooling about their worlds, students started googling examples. They were "finding" examples in their lives because their lives were simply a series of directed web searches, standing on the shoulders of previous generations who were sitting at their computers. The second element of the assignment met even more resistance. I asked students to invent their own scenario in which the fallacy was invoked. I was asking them to throw off the bonds of others' thoughts and create, on their own. They started googling examples and copying them down, insisting that they couldn't think of anything. A bunch of teenagers, asked to make up something, demurred, preferring to have others imagine the world for them. That's sad.

I have gotten used to students' double (and triple) checking everything I say to see if some invisible, anonymous (but for some reason, more trustworthy) website confirms my claims. I have gotten used to their sharing documents with each other so any mystery or surprise is now impossible -- I give an assignment to one section and the other class knows about it instantly because they are all in the same group chat or google group. I have resigned myself to accepting that students can't spell without little red lines guiding them, can't physically sign their own names or even shape letters properly when they are forced to write by hand. But I had held out hope that all of these wires and waves would empower the students to push the envelope further and ask deeper, more analytical questions reflecting deeper thinking. Instead, they have relied on the work of others and reserve their questioning for when they can establish positions which challenge the accepted classroom norms (in terms of information...I'm not accusing anyone of disciplinary problems as condoned by the web) only as substantiated by internet encouragement. Even their rebellion is canned. What will happen when they can't find a preset voice to glom on to? What will happen when they have to be revolutionary on their own terms?

Look, I like the internet. It has given us a lot. But I'm just sad that I see students squandering opportunities to innovate and invent because they see this skill of mining the web (an important practice, one which we seem to be stressing a lot) and this practice of collaborative thinking as being ends, not means.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Waka Waka

As part of my daily attempts to redeem my soul (long term at least) I make an effort to give to charity. I have found that the most efficient platform is a service called Good Street. I make a monthly contribution of (IIRC) $7.50 and then, each day, I receive an email which presents me with a cause and 2 charities which help address that cause from 2 different angles. I can then choose which of the two receives .25 from my monthly donation. In cases where there is a large scale issue/tragedy, the general area of donations might stay the same for two or three days, but usually, each day brings a new cause, already researched by the people at Good St. and two charities, pre-vetted so that all I have to do is click a button. Easy, effective and educational. I recommend that you all join and buy gift subscriptions for loved ones who can then not only benefit from the giving of charity, but become more aware of the causes in the greater world. All good, right?

Not exactly.

This morning's email had a write up which began as follows, "South Africa’s education system is one of the weakest in the world. In a table drawn up by the OECD, the South African education system ranked 75th out of 76." (sourced here) I am not going to argue with the statistics because, honestly, I haven't researched them and have no reason to doubt their veracity. And I'm a big fan of education so that isn't the problem.

But think about it -- according to that ranking system, there are 76 countries involved. One of them will invariably be last. It has to happen that way. There has to be a bottom of the list unless there is some incredible mathematical tie! And I'm not counting on that. This means that if I donate to any one country, while I may be helping there, I am forcing whatever country gets leapfrogged over into a lower position on the list! How am I supposed to look the good people of, say, Morocco in the eye if I help South Africa rise? And won't the guilt of pushing Botswana down eat me up from the inside?

Maybe we should all agree that, statistically (and ignoring Lake Wobegon), a huge chunk of people/countries are below average, and on most any list, someone has to be at the bottom. Does this mean that we ignore the educational system in South Africa? Absolutely not.

It seems to me that what we should do is donate the money, improve the system and then encourage everyone to move to another country! Then, their educational system will be superior with no chance of losing steam. Alternatively, I have devised a two-step solution to resolve this issue, ensuring that, in the future, no country will suffer the indignity of being at the bottom of a statistical ranking.

1. Outlaw statistics.

Fixed. Duh.

P.S. Goodst is seriously wonderful. Don't hold my recommendation against them. I joined and subscribed my kids. Other family members ahve also joined and others have given subscriptions as gifts. Do it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Eve of Destruction

First, please excuse the potential misogyny of the title. It actually fits with my message but I can see how some might find it offensive. I happen to like the pun.

Second, I find that as I age, more of my posts are quasi-serious musings or Torah based thoughts. As a younger man, I was inspired more by the ridiculous but now I find that reality has co-opted the ridiculous so all I can to distinguish myself from an uncomfortable reality is to wrap myself in more serious thoughts. I apologize to anyone who reads this expecting the silly on a consistent basis and who feels cheated or that he signed up under false pretenses. Refunds are not forthcoming. Force majeure and all that.

On to the Torah thought.

As we begin the yearly cycle of reading the Torah again, I realize that the biggest challenge that Modern Orthodox Jews have is Simchat Torah, the day of celebrating the Torah. It shouldn't be tough -- we love us some Torah. But it is the 9th day of a holiday which comes after 2 days of Rosh Hashana, 2 fasts, and a month of liturgical changes before that. Enough, we want to scream. And then, just when you think that we can have a big blow out celebrating that we are finally finished: finished with the holidays and their demands on our time and spiritual energies, we don't. We have to get up there and sing and dance (if you are so inclined. I'm usually so inclined that I can neither sing nor dance) to celebrate the BEGINNING! That's the challenge. Not just finding the energy and will to be joyous on the holiday, but to be sincerely joyous about starting the whole thing over again.

But I'm not here to talk to you today about new beginnings. My goal is to discuss ends.

The first reading of the year, the opening chapters of Genesis is about that (re)birth; it is about creation and the potential that lies within the starting of any new project, year or endeavor. But in the same way that we clothe the beginning amidst a celebration of beginning, we learn of ends as soon as we start learning about the start of things.

Adam and Chava are in the garden. Things are going swimmingly for an hour or so -- Adam is convalescing, post-surgery and Eve is wandering around, feng shui-ing the live stock. They have been given the run of the place with only one caveat, Genesis 2:17 (text and translation lifted fro the sefaria.org site)

וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת׃
but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

The strange Hebrew phrase is at the end of the verse, "Mot tamut" rendered here as "you shall die" and elsewhere as "you shall surely die." The doubling of the root for "death" causes no dearth of consternation to commentators. Some say it is an emphatic doubling (hence the "surely") and cite other instances where words are doubled to indicate importance. Others understandings include

1. You shall be liable to a death penalty for the sin (evidenced by similar language in later Books of Moses when the text discusses the death penalty)
2. You shall suffer 2 deaths (and commentators discuss what those 2 deaths might be)
3. Your nature shall change so the order of things will now lead to a death, as opposed to immortality
3a. Your nature will change so the order of things will lead to an earlier death than was intended

Some, like the HaK'tav V'HaKabala point out explicitly that this "death" is not a punishment as dying is not listed as any of the curses leveled against the players after God's discovery of their actions.

I'm not going to say that they are wrong -- these are great thinkers whose shoulders I do not even merit to stand on, but the wording actually leads me to a subtly different understanding. In 2:17, God tells Adam this doubled language. Then He creates Eve. But I don't see, textually, where anyone warns Eve! Clearly, someone does, because in 3:3, she tells the Nachash,

וּמִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵץ֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּתוֹךְ־הַגָּן֒ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים לֹ֤א תֹֽאכְלוּ֙ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְלֹ֥א תִגְּע֖וּ בּ֑וֹ פֶּן־תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
It is only about [Lit, "and from"] fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’

Commentators (like the HaK'Tav V'Hakabala) point to Adam as her source of information and wonder why he relayed the injunction in a way which included touching, with one answer being " הוסיף לה אדם הראשון סייג לדבר " the first man added a fence around God's words, as per the advice of the Ethics of Our Fathers 1:1. But the real change here is in the end result, "pen t'mutun" translated here as "lest you die." The double language is gone! So all the interpretations of what it might mean are likewise gone!

The Nachash replies. Now, remember, the Nachash is referred to as "Arum" (cunning) in 3:1. But we know that arum also alludes to naked (as shown in 3:7, 10 and 11). The Nachash showed Eve the naked truth -- he is not deceptive! In fact, he lays things bare when he says,

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַנָּחָ֖שׁ אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֑ה לֹֽא־מ֖וֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die,

Hold on, you say, that isn't honest because she IS going to die! But if you look closely at his language, you might come to the conclusion I came to -- the translation is wrong. He says, "lo-mot t'mutun," which is "no, you will surely die." Now that doesn't seem much better until you remember that he is reintroducing the doubled language. He isn't saying "you will not..." but is saying "No, the consequence was this doubled concept." He is quoting God more closely than she is -- he is not hiding God's command behind a fence or in equivocated language, as Adam had done when he conveyed this information to her. Instead he says "What God said was that if you eat this, then your general nature will change and you will be susceptible to a process called 'death'" of which she otherwise KNEW NOTHING!

The Nachash exploited two things: one, Eve's ignorance of what death is, and two, the human urge to celebrate the now and not care about the long term. So what, Eve figures. So what if my nature will change and somewhere, long into the future, I will cease to be. I want that food and its special status, now.

What changes though isn't just that we, as humans, eventually die, but that we know it. And how does that awareness (which turns living into one long and ticking time bomb) begin? Usually when we encounter death through the passing of someone else. This is the double language: You will experience death and you will realize your own mortality. This is the true curse and punishment, this realization that our time is limited and we are in a race against an unbeatable foe. Eve brought on to all of us a knowledge of our own fate - and in an extended sense, this is the pain of childbirth (3:16): a mother's knowledge that she and eventually the generations after her will die.

So what is the cure? How do we get back to the garden?

We focus on the spiritual and the immortal soul. If we can remember that there is a part of us that transcends this body and world, then we can reattain the pre-fall status, and live forever. Eating fruit won't do it. Following the mitzvot and celebrating even the body's end will help us see that there is a greater promise. In our beginning, there is a built in end. But in that end, there is a new beginning (a "Dawn of Correction" one might say).

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Another post-Ne'ilah post: "Ne'ilah"

Last year at this time, I posted a thought about the final prayers of Yom Kippur, the Ne'ilah service. I focused, through the lens of bosh and piffle, about how the service should not be seen as an end, but a beginning of a journey, and that the name of the service refers to shoes, which we must don in order to make that journey of improvement.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on my own genius, but this year, I have been inspired with some loftier thoughts regarding the service. Allow me to explain.

As stated last year, the Ne'ilah service is not about an ending. And yet, most of the speeches I hear are all filled with analogies about beating deadlines -- the final 2 minutes of a football game, the sirens rushing to an accident, the paper that has to be submitted. This is, even though the gates don't actually close. The "slips" which have our verdict are not handed down until the end of Sukkot. Even then, we say in the thrice daily weekday prayers a blessing about repentance and forgiveness, and have the prayer of tachanun which includes confession. If the gates were closed then prayer the rest of the year would be ineffectual and useless!

So what changes at the close of the Ne'ilah prayer that makes it so important that we focus? (and no fair saying "we do" because we hope to change for the better all the time). The answer seems insignificant -- some subtle liturgical wordings. For the last 10 days we have been shifting the text of certain prayers to focus on God's kingship and this stress ends right after Ne'ilah ends. Ne'ilah is the last chance to address that element of God's character explicitly and that's the rush.

There is, in my mind, a difference between talking about a king, and talking to the king. In both cases, there is reverence, but in the latter, we have reached a level of importance, we have risen high enough in stature, that we can look to the king directly and make our requests; instead of saying "the king is really mighty and powerful, and he has the power to save me" we can say "Hey, king, please save me." We are in his presence, by his throne and that s about to end.

So then why "Ne'ilah"? I looked at the word with my 24-hours-into-the-fast eyes and I saw a different word that shares most of the letters -- na'aleh. We will rise up. Rising is a concept that appears elsewhere in our prayers during the year and, in fact, in the Yom Kippur prayers -- in fact, in the evening service at the beginning of Yom Kippur, we, full of fear and hope, begin the supplications with a liturgical poem beginning with the word "ya'aleh" (it will rise up). We want our prayers to rise up. But by the end of the day, we hope that we, ourselves, will rise up. We are at the throne and want to be able to rise up and address the king one last time, and, somehow, we want to be granted the privilege of staying on that level, having that "aliyah" become permanent so we can speak to "hamelech" the king, all the time.

May we all have that aliyah, that rising up this year, in the merit of the prayers which we offered fervently yesterday, and which we will continue to offer throughout the year.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Little Does A Lot

A strange thing happened in synagogue yesterday. I was reading along as the portion from the Torah was being read, and I got to Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:22. I guess that, even though I have been going to synagogue for years, I never really thought about this verse (as copied from the Judaica Press text on chabad. org):

Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage.

This verse lists 4 cities that were destroyed by God. OK, that's pretty epic but I recalled that the original story was a little different, so I checked. In Bereishit (Genesis) 18, God tells Abraham that He is going to destroy S'dom and Amora. Abraham starts to haggle and asks God if He would destroy the entire "city" if 50 righteous people live there. Fifty is not a random number -- Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that there were actually 5 cities (as in 14:2, "That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar") and Abraham was asking about destroying what would have constituted a quorum (minyan) of 10 righteous men in each city (an argument apparently bolstered by the Targum Yonatan). The metropolitan area of 5 cities was named based on the largest, S'dom. So instead of recalling 5 destroyed cities, the Devarim text refers only to 4. So I did more reading.

It appears that the original goal was to destroy 5. Abraham prays and begs but God stands firm. But in Bereishit 19:18 something changes. Lot, Abraham's nephew who lives in S'dom asks the angels/God not to destroy the city of Tzo'ar. His argument is that Tzo'ar is the smallest of the 5. The talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, page 10A explains that "small" is not a measure of size, but of age. It had been settled most recently (1 year later than S'dom) so it was "closer" in time and "smaller" in evil and did not have the same measure of sins as was found in the other cities.

One year. That's not much of a difference. Abraham was asking about the possibility of (ultimately) their being 10 righteous men in one of the cities, or possibly all 5 combined (rabbinic sources disagree) but when that didn't pan out, he dropped his suit. Lot didn't ask about righteous men. He pointed out that one city simply wasn't as bad as the others (by a factor of a single year over a span of over 50 years...Tzo'ar was 1/52nd less evil, under 2 percent better). God presents no counter argument as He did to Abraham -- Lot persuades God with that one point and the city is saved! What Abraham can't/won't/doesn't do, despite his sterling character, Lot, who is not exactly a consistent paragon of virtue accomplishes in a moment of desperation. In fact, it seems that Lot didn't even buy his own argument! He leaves Tzo'ar as quickly as he can (verse 30) because, as Rabbi David Kimchi puts it, he really was aware that its inhabitants were evil and deserved the same destruction (as quoted from the English translation on Sefaria.org "He left Tzoar being afraid that Tzoar might face the same fate as Sodom, even though a little later, seeing that he was well aware that its inhabitants were also wicked people.")

So Abraham, man of God, strong defender of all that is right and good gives up on 5 cities while Lot, who is willing to hand over his own daughters to a violent mob, is able to argue to save a city even though the crux of his argument is a point which he knows to be false.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year is coming. On it, Jews are judged.

God, as you well know, I am no Abraham. I don't know if I could offer up my child, jump into a furnace, fight a war or circumcise myself. But maybe, it would be enough that you see me as a Lot. My pleas in the name of Abraham, explaining rationally and mathematically why I am worth saving might not persuade you. I don't have the minimum allotment of righteousness to merit another year.

But I call out to you as Lot -- in desperation and in the face of destruction, an emotional and irrational argument, one that I might even recognize as not entirely valid: that there is some small part of me which is not that bad, even if not good. Forgive me and save me for the year even though I know that I do not deserve it. I will try to flee even from that small part because I know, deep down, that it is bad also, but please give me a chance.

I ask all those whom I might have hurt, offended, alienated or bothered to forgive me. I hope we can all merit (by any means necessary, be it via the method of Abraham or Lot) a year of joy, happiness, health and peace.

L'shana Tova tikatem and teichatem -- may we all be written and sealed into the book of life.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

For English teachers and other lovers of language puzzles

I will start with an extra credit assignment I have put on the board for my classes and then I will include a new part which is a natural extension of that first assignment and which struck me this morning while I prepared for my day. Do not use the internet to find the answer. I don't know if it is out there, but that doesn't seem fair. For some people, the second part will be significantly easier than the first.

Part A:

What do all the following words have in common (the words for both parts are listed in no particular order and I'm sure that there are more that I could add, but I'm writing this off the cuff)?

Corn, bout, trophy, toll, skew, mount, vow, muse, spire, maze, shore, political, venue, far, round, drift, verse


Now, Part B:

What do all THESE words have in common?

grudge, still, hold, tween, hooves, witch, muse, spoke, little, knight, night

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Be Tru

It dawned on me this morning, it being the actual morning, as evening dawns rather infrequently, and I realized that my second child is getting older. She is approaching one of those arbitrary markers of "adulthood" and I need to sit down because I feel old. My "baby" will be 18 very soon. I only have the two kids so when she passes into the realm of "grown up" I will be without a little kid around. I know that she has been moving in this direction for a number of years, but this year, her senior year in high school, really presents me with a lot of "last times." A year from now, she will be gearing up for another stage -- be it a gap year program or college or a job or I have no idea what, but it won't be any more high school unless she absolutely fails out this year and I'd like to think that that isn't going to happen. I don't want to wake up in next September and start feeling all empty and what-not, bemoaning the cliche "you don't appreciate what you have until it is gone". I want to work on appreciating everything now.

To that end, I want to list some things that I am going to try and be aware of in this upcoming year -- some are annoying, some not, but I want to have a list so I can take nothing for granted. For example, this is the last year that I expect to have to wake up a child every morning so instead of sighing and getting frustrating, I will try to enjoy these last times. After this year, I won't have the morning and afternoon car rides, or the odd moments at school when I get to hear about her day as it happens. The walks to shul on Shabbos morning, and the games of cards on Shabbos afternoon. Once she leaves the nest, I won't be able to criticize the TV shows she watches or the stuff that passes for "music" that she sings in the shower. She loves bath bombs but when she moves out, there won't be anyone pushing various hand-made combinations under my nose and wanting to chat with me about the different aromas. Our frequent discussions about what color she might treat her hair will be gone. The innocent questions about current events which gave me an opportunity to explain and guide but not dictate beliefs will be a thing of the past. I will not have the reins, controlling her movements and I will have to trust her to make the right decisions -- I'm confident she can and I pray that she will.

So in the upcoming year, when I remind her to clean her bathroom, do her homework or get some sleep, when I get frustrated picking up the clothes she leaves lying around, or get annoyed that I have to cajole her to walk the dog, I have to take a deep breath and take stock. She's a wonderful and miraculous child and I have her under my roof for a finite (and ever diminishing) number of days. She gives more than she takes and I am going to miss her terribly, even while I know that she is out there doing something wonderful. So, yeah, it will be irritating to have to tell her, again, to turn the light off when she leaves the room, and it won't always be riveting to hear the girl-drama that is high school life, but my resolution is to try and seize every moment and savor it for what it is: a chance to connect with a very special someone who will soon be spreading her own wings and discovering the world on her own terms, without her dad watching over her shoulder.

Welcome to senior year, Trolley. I hope it is fulfilling, fantastic, frustrating and frantic and that it helps set you up for whatever you decide is the next chapter of your life. Now walk the dog, please.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Things I don't know

As an irresponsible adult, I think it meet that I pass along some secrets instead of guarding them as seems to be expected of me. The biggest secret is that I have no idea. About what? Most everything. Maybe I'm doing it wrong and every other adult has an idea but I'm completely lost.

An example. Do I like a firm mattress or a soft one? I don't know. When I use one, I'm often asleep and not paying attention. And when I can't fall asleep (it is currently 2:05AM where I am, which is, not coincidentally, not in bed) I have no idea if it is because of the mattress or because I have forgotten how to fall asleep. Maybe it is because half of me has to be stretched until it clicks, pops or cracks and the other half is achy. There is no owners manual on this machine that is my body, so I don't know.

What style of furniture do I like? What kind of car would I prefer? Do I like Italian or French food more? I don't know -- do people really care about this stuff? Am I supposed to feel, deep in my heart, that some things are preferable to other things? Either I don't or I do but I don't know what that is. Either way I feel like I'm doing this all wrong.

Shouldn't I feel relaxed and comfortable sometimes, knowing that I have done what needs to be done and chosen what will make me happy? Instead, I just float through life not because I'm too scared to choose but because things don't seem to matter on that level. I'm happy when I'm happy and it isn't tied to the kinds of things that seem to determine life happiness. It isn't that I'm not happy, just that I get the sense that I'm supposed to have a clearer cut happiness as driven by particular things. My sports teams? They win, they lose...either way, my stomach is tied in knots. My job? I feel like I'm faking it there also. I have no fire burning in me to be on the cutting edge of anything; I don't want to sit at work and stare at a computer screen. I want to do what I do and go home and stare at the screen there.

I don't even know if I prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Both are good and at different times, each is preferable. I think it is simplistic to have clear preferences in things because there are too many variables in any given case so a decision that went one way might go in the other direction 2 minutes later. My brain is just whirring away, clicking through situations and possibilities and not settling anywhere. Is it supposed to? I care that I don't care, but I still don't care.

There are clearly things I like. Make no mistake -- there are foods, movies, even people that I prefer or maybe can't really do without, but there is so much more that I feel outside of (for lack of a better or more expressive phrase) and more that I just don't get. Is this what getting older is all about? Gaining such a wide perspective that I can no longer reduce my world into simple ideals to latch on to? Is there something wrong with that? Or is the fault on the side of youthful exuberance which I am fortunate to have abandoned? I don't know.

Anyway, it is now 2:51 and I think I'm supposed to pretend to be sleepy now.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why I didn't play the lottery


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

Hate Is guaranteed to have a home if it pays on time, just like anyone else


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

Decidedly UnOrthodox

Note – this post deals with a current event here in NJ. I’m not linking to any of the many news stories – you can google this all and see it if you would like.

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

How to adult

In this digital day and age I am going to write today about some of the best old-school advice I can give. People seem to have trouble adjusting, when becoming adults, to having to keep track of all sorts of stuff. Since I am a hoarder, organization is key. So here is my decidedly non-21st century advice:

File folders.

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.

Changes in Jewish practice

I started populating a list today, a list of practices in Judaism that share something in common. While many practices are biblically ordained and many are rabbinic expansions, innovations or such, there is another category: practices created specifically to deal with an already emerged problem. I am being careful about using the English word "practices." Some of these are rules, some traditions, some something else. Here is my list:

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

You have been writing checks wrong!

Welcome to my first attempt at click bait. I know that I have put out a bunch of more serious posts which, though necessary and (thank you) read by many, do not represent the heart of this blog, which is to waste everyone's time and often, be idiotic.

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.









This is how you have been filling out checks in the past:








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

Anti American Airlines

I'm not generally one to use this blog to rant and air grievances. At least not naming names. But in this case, I have made every effort to get some measure of satisfaction and the public venue is the only one I seem to have left. I don't use Twitter though I have heard that companies are sometimes more responsive to that, so if you have Twitter I empower you to post a link to this blog and tag American Airlines so that maybe someone there will see it.

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.

Monday, June 12, 2017

*Cats-A-Risk

I have been wrestling with a good name for this post. While I was writing it, I called it "In Terem" and thought about "Scratching Post" and "Children at Friskies." I settled on what you see above because it hearkens back to the marker I put in that other entry a few days ago.

On our way back from the kotel, as mentioned, we passed by some of the local fauna. Julie has developed a love of all things animal. I have a similar love but mine usually involves a grill. She likes petting animals and speaking with them about the day's events. So we saw a cat. Jerusalem is known for its plethora of cats -- they were brought in to get rid of the mice. There was a mouse-cat war. The UN stepped in and called the cats colonialists and suggested a multi-state solution. The mice, still bitter over the whole pied piper incident bid a hasty retreat into the dark corners of the world and the cats took the day. And bred. When I say "bred" I don't refer to all those pictures online about cats and bread. They made more cats -- mostly babies at first.

So the cats roam free, often in packs, wearing leather jackets and terrorizing the villagers. But Julie saw this mid-sized (might have been a sedan) orange cat and made that kissy noise. The cat, attracted to the attention, started rubbing against her legs. Julie, though she has developed a love of animals, is not a cat owner and doesn't understand the psychology of the cat mind. Some of us have more insight into the way a cat thinks. So as Julie made nice-nice to a mangy, matted street cat, I made helpful suggestions like "No, stop. Don't" and "stop, don't." I said "I'll give you three reasons I won't pet that cat -- I don't want fleas, rabies or to pet that cat." Apparently, my advice did not come across as sincere and well founded. After the cat did figure 8's and rubbed against Julie's legs, and Julie petted the cat, she reached for some Purell to sanitize her hands with. The cat did not leave. I explained that this might be because according to the cat code, the cat now owns Julie and Julie is required to raise the cat, feed the cat, and teach the cat to drive. Instead, Julie chose to pet the cat again with hands that smelled of rubbing alcohol. I feel that the cat was offended by a couple of things -- first, the smell of Purell, and second, by the decided lack of lunch foods in said hand.

Anyway, Julie then stopped petting a second time and reached for the Purell. This was considered a horrible offense in the eyes of the cat. Harsh words were exchanged, tables were overturned, bottles were thrown and eventually, someone bit someone. I shan't be more explicit here than to say that Julie now hates all cats and cats have acquired the taste for tangy, human calves, especially shapely gams like Julie's.

After the cat sauntered away, under the cloud of Julie's expletives, she wiped down the area (a little blood, a little bruise) with Purell and then walked into a soup kitchen and washed the area with soap and water. Then the googling started. The primary concern was rabies. The cat seemed non-rabies enough, but you can't really tell just by looking. So as we walked, we called Dr. Sharon. She recommended (after confirming that we washed the bite down) that we visit Terem, the Urgent Care clinic. Remember, this was Friday afternoon in Jerusalem and we are out of towners. So, next step, contact Maddie to find out where Terem is and how to get there. We also called a select group of others to try and figure this out. Maddie told us to call a cab (not so easy to do in the old city -- you have to find your way back to the Jaffa gate) and get to her, and she would take us to Terem. We flagged down a cab after a bunch more walking and he quoted us a price which Maddie said (over the phone) was too much. Here's the thing -- I don't like to haggle in any case. I like it even less when I feel I am not in any position of leverage. And even less when my wife has been bitten on a Friday afternoon by a possibly rabid cat in a foreign country. It's like a thing with me.

Cab taken to her place. She comes out after the cab leaves and asks "OK -- where's the cab, let's go." We explain that the cab left because his job here was done and there were sad people elsewhere. She sighed the way only a child can sigh at foolish parents, called a Gett (think Uber, but from right to left) and we headed to the local Terem. It wasn't far but the neighborhood was a more religious one (and we were not dressed for the occasion -- cat bites demand a certain level of formality). So, up the stairs, and we try to explain to the nice man behind the glass that we are worried about rabies and don't happen to have our passports on us -- had we known that this was important, we would have scheduled our cat biting adventure differently, making sure to ask the cat to wait until we had assembled all relevant paperwork. It took a bit more convincing but we were finally given a number for the initial vetting. Not exactly the right word, but I get to throw the word "vet" into a discussion of a cat bite. Awesome.

The first guy (I don't know if he was a doctor, a nurse, or a friend of Stanley Milgram's) sees us within 10 minutes and takes a history -- do you have a family history of cat bites? Are you feeling at all feline right now? Is anyone in your family allergic to dogs? The person took her blood pressure ("It's a little high, but that's to be expected when you are freaking out over rabies in Jerusalem.") and sent us back out to the waiting room. It could be up to an hour, we were told. We contacted our various peeps and let them know that our afternoon schedule was a bit up in the hair-ball. HA! By now, Maddie's friend has sent over a picture of Julie's passport so we proffered our pertinents and such and got a drink from the vending machine while we hunkered down for the wait.

It didn't take an hour; we were called rather quickly to the inner sanctum where Julie was checked by a doctor type. I didn't ask for his CV. He was tall and spok-a the good English. He said that rabies is very rare, moreso in Jerusalem and even moreso in cats. He and Julie exchanged googled info about the most recent cases and he told her that she most probably had nothing to worry about. Most probably. But just to be sure, we had to pursue 3 courses of action:

1. Julie needed a tetanus shot. Well, these days, who doesn't. Really.
2. Julie needed a few day's worth of antibiotics. This led to its own story. If you want to read about that adventure, go to page 12. If not, go to page 12.
3. Julie needed to visit the ministry of health ASAP to report the incident. They would be able to tell her definitively if she needed a series of rabies shots and even if not, they could keep track of all cat attacks.

OK, so she had the shot. She was very brave. No lollipops or anything!

Then, to get the antibiotics, we had to find a pharmacy that was still open on a Friday afternoon, and find a cab to take us there. There were 2 -- one in Abu Ghosh and one in Pat. In Hebrew, the latter neighborhood is pronounced Pot. The one in that area (which was closer) is called -- and I'm not making this up, "Pat Pharm." We chose to go to the Pat Pharm in the hopes that, you know, but at least, to get the medicine. A 10 minute drive out, no parking, Maddie runs in to get the medicine, a ride back to Maddie's place and I ran back to the Swidler's to get ready for Shabbos. Which they had already started. Now, to item 3 on the top 2.

The concern, of course, was that if the doctor sent his paperwork along to the ministry, they might want to hold Julie in-country for the duration of the incubation period since we foolishly forgot to catch the cat and bring it in for testing (and we didn't get its phone number). Now, nothing against the socialized medical system in Israel but, well, let's be honest: everything against the socialized medical system in Israel. There are plenty of great doctors, but the system does grind exceeding slow. And with plane tickets in pocket, the idea of having to wait while bureaucracy does what it does is a scary one. So the prospect of going to a ministry which might then decide to shuffle paperwork and maybe even quarantine or freeze a passport (and the person attached to it) was problematic at best.

A decision had to be made. Julie started feeling gross from the tetanus shot and feared having to hang out in Israel even for the extra 3 days after I left, feeling gross. Hanging out WITH me while feeling gross is fine because I'm usually the one making people feel gross. But without me? What's the use? So Julie decided to change her plane reservations and buy a ticket to come home on Sunday -- that way she could call her doctor and set up an appointment quickly, she could feel gross in my company and she could avoid any problem with the Israeli government. This required a call to Priceline, through whom we bought the initial tickets. Julie's basic question was, "Aside from a standard change-ticket fee, what is the price differential between her ticket and one that would have her on my flights on Sunday, and are there any seats even available on that combination?" These, though logical, proved to be very difficult questions for the phone reps at Priceline. But, I am happy to note, 45 minutes later, they finally figured it out. It was a lot. Well, only $1800 more. But that's a lot. She scoured the internet and actually found a non-stop, United Airlines flight (round trip so if she wants to, she can go back to hunt down the cat and give him a stern talking to), right to Newark airport for less than my original ticket. Can you believe that? I have a one stop with a layover, and I end up in JFK and she finds a non-stop to Newark. For less. I went out to look for a cat to pet.

We got a little sleep and got out of dodge the next morning.

Post scripts now that Julie has been to the doctor -- apparently, most people don't keep rabies shots handy so she was recommended to go to the ER and get shots there. No one assessed whether this was necessary; it was just decided that this is the prudent course. Thing is, more research has uncovered that the side effects of the shots are daunting. But she decided to persevere and get jabbed in order to avoid even the chance of death. That's a good thing, avoiding being dead and all. I make it a personal practice to avoid being dead. At the ER, the first two shots were administered old school. Not in the arm. Not in the thigh. Old school. Yeah, there.

As a final note, I spent my day working on getting Maddie the right kind of combat boots, and have been emailing back and forth with American Airlines who have decided that our seats on our Paris-bound flight were still preferred even though they were horrible, because they were the same row as the one we chose in the other plane. It gets more ridiculous but I'll wait until they make it really bad and then I'll plaster the info for all to see. I still have to resolve the problem of the money that I transferred to Maddie not having arrived yet. And also, work.

The morning after

I realized mid-flight that the post about flying out of Ben Gurion should have been called "De-Israeli, Gears up" but this is what happens when I don't sleep. My dumb, ineffective puns go completely bland. Also, to clarify a closing comment earlier, JFK had announcements in Spanish and the flight on American to Paris had announcements in French. El Al has Hebrew as does Ben Gurion.

OK -- back home after a reasonable night's sleep. Sure, it still feels like I am in a plane, rising and falling, but I am sitting in a real chair and, if I have to, can use a bathroom that isn't rife which chrome.

I flew in a 777-300 (3-4-3) for the last part of this trip. The one lesson is "always pay for the upgrade." I had an aisle seat with no seat in front of me so I had endless legroom. I actually regretted not being any taller. Sure, I had the same problems of there being no seat in front of me:

1. No seatback pocket to put stuff in or go through
2. No seat under which to put my personal items
3. the fold out video screen lacked the power outlet that the others had, and the viewing angle was less ergonomically convenient
4. the fold out meal tray was smaller and less sturdy
5. I couldn't reach the airflow nozzle thing

But big deal. Awesome legroom, nothing over my head so I could stand up. Call this a stronger win. I also had an empty seat to my right so I flipped up the arm rest and man spreaded (sprod?) liberally. The down side was that I was next to the "front" row in the middle section which houses small children who, by law, are required to cry. And these kids were no scofflaws. Take-off and landing were cry-fests for the younger child. In the middle there was a lot of sleeping so it wasn't horrible.

The meal -- wow. Made by "Hermolis". The label claims "grilled vegetables" but I don't recall any. They did have a pasta salad with tuna and basil-pesto dressing which was great, plus a mezonos roll and chumus, and melba toast with a sunflower spread which actually tasted like real sunflowers. The dessert was "Chocolate orange delice". Imagine what looks like a decadent slice of seven layer cake but in fact is all just a shaped mousse. Wow! Allergens listen mentioned no nuts at all (not even "may contain") so I dove in. The main was called a "Chicken stir fry" but was more like "chicken in tomato sauce" with rice. Not horrible but the weakest link in the gustatory chain.

I watched two movies -- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One. The Beasts movie was pure "meh". Just not that interesting and plenty confusing. Also, the audio was often muddy and with accents, I had trouble figuring stuff out. Rogue One was useful in terms of contextualizing episode 4 but was not, independently, a great film. It had some humor but the characters were generic. I'm glad that I didn't pay to see them beyond the thousand plus dollars I spent to fly on the plane. FTW! I also 2 episodes of Brooklyn 99, a show I know to be great. I was not disappointed. Great work Mr. Samberg and friends. Great work.

I made an effort not to sleep on either flight so that I would be so tired when I got home that I would sleep through and wake up on New York time. So far so good -- the ride home was long and I fought sleep the whole time. Sparky was there to greet me and all is right with the world.

Except that the package I was expecting while I was gone is missing, the money I transferred never got transferred and I have a week's worth of work to catch up with (and I still feel like I'm on an airplane).

Thanks to Hillel for the rides and watching the place and dog, to Heather and Marc for watching the kid. Thanks to the Efrat contingent for the hospitality and rides, and the Swidlers for their love, room and board. Thanks to all the roommates who humored us on our visit and, of course, to the IDF for molding my child into something incredible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

De-Israeli

To pick up where I left off when I was so rudely interrupted by the boarding of my Heathrow bound flight.

We boarded a 777-200 at Ben Gurion. I moved down to 53H (a 3-3-3 configuration). This plane is more tech full than the others -- USB ports under the seats and in the seatback, right next to an Ethernet cable port. ETHERNET! I don't have that, but wow. Ben Gurion has multiple layers of security (check in, security questions, second check in for your yellow sticker check, bag screening/metal detector, biometric passport control and gate screening. I think they also collect a urine sample. Very high tech.)

A side note to the tangent in my flashback -- we took the 485 bus from next to the central bus station in Jerusalem. 7AM bus, got to the airport at about 8:20. 16 Shekel (about 4 dollars). Good deal. I recommend it.

I rarely pay for fancy seats or upgraded boarding preference so I often have to board last and jockey for overhead bin space. As I do I curse under my breath at the people who clearly did not have any preferred boarding, but did so anyway so that they could get a bin first. For this flight, I didn't hear the announcement details for boarding and just saw a line so I got on the line and sat myself down. I became one of those jerks and I could see the resentment in the eyes of the masses who boarded a while later, finding my bag already taking up 3 seats and 2 overhead bins. This doesn't mean I will be any more charitable to the exploiters on other flights. I made a mistake. They are all clearly evil.

And also? If you pay for one seat, you get one spot overhead. Don't bring a back pack, a carry on, a bag of laundry and a ukelele and expect that they are all going to take up valuable overhead real estate. That's selfish.

We were told of a delay before take off. The captain announced that there needed to be maintenance done on the left engine. Don't tell me that. Lie to me. Tell me that a bulb is out in the bathroom. I don't want to think that as we are powering up, some guy with duct tape is "fixing" the engine.The delay continued for about 45 minutes and I started worrying about making my connecting flight. The stewards served crackers and water to appease us and I watched as the woman in front of me started yelling at the closest stewardess as if she thought that this waitress of the sky could magically make everything all better and lift the plane into the clouds with a flick of the wrist. The stewardess kept explaining "I'm stuck here also" (with the subtext being "I don't want to be around you any longer than I absolutely have to be"). At least about 35 minutes in to the delay, the A/C got fixed, so it went from stifling and boring to just boring. I noted that of the 3 legs, all three experienced delays. Maybe I'm the cause.

On the flight I watched Argo (again) and it is still a really good movie. I also started The Founder but, though I saw some solid performances, the story started getting a bit sad and dark so I turned it off. I assume that everything works out in the end and everyone eats hamburgers so I'm not feeling any real drive to rent it and watch the rest.

Just to round out the trip, we were put in a holding pattern, delaying our landing. Yes, my fault, I know. This must also explain why that tailor didn't have Maddie's uniform done properly by 3PM. We landed at in London and I worked my way towards the shuttle from terminal 4 to terminal 3. The thing drove on the wrong side of the road! It reminded me of that Led Zeppelin lyric from Stairway, "If there's a bussle at your Heathrow, don't be alarmed now. There's still time to change the road you're on." So true. So true. I went through many lines and did much walking and going up and down stairs, passing through a variety of types of sscreening and security until I finally got to the gate. I noticed 2 things -- one is a lack of announcements. There are a few but not as many as in other airports. Also, Heathrow is the only airport I have been in on this trip where any announcements are made in only 1 language!

Anyway. As I started with, I'm at gate 27, in terminal 3, waiting for boarding. They announced the time but between the use of the 24 hour clock and the fact that I simply don't know what time zone I'm in now so i don't know what time it is, I have no idea when I'm going to board. Also, this waiting area is spartan at best. There are a few food machines that I'm eschewing, but no plug in ports for recharging, and it is separate from the rest of the gates -- I had to pass a final level of security to get in so I can't get out. It looks more like a very large hospital waiting room.

The wi fi is weird here and my computer is indicating that every word is misspelled so I'll take a break now. Unless something significant arises, the next post will be from home, or thereabouts, sometime tomorrow or today, depending on what time zone you are in. Or I'm in.

Thereby hangs a tail

It is Sunday mid morning and I'm sitting in Ben Gurion airport, withing for my flight to Heathrow so I'll try to catch everyone up on how I got here.

Friday morning was supposed to be a relaxing time filled with felafel and a walk to the Wall. Before that, Maddie said she and Julie wanted to meet up and walk on Ben Yehuda and the environs. Sounds nice. We met at the tailor so that Maddie could have her new uniforms made stylish. He promised everything by 3PM. An impressive promise. He pinned and folded. She tried on things and we all enjoyed the afterglow of the tekes. Then, to walk. My job was to hold the bags as the ladies picked out shirts and dresses that they would buy so that they would have something to return later. Then, shoes. Gotta have shoes. Apparently there are many shoes stores but none is the right one. "Right one" is defined as "the one that isn't here." Since none was "the one that isn't here" we went into all of them. Not to buy anything, mind you. That would be silly.

We also had a chance to drop into the Lone Soldier center. It was a happening spot filled with soldiers and support staff and pizza and cake. I struck up conversation with a couple of the cakes while Maddie and Julie wasted their energies on human beings. Foolish, but what can you do?

And by the way, the Lone Soldier Center is good stuff. You seriously should look into them and support them. What they have done for Maddie and other people I know is nothing short of life saving. And pizza.

We met up with the friend (I think it was after a shoe store) and then he and Maddie returned to her apartment with a whole lotta bags. Julie and I headed to Moshiko and then to the Wall. I really like Moshiko. I mean, seriously, I REALLY LIKE Moshiko. Julie got an espresso or cappucino or something but what matters is that I got my felafel. We walked to the Kotel and I got to spend some time there. I view it the way Wordsworth viewed Tintern Abbey. It recharges me. It helps be reflect on the time between my last visit and this one and prepare for the void between this experience and my next one. I take time to say a private prayer, admire all the types of people, Jewish and not who come just to touch the wall, and then a bit more formal prayer. It was very moving. I feel much the same way as my visit to Moshiko so there's that.

Julie and I left the wall and walked up some stairs, taking selfies the whole time. We passed some of the local cats*.

We settled in for Shabbat -- I returned to Nomi and David's and showered and changed. A person gets sweaty and stinky walking around Jerusalem in the heat and so do I. Then, a walk back to the friend's for a dinner with him and his roommates. Good stuff. A few drinks and Maddie and Julie fell asleep. Fun to watch. I headed back to the Swidlers'. Shabbat morning prayers at Kol Rina and then lunch back at Swidler. Extended Swidlers showed up and we spent a pleasant afternoon chatting. Eventually, we headed back to Maddie's apartment for more chill time. Then, because this has become a running theme, back to Nomi's. I decided to spend the last night at Maddie's so I had to pack my stuff up and, you guessed it, walk back to Maddie's apartment. Then the standard evening activity of arguing about the evening activity. It was decided that friend and I would walk to Cinema City and get some food for everyone.

We walked into Moses Burger and placed an order, called the ladies to get their order and realized we had 20 minutes to kill. I suggested that while we waited for our burgers, we should go and get some burgers. So across the hall to McDonalds. I spent 20 shekels (5 bucks about) so a big Mac and an orange juice. Was it as thick as the Moses burger? No. Was it as subtly flavored and was it medium rare? No. Was it ready in 3 minutes and oh my god right there and a big Mac? Yes. A resounding yes. I now understand why people eat there. You go up and say "I'd like some food NOW and I am not a gourmet so stick it in my face" and they do it! I scarfed that down and felt happy knowing that I also had more stuff coming to me.

My flight is boarding so the rest will have to wait.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Tekes away

The night was a complete bust unless my goal was "not sleep." In that case, the night was a complete success. I stayed up reading the wikipedia entry on Maddie's unit (in Hebrew and English) and then reading it again. Then I made sure to get up, shower, get everything all ready and look at the clock, realize that I still had 2 hours to go before we left and do it all again.

Jeff picked us up at 7:05 and we headed out. First, to Beit Shemesh to pick up his wife and elder son, and then down to Zikim, a touch south of Ashkelon to the base for the graduation ceremony. The ride, itself, was wonderfully direct and uneventful, except for the parts that required spinning around and driving up and down mountains. And there were some cows also. But we made it down before 9AM and found out that the parking was being handled by the people who run the Israeli bureaucracy. There was a modicum of yelling and pointing and eventually forms had to be filled out. So we, as tourists, walked away and assumed it would all sort itself out. Julie and I walked up a hill and down a hill and got to the assembly point where we would all (the hundreds of other families and friends) meet the approaching soldiers who were on the last part of a 10 mile hike and walk them to the celebration. It was hot but exciting. It wook a bit but then, under the cover of yellow smoke, the group approached. Maddie was towards the back, helping to carry a soldier on a stretcher. I applied for the job of "lying on stretcher" but it was already filled by another soldier who was taking selfies. Maddie was radiant in her camouflage war paint and Israeli flag.

I have to say, all kidding aside, this was an incredibly touching moment. She has become part of something really special. She has followed a dream and persevered, keeping up and surpassing and I really am proud of her! So there.

We walked with her and her unit and all the families over to the open area so that we could mill around, buy a DVD and find seats on the grandstands. Then, after some pictures, we took our seats in the sun heard all the songs, watched the soldiers stand through all the speeches, took more pictures, saw the exemplary soldiers receive their special certificates, witnessed the giving of the orange berets to replace the basic-training-olive berets and then saw the soldiers throw the berets up in the air as we all cheered. And took more pictures. We came down off the bleachers so that we could congratulate her and realized that, because of the uniformity of the uniforms, the distance and the camouflage, we had been cheering the wrong kid. Whatever. Yay IDF. All of you.

More pictures, the compulsory meeting of the friends, seeing her concrete slab of a bed (seriously -- they all slept in sleeping backs on what looked like a basketball court, her returning her special vest (with extra pockets for junk food when one doesn't feel like carrying grenades), and gathering her stuff. The Lone Soldiers had a special gathering where there were more speeches (the standard ones with themes like "You aren't really alone" and "you are part of an important tradition" and "make sure you give us the vests back") and grape juice. After more waiting around we all got under way for the return (Maddie and Julie got in the car while Maddie's friend and I took a shuttle to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere to catch a bus to the central Jerusalem bus station). I slept on the bus.

Maddie reported that she and Julie were waylaid in Efrat so they wouldn't meet us just yet so we decided to go to Cinema City and kill time after the friend showed me his apartment and got out of his uniform. He's in the infantry and carries a different gun from Maddie. I think that's how the soldiers assess each other -- not by stripes or shoulder patches, but by which gun they carry. Maddie has an M-16 or an M-4. I would carry an M+M. In my vest.

A light lunch at Greg's Cafe (where you can get anything you want, except Greg). The friend had the Indian tapas platter. I don't like having to assemble my own lunch so I got the fish cakes and an egg salad sammich. To drink, a fruit smoothie. All very nice. The accompanying Israeli salad had too many red onions, but tasted of fresh Israeli. We met Julie and Maddie and saw Maddie's apartment. The friend worked on "aging" Maddie's beret so she didn't look like such a newbie. The required shaving it down and then hitting it with a combination of hair spray and a lighter. Then shaving off the charred bits (and admiring the friend's newly smooth legs, his having burned off the hair accidentally) and wetting and shaping the beret. After a few hours of delaying, we went over to the shuk where we argued over where to eat. We settled on 2 different restaurants (Fishen Chips and Pasta Basta) and sad amidst the Thursday night throngs. In Israel, the conversion rate has 1 Saturday Night (US)=1 Thursday New Israeli Evening. The bars were loud and over full. The walking was difficult and the music was obnoxious. Imagine Time's Square full of 16 year old Israelis and 19 year old Israelis. Mix in 55 year old Israelis smoking and some random Europeans and put it all indoors in a mid-sized mall. Make it all smell like old fish, and voila. Shuk.

The last question was whether we would go out for a drink afterwards. That was solved by the sleeping. I returned to Nomi and David's place, chatted with them for a bit and fell asleep and that's the important part. Today, walking around Yaffo Road, spending money (Maddie wants to get her uniform further tailored), eating felafel and going to the kotel before Shabbat. More info if anything actually happens.