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Early in the book of Esther we're told of a plot by Bigtan and Teresh, two royal servants, who intended to kill the king. Mordechai overheard the plot and reported it, ultimately earning a (delayed) reward. The rabbis explain: the Holy One, blessed be He, caused the servants to be angry with the king so that a miracle could be done for a righteous man, Mordechai. R. Yochanan said: Bigtan and Teresh were two Tarseans and conversed in the Tarsean language. They said: from the day this woman (Esther) came we have been unable to get any sleep, as the king demands our attendance at all times. Let us poison his food so he will die. They were unaware that Mordechai, who had a seat on the Sanhedrin (!), spoke 70 languages, and thus they were caught. (13b)

 
 
 
 
 
 
(New tractate. Ta'anit was short at 31 pages, plus I missed last week due to travel.)

Rabbi Yitzchak said: if a man says to you "I have labored and not found", do not believe him. And if he says "I have not labored but still have found", also do not believe him. If he says "I have labored and have found" you may believe him, but only in respect to torah study, not business, for in business all depends on the assistance of heaven. And even for study of torah this is only for penetrating to the meaning (sharpening the understanding); for remembering what one has learnt, all depends on the assistance of heaven. (6b)

(We discussed using this quote on Mi Yodeya's 404 page (page not found), but didn't actually do it. But when I saw it in today's daf I just had to share it here. :-) )

 
 
 
 
 
 
Coming to the world of SQL databases from the world of object-oriented programming is...different. I'm starting to realize why some idioms are different, and I'm sure there are tons more that I haven't noticed yet and am probably getting wrong. But that's what learning experiences are for.

Consider, for example, a system where you have authors with associated publications. If I were designing a system to track that in, say, Java, I would define an Author class and a Publication class, with bidirectional links (Author would have a collection of Publications; Publication would have a collection of Authors (because sometimes authors collaborate)). But in a database table design you don't do that; you define a Persons table that has columns for some unique ID, name, and anything else about the person, and you have a Publications table that has columns for things about the publication like a (book) unique ID, title, publisher, genre, etc, and also the unique ID from the Persons table for the author -- and I'm not sure if multiple authors means multiple rows in the Publications table or if there's some way to do collections. But the point is that a Person doesn't know about its publications -- when you want that you'll do a JOIN between the two tables and then you'll have what you need. Connections between flavors of data are external to the data. This makes sense, but it's going to take a little getting used to.

(Y'all who are way ahead of me on this should please feel free to point out any errors in the above and save me mis-learning some things. Thanks.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
R. Beroka Haza'ah often visited the market at Be Lapat (a note in Soncino says this is in Khuzistan during the Sasanian period) where Eliyahu ha-Navi would appear to him. Once he asked the prophet: is there anybody in this market who merits a place in the world to come? None, replied Eliyahu. But then he saw a man wearing black shoes who had no blue thread on the corners of his garment (tzitzit), and Eliyahu said: that one has a share in the world to come. R. Beroka approached the man and asked: what is your occupation? The man replied: go away and come back tomorrow.

The next day he asked again and the man said: I am a jailor and I keep the men and women separate, placing my bed between them so they do not come to sin. If I see a Jewish girl that the gentile men are interested in I risk my life to save her. Once there was a betrothed girl they wanted, and I took red wine and spilled it on her garment and told them she was ritually impure.

R. Beroka further asked: why do you have no blue thread, and why do you wear black shoes? The man replied: so they will not know I am a Jew, so that when the gentiles make a harsh decree against the Jews I am able to go and tell the rabbis so they can pray to God that the decree be anulled. And, R. Beroka asked, yesterday why did you tell me to go away and come back today? Because, the man replied, I was on an errand to tell the rabbis about a decree.

While they were talking two men walked by and Eliyahu said: these two have a place in the world to come. R. Beroka asked them: what is your occupation? We are jesters, they said; when we see men depressed we cheer them up, and further, when we see two people quarrel we try hard to make peace between them. (22a)


I love Eliyahu stories. I don't always understand them, but I love them. This one raises some questions:

1. Elsewhere we're told that almost everybody has a share in the world to come. Is Eliyahu saying "no, not so much", or is this particular market full of people who are especially undeserving, or what? (And what about R. Beroka?) (Asked on Mi Yodeya)

2. R. Beroka seems to think that one's place in the world to come is tied to one's occupation, but my understanding from other rabbinic writings is that it's more about personal traits (which transcend one's job). And, in these cases, it seems that the merit comes from how these people use their jobs to do good, rather than the jobs themselves. I wonder if this is meant to be a teaching moment, or if it's really about occupations as much as anything else.

3. What's wrong with black shoes? A note in Soncino implies that they are characteristic of gentile dress.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Dear SCOTUS,

Let me see if I have this right: A corporation that has a small number of shareholders, like a family, is a "person", and a corporate "person" can reject at least one legally-required expenditures it objects to on religious or moral grounds, and thus Hobby Lobby doesn't have to follow Obamacare's requirement to fund contraception. Got it.

A corporation, while maybe a "person", is clearly no more of a "person" than an actual, real live person, like me. There are legally-required expenditures that apply to me that I object to on religious or moral grounds too. So, dear SCOTUS, could you please clarify which of those I can opt out of? If Obamacare or contraception is somehow unique, please specify how. If you say that I can't opt out, why not? Surely you're not saying that, for example, Hobby Lobby has more rights as a person than I do?

(Quite aside from how you feel about any particular law, while it's a law it should apply equally -- or there should be a clear reason that cases aren't equivalent.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
I needed a fairly long ethernet cable to run to the TV room, and we failed at making our own so I decided to just buy one. Amazon has 50' cables for $6-10, but I wanted it today (new TiVo, for which "wireless" on the feature list apparently really meant "wireless-capable, if you get a peripheral", fooey).

I went to Best Buy, where their price was $36. We had roughly the following conversation:

Me: You price-match, right?
Rep 1: Yup.
Me: (shows Amazon listing for exact same cable)
Rep 1: This doesn't ship directly from Amazon; that doesn't count.

Me: I'm prepared to pay a little more to get it locally today, but I can't really bring myself to pay more than three times their price. Is there anything you can do for me?

Rep 1: Nope.
Rep 2: (walking by) Um, let me see what I can do. (I follow Rep 2 to a different desk.)

He gave it to me for $10.

It occurs to me to wonder now if I'm part of the problem for brick-and-mortar stores. On the other hand, if their price had been $15 (a 50% markup) I probably would have just paid it.
 
 
 
 
 
 
At the end of Sukkot we begin to pray for rain. If a few weeks pass and we get to the 17th of Cheshvan without rain, the rabbis (according to the mishna) would call for three communal fasts. If the month of Kislev arrives and there's still no rain, there are three more fasts. If that passes (it doesn't specify a deadline this time) there are three more. Each of these sets is more demanding than the previous.

The g'mara has been discussing this for a few pages. During these fasts people would rend their garments (like in mourning) and fall on their faces in prayer. The g'mara discusses the efficacy of these practices.

R. Eleazar said: not everyone is answered through rending his garments or through falling on his face. Further, he said, in the messianic era not all will rise1 nor will all prostrate themselves; kings will rise and princes will prostrate. (R. Ze'ira objects, saying that princes will do both.) R. Nachman b. Yitzchak then declared: not all are destined to share in the light nor all in the gladness, as it is written: light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright. (The implication is that "the righteous" and "the upright" might be two different groups, though I presume they would overlap.) (14b-15a)

1 I'm not sure what he means by "rise" here; from context I don't think he's talking about resurrection of the dead, as that would seem to be a prerequisite for prostrating.

 
 
 
 
 
 
At my new job I was given a pair of 22" monitors. As at the prior job, I set one up in portrait mode to make it easier to view documents, code, web pages, etc -- you know, the things that have a taller narrower orientation naturally, compared to things like spreadsheets, Outlook, and assorted other things that really want to be wider (landscape). But there's some difference between the old and new setups, because even though I think the monitors were the same size, at the new job the portrait monitor is not quite wide enough. (Maybe I'm using slightly larger fonts. Maybe that's because of lighting, or something in Windows 7 vs XP, or who knows what?) So that was no good.

The "miss" is just small enough that if I could get a monitor with 16:10 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, that would be good enough. We identified a 24" 16:10 monitor (so also slightly bigger, which would help), but it's no longer available. So, my manager asked, would I accept this 30" 16:10 monitor instead? Um, sure. :-) (It's not actually a no-brainer; a coworker is experimenting with a 40" monitor and that's too big for me to see everywhere on it without moving around a lot. He said he has a little trouble with that too, but not as much and he's motivated because look at all the code you can fit on that!)

It arrived today. It turns out that, between the larger size and the 16:10-ness, I can use it in landscape orientation and still see enough code/documentation/web page/etc for that not to be an impediment. (We made sure the one we got could be rotated, just in case.) It's nice to be able to make a browser window wide enough for today's obnoxiously-wide site designs, and while there's a little adjustment (I sometimes have to move a bit for stuff near the edges), I'm really liking this "single larger screen" approach compared to "two smaller ones that individually don't work as well and together are kind of eh".

I've kept one of the others, set up in portrait mode. It sits off to the side to hold random stuff like IM windows, console logs that need to be available but not necessarily read closely, and stuff like that. Yes, I've just relegated a 22" monitor to "random detritus". :-)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Today's daf contains a variety of short teachings. Two are related to studying torah. Reish Lakish said: if you see a student to whom his studies are as hard as iron, it is because he has failed to make his studies systematic. He needs to attend the school even more regularly and repeat his studies more -- Reish Lakish repeated his studies in systematic order 40 times (corresponding to the 40 days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai), and R Adda b. Abbahu repeated his 24 times, corresponding to the 24 books of the Tanakh (bible).

Raba, on the other hand, said: if you see a student to whom his studies are as hard as iron, it is because his teacher does not encourage him. The remedy? Let him seek many companions to intercede with the teacher. (8a)

 
 
 
 
 
 
This tractate ends with a discussion of the two recitations of the Amidah. The practice is for each individual to say this prayer himself, and then the leader recites it again out loud, which allows anybody who wasn't able to say his own to fulfill his obligation. (So why not just have the leader say it? Because you're supposed to say your own; this is a safety net.) Today's daf (and yesterday's) states this practice with respect to the prayers on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and there is a discussion of whether it applies only to those days or to all days. Why might it apply only to those days? Because the prayers are way more complicated on those days and we can't presume that everybody knows them. The conclusion is that it's for all days. Further, we're told, on other days Rabban Gamaliel would allow the leader's recitation to cover even the workers in the field, but not people in the town. Why? The workers in the field were prevented from attending by their work, but people in town had no such excuse to miss the minyan. (35a)

 
 
 
 
 
 
I learned a lesson about customer service in the 21st century this week. If you call a place like, say, Verizon to complain about misleading sales practices, they make some token offer like a few months of a movie channel (that you better remember to cancel later). And you'll wait on hold for a long time to get there. If, on the other hand, you tweet about it, you get a helpful response leading to something more significant within minutes. Nice to know.

So I now have HD signal coming in (yay), which my TV understands just fine but I'd like to be able to record in HD too. I currently have an ancient TiVo -- version 1, I think before they had version numbers. Obviously that doesn't speak HD, nor can it act as a tuner (I have to set the channel on the FiOS box). New TiVo boxes are pricy and then you have to add the lifetime subscription fee (up to $500 now!) because that's "lifetime of the box", not "your lifetime" so your old one doesn't transfer. This all suggests that I should be looking for a used TiVo that's newer than mine but older than the current offerings, one that already has a lifetime subscription that the seller can transfer.

It looks like the TiVo Premiere HD DVR was their first HD box and is a few years old at this point (sample offer on eBay, TiVoPedia page). I'm a little confused about FiOS integration; this takes "cable in" but I've read that FiOS or cable + HD + DVR means you need a "cable card" (rented from your service provider). How does that work? And is it user-installable? Or are cards "new" and older DVRs use the cable box?

I'd like to be able to record, in HD, and be able to program (time and channel) the DVR directly (not set the channel on a different device). I don't need to be able to record two different shows at once, or record one and watch another, or anything fancy like that. I don't need a huge hard drive. I want to keep costs down but want something that works pretty much out of the box, not "get a spare PC and...". I prefer to minimize ongoing fees (subscriptions) in favor of up-front purchases.

Please guide me, oh LJ brain trust. Most of you are way ahead of me on TV tech.
 
 
 
 
 
 
FiOS has finally come to my neighborhood, years after many others in the city. The installer is here now. It sounds like a big production; I hope there aren't too many surprises. One surprise already: my "HD" TV package won't actually deliver HD signal unless I pay to rent a fancier box. This was not disclosed. The guy I called about it today offered me three months of movie channels but I'd have to remember to call and cancel that or they'll start charging me; not interested in that. I only got the bundle with TV because (for the next two years) it's cheaper than just getting phone and internet, so in that sense it hasn't particularly harmed me, but it still leaves a bad taste.

If you've been caught up in the "AOL/Yahoo email addresses not playing well with mailing lists" problem, or if you haven't but you've heard something about it, you might want to read this summary of the problem from siderea. I guess some people assumed that mailing lists don't matter any more and everybody does web fora, or something.

Last week was Shavuot. There's a tradition of staying up all night studying torah; we have a community-wide study that runs for three hours (from 10PM to 1AM) and then several local synagogues take it from there, for those who want. The community one has 6-8 classes in each 50-minute slot, so there are choices. There seems to be a tradition of giving them not-very-informative names; I went to one called "speed torah" just to find out what it meant, and it turned out the rabbi leading it had prepared several very short texts to look at in small study groups (ideally pairs, but people seemed to want to do trios), moving groups every 3-4 minutes and moving on to the next text. So "speed torah" in the "speed dating" sense, but without the scorecards to keep track of who you'd like to meet again. Cute. There was also one on social media, which the rabbi had expected to be populated primarily by teenagers. He did get some teens, but mostly us older folks. He did a credible job of adjusting his plans on the fly.

I started a new job a couple weeks ago. It's a good group of people; I'm looking forward to getting past the administrivia and initial-learning phases and doing work that really contributes. My manager (who's not local) spent a day with me here, during which he observed that I needed a better monitor or two (because of vision) and no of course he understands about things like Shabbat and Jewish holidays. (Pro tip: if you observe Shabbat, try to never start a job in Standard Time -- let them see that you're good before you start disappearing early on Fridays. But we were talking about Shavuot and why I needed to take a day off so soon after starting.) This week I got email from him: the 24" monitor I wanted (key features: 16:10 aspect ratio, can rotate) wasn't available, so would I accept the same monitor in 30"? Yeah, that should work... (Getting one now, and after checking it out we'll decide what to do about the second one.)

I recently read the first two of Rick Cook's "Wiz" books (Wizard's Bane and Wizardry Compiled). They're great fun, even if they feel a little like geek-flavored "Mary Sue". A programmer from our world is whisked away into a world that has magic -- for reasons unknown, and the guy who summoned him is now dead. While there he figures out that magic spells can be implemented in a way akin to programming; he doesn't understand magic, but he understands programming. So... The books have some nods to programmers that others might not pick up on, but they don't seem like they'd get in the way for those who aren't. They're quick reads, and I was looking forward to continuing on with the third one, until... brick wall! Baen published the first two as ebooks and has published the rest as ebooks but not currently, and they're not to be found in ebook format now as best I can tell. (If you know otherwise, please help.) I don't expect free (I happily paid for one of these); I do want to read them on my Kindle -- because yes I read paper books and ebooks, but I'm finicky about keeping sets together. (I don't even like mixing hardbacks and paperbacks in a series because it messes up the shelving.) There's not even an explanation on Baen's site; just "not currently available" where the "buy" button should be. Drat.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I have published authors among my readers; can any of you answer this question about how publishers view prior self-publishing? If you self-publish on Amazon and then later seek a conventional publication contract, are you out of luck because of the prior publication? (If you can provide a supported answer, rather than speculation, I encourage you to do it there. And if you do it in the next few days you might pick up a bounty, if you care about Stack Exchange reputation.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dear Brain Trust,

Some years ago, manufacturers of computer monitors (and TVs, which have a lot in common with monitors) decided that the most-critical use case now is watching widescreen movies. The result is that a monitor in landscape orientation is too short, and (for me, with larger fonts) one in portrait orientation is too narrow. At home I've still got a monitor with the classic aspect ratio, but it's only 20" (would like a little bigger, but the same aspect ratio). At work I have two of the other kind (22"? 24"? haven't measured, but something like that).

Arguably I have enough screen real-estate, but it's the wrong shape. Before I just give up and order a mucking huge single monitor (a coworker has one that's about three feet wide, so I guess nominally a 42" monitor or so), does anybody know whether it's still possible to get the classic aspect ratio? I want to look at code, documentation, web pages, and stuff like that, not movies. I watch movies on my actual TV, thankyouverymuch.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The first mishna in Rosh Hashana talks about the four different new years (kings, tithes, years, and trees). Thirteen pages later the g'maa begins the discussion of the last of these. The mishna says that the new year for trees is 1 Shevat according to Beit Shammai but 15 Shevat according to Beit Hillel. This is one of many disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, which sets the stage for the following g'mara. Note that Beit Hillel isn't always more lenient than Beit Shammai; sometimes they are lenient about different things. There are cases where Beit Hillel is more stringent on a point than Beit Shammai.

The g'mara relates a story of Rabbi Akiva following stricter interpretations from both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The g'mara then challenges this: is it right to adopt the harder rule from each side? If you follow Hillel, follow Hillel for both strict and lenient rulings! And if you follow Shammai, follow Shammai! One who adopts the lenient positions of both is a bad man, while one who adopts the more stringent rulings of both, about him it is said: "but the fool walks in darkness" (Eccl. 2:14). The g'mara then clarifies that R. Akiva was uncertain of how one of them ruled, but that he was in fact following only one of these traditions. (So he was mistaken, not walking in darkness.) (14b)

(There's more to the story than this; the g'mara goes on to discuss other sources R. Akiva might have been following, so maybe it wasn't even Hillel or Shammai to begin with.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
Dani and I went to Washington DC for a few days. (I start a new job next week so vacation time will be limited for a while, hence this timing.) Here are some random notes.

The Smithsonian is big. Really big. Actually it's a bunch of museums. We knew all this, and knew that we'd barely scratch the surface, but knowing it and experiencing it are different. We knew that "museum fatigue" would be a challenge and we figured we'd just cope with it as it happened (instead of trying to carefully orchestrate things). Sometimes the answer was "um, want to see this possibly-interesting half-hour show in the planetarium/Imax theatre?".

The Air & Space Museum was a priority for both of us. On our first visit, after wandering around for an hour or so on our own, we were able to join a guided "highlights" tour. As with the British Museum, this is totally worth it in my book. Yes, we spent more time on the Wright brothers than I would have on my own, but we learned cool stuff that was worth learning. And because the tour was only about an hour and a half long, we could then explore more on our own. (And as you might have picked up, we came back for a second round another day.)

I've read a lot about the space program of the 60s and 70s, watched the documentaries, listened to the music ( :-) ), and was glued to the TV for parts of it. (Yeah, like many others, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.) Even so, even having seen the pictures, I was a little blown away by how small the early capsules were. Standing next to a Mercury capsule was quite educational.

We also made two visits to the National Gallery (and still didn't see most of it). Part of it we dispensed with quickly -- there we were wandering through some rooms when each of us realized that the other doesn't care for impressionists either. Great; let's go see something else. :-)

Having Wikipedia on tap was valuable in the gallery. There were lots of religious paintings with random saints who -- as far as we knew -- weren't part of the scenes being depicted. Being able to look up who those guys were was handy, even if it didn't answer the question of why they were there. Saint Jerome (from, IIRC, the 4th century, but that doesn't stop him from being in all of Jesus's major events) was extremely common, like that guy who insists on getting into all the family photos.

They have a large painting -- seemed like about 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide, or thereabouts -- of Daniel in the lions' den. It made us wonder where such a painting was hung originally. If it were something about Jesus I could imagine it being over (or near) an altar or otherwise in a church, but Daniel and the lions? But would a painting that size have been practical in someone's home in the early 17th century? Where was this painting intended to be hung?

We went to the National Zoo on what turned out to be the hottest and most humid day we were there (oops, but we were expecting rain for the rest of our visit). Very disappointing -- the only big cats I saw were a lioness and two of her cubs (no tigers), the pandas were likewise not in evidence, and the ratio of paths we had to walk down to animals to be seen was high. I understand, of course, that the animals should be given nice enclosures with hiding places and I certainly want the animals to be treated well. I was just disappointed by the resulting experience for us. (On the other hand, the small mammals were quite nifty and some of the apes were interesting to watch -- yes indeedy, tool use is not a problem.)

We noticed that the Spy Museum and the Crime Museum were near each other and thought to do both in one trip. The former was rather disappointing and we didn't go to the latter. I was hoping for more about modern techniques, particularly electronic stuff. I felt like I didn't learn much about surveillance, identifying threats, and such that I didn't already know from watching Burn Notice and Person of Interest. Oh well.

Other places visited:

  • American Indian Museum (brief visit): very interesting restaurant, which was recommended to us.
  • Natural History Museum: I wanted to go into the butterfly habitat but the line was long, no one was around to sell me a ticket, and it was the end of a long day. But we enjoyed some of the other exhibits, particularly the bones.
  • Tour of (some) monuments. The FDR monument (more elaborate than he wanted, we were told) was quite nice. It also had a progression of waterfalls, leading us to identify all other waterfalls we saw (like one at the zoo) as extensions of the FDR monument.
  • Bureau of Engraving: they have a ~45-minute tour where you see how (paper) money is made. You have to get tickets in the morning and then come back later for the tour, which is a bit of a hassle, but we were able to get the last tour of the day so at least that didn't break up the rest of the day. (It's a significant walk from there to anywhere else we wanted to be.)
  • We tried to go to the Museum of Industrial Arts but it turns out it's been closed for a while. Oops.
  • No, we did not try for the White House (requires planning far in advance, and the benefit-to-security-hassle tradeoff seemed unfavorable). I kind of wanted to go to the Capital but that requires tickets via your congressfolks and we probably left that too late too.
We saw two shows, The Magic Flute (which I previously wrote about) and Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which was fun and I hope to write about later.

We are both comfortable with plenty of walking, yet we felt somewhat worn down at times. (Temperature and humidity in the upper 80s probably affected me; I've never been good with wet heat.) The Metro is certainly helpful, but there's still a lot of walking. We needed to be able to mix in some things to do while sitting down, but there didn't seem to be much of that. (We'd tried and failed to get an evening riverboat tour; in retrospect we should have tried for an afternoon one.)

By the way, yes we know lots of people in DC and I'm sorry we missed you all. We were a little gun-shy about trying to add "organize all the social stuff with all the people there" to our list.

 
 
 
 
 
 
So, LJ seems to have rolled out some fugly new design, but I immediately clicked on "go back to old version" and that fixed at least most of it. (I haven't tried my reading page yet, nor posting comments; both of those are things they've broken in the past.) But the text in the form on the "post entry" page is now light gray instead of black, and I can't figure out from the page source what CSS I need to adjust to fix that. Has anybody already solved this? This is barely legible for me. I don't post here as much as I used to, but I still do some, assuming accessibility doesn't drive me out.
 
 
 
 
 
 
We were in DC for a few days and, while there, we went to a performance of The Magic Flute (performed in English, not German) at the Kennedy Center. The performers were excellent, and they obviously had fun "updating" the script here and there. The costumes were very good, as was the sound. The set design was rather unusual; the implementation of their design was excellent, but I'm not sure what I thought of the design.

There was a short (optional) lecture before the show, which I'm very glad we went to. Here we learned some of the historical background for the show; while most operas of the time were written for aristocrats and in Italian, this one was written for a for-profit theatre catering to "just plain folks". It's more accessible and less hoity-toity. I don't know what's original to the script and what was added by this performance, but this had more of the feel of (high-end) street theatre in some ways, including humorous wordplay and some physical comedy. It also has spoken dialogue, so it felt kind of like a modern musical.

The story (very briefly; click the link for more): Tamino is recruited by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil sorceror Sarastro. She sends with him Papageno, a nutty bird-catcher who dresses as a bird and really only cares about wine, women, and song. (Tamino has nobler goals.) It turns out that Sarastro isn't so evil, and he kidnapped Pamina to save her from her (in his opinion) evil mother the queen. (At this point I expected it to turn out that Sarastro was the father, but no.) Tamino (who has fallen in love with Pamina) will be allowed to wed her if he passes certain mystical trials, and Papageno has to play too because he's there -- but ok, if Papageno behaves he'll also be allowed to wed Papagena, who seems a perfect fit for him, solving his "can't get women" problem. Trials happen (with bumps along the way) and there's a happy ending. (Oh, the flute? The queen gives it to Tamino as a magical aid and he uses it to get through some of the trials. Really, for something that makes the title of the show, it's kind of minor.)

Papageno provides a lot of comedic relief and the performer was very good. (It may be harder to do that kind of role well than that of a serious character like Tamino.) Sarastro was also very good as both actor and singer; he struggled a little with the lowest note, but Wikipedia tells me it's an F2, so I can understand that. (Deep bass.) Tamino and Pamina were well-done; I wasn't as impressed with the queen of the night and Papagena (both sopranos).

There were obvious adjustments in both the dialogue and the lyrics; the former is easy to do but the latter would seem to require a little more work. One of Papageno's songs included references to Twitter, and there was a bit of dialogue where somebody tells the three spirits (played by children) that they'll understand something better when they reach adolescence. (There were other changes too, but you get the idea.) I enjoyed these tweaks, though it made me wonder what is actually in the original script to begin with and whether it included hooks for this sort of thing.

The orchestral score was done well and mostly acted as support for what's going on on stage (as opposed to taking center stage itself, which I understand sometimes happens). The score did not strike me as overly complex; it was a good solid score, performed well.

The set design was rather abstract; backgrounds of colored lines and swirls at times, sometimes suggesting a setting (like "night" or "inside a temple") and other times not. There was one point where the background had animated circles/elliptoids moving around to no clear purpose and I found it a little distracting; I don't know what that was meant to be. There was also an opening number (before anybody was on stage) where they had animated lines moving around on a screen for several minutes, which left me wondering why. (It was only once the show proper started that I would realize that this was part of their overall design.) Lighting design (beyond this) was generally pretty good, though the follow-spot operators were sometimes a little off in tracking the leads. (The leads almost always had spots on them, even when the stage was brightly lit. I don't know if that's typical.)

A word about visual aids: This was only my second (live performance of an) opera (excluding Gilbert & Sullivan, if you count that), and the first was a dismal failure because it was in Italian, we were sitting too far back for me to read the supertitles, and having read the plot synopsis in advance hadn't been enough to really follow it. So this time we splurged on the second-best class of tickets (the price point for the best tripped our "you've got to be kidding" alarms). I mean, it's the Kennedy Center; it's likely to be good, and how often are we going to do this? Data point: the second-best class of tickets, which put us four rows back in the first balcony, allowed me to just barely read the supertitles about three-quarters of the time. (So I definitely missed some jokes, including, I later learned, a Twitter hashtag.) And this opera was in English, so I had extra input. (Operatic sopranos and children are a loss; I can't understand what they're singing regardless of language. The male leads were better, and there was a good alto mezzo-soprano.) So, it looks like it's only viable for me to go to an opera if we get seats up close; I doubt I'll bother again.

 
 
 
 
 
 
On Shabbat we had a visitor from Kibbutz Lotan (in the Negev desert in Israel). Their focus is on environmental issues -- sustainable development etc. I was there several years ago as part of a tour and they're doing some pretty cool stuff with agriculture, building construction, and even composting toilets (which I'd not heard of before then). After morning services he led a text study on the first two chapters of Genesis (naturally, focusing on the theme of sustainability).

There are lots of differences between the two tellings of the creation story -- chapter one is more "macro", the orders of some events are different, how Chava (Eve) gets created is very different, and more. Those weren't the focus. Here are some things I noticed (in no particular order and certainly not complete, as I wasn't taking notes).

In the first chapter Adam (who is "male and female", so both of them) is told to rule or dominate the earth. The verb here is radah; this is different from kingship (malakh). Radah seems to be a stern sort of rule (see here for more). In the second chapter, on the other hand, Adam is told to work (sometimes translated "tend") and keep (or "guard") the garden, which sounds way more custodial. The word translated "work" is 'avad (like in "avodah"), and the second word is the familiar shamor (like guarding Shabbat).

This might not be what our environmentalist visitor intended, but it seems to me that radah could be used to justify an attitude of "the world is here for us to use as we see fit". The language used in the second chapter, however, suggests an actual duty to the earth. Both approaches are supported in Genesis. (I've heard people make the chapter-2 argument, but I've not heard the chapter-1 one on the other side. Nor am I myself arguing that either is superior; I'm just observing.)

One of our high-school students made an observation that surprised many people in the room: she pointed out that the latter instructions apply to the garden. It doesn't say to work and guard the earth. So, she asked, did this apply only in Gan Eden, and once they were kicked out it's not in play any more? I wonder if there's rabbinic commentary on this, but I haven't looked yet. (Certainly sometimes the rabbis understand a specific directive to be more general; what I'd like to know is whether this is one such case.)

I noticed something I hadn't picked up on before in the second chapter: there is absolutely no utilitarian purpose in play. Adam and Chava have access to the Tree of Life; they don't need to do anything to the garden in order to be able to eat. So the command is a command for its own sake, not a "work and guard it so you can eat". Once they're expelled, on the other hand, they're told they'll have to work the land if they want to eat.

Overall, it was an interesting discussion. He was originally going to talk about his kibbutz and so I wasn't going to go (I've heard a lot of that already), so I'm glad he changed topics.

 
 
 
 
 
 
As we know, on Shabbat and festivals we can't carry things through the public domain without making an eiruv (a containing boundary, essentially). A mishna on today's daf teaches: if one has his produce in another town (close enough for this to work), then if the people in that town make an eiruv to include him so that they can come visit him, they can't bring his produce with them, because the produce has the same restrictions as its owner. If, however, the owner makes an eiruv, he can then go and fetch his produce. The mishna also teaches: if one invites guests to his home, they may not take away any portions unless the host had designated those portions for those guests in advance. (39b-40a)

The g'mara does not explain why, if he makes the eiruv, they can't bring him his produce.

I do not know, and the g'mara here does not address, how this designation for guests works: does the host have to designate specific portions for specific guests, or can he make a blanket "guests are allowed to take leftovers home" declaration?

 
 
 
 
 
 
I enjoyed this day-long bus tour. Our first stop was Oxford, where the university is made up of 32 individual colleges. Our guide told us that students apply to Oxford and are assigned to colleges, though I think applicants can indicate preferences. Many lectures are open to the entire university, and according to our guide you can study most subjects at most colleges -- it's not like there's a math college and a fine-arts college and so on. Anyway, he took us to one of them, Christchurch.

The dining hall may look somewhat familiar to some of you:

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A coworker pointed out to me that if we were going to London anyway, we might consider a day-trip to Paris. I hadn't realized that it was only about a two-hour train ride. So we did that.

We booked a tour package that started/ended in London, so they arranged train tickets and the local guide. That was absolutely the right thing for us beginners to do -- and I would not do it again. Lesson learned: book our own train tickets (and get to choose the times and the seats) and either find a local tour or use the on-and-off tour-bus loop. This worked ok, but I would have allocated the time differently.

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I'm having some trouble with Picasa tonight, so the other two albums (Paris and Oxford/Warwick) will have to wait, but meanwhile, a few pictures from our trip to London in January:
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R. Natan b. Abba taught in the name of Rav: the rich men of Babylon will go down to Gehenna, for once Shabtai b. Marinus came to Babylon and implored them to provide him with a place for trading and they refused; further, they did not give him any food. He said: these are the descendants of the mixed multitude (that left Mitrayim with Israel), for it is written: "he will show you mercy and have compassion on you...as he has sworn unto your fathers" (Deut 13:18). This teaches that whoever is merciful to his fellow man is a descendant of Avraham (because it says "unto your fathers"), and whoever is not merciful certainly does not have Avraham as an ancestor (father). (32b)

The implication that if you're merciful to others then God will be merciful to you is not clear from the cited passage, though we get this idea elsewhere. It's also not clear how Rav's causality runs: is it that they are unmerciful, thus won't receive mercy, thus must not be descendants of Avraham, or is it that they are not descendants of Avraham and therefore aren't merciful (and thus won't receive mercy)? I think it's the former, though the torah never actually says that "not Avraham = no mercy" -- just that "Avraham = mercy".

 
 
 
 
 
 
A tangent in the g'mara: a tanna taught in the name of R. Meir: why was the torah given to Israel? Because they are impetuous (and thus needed its discipline). The school of R. Yishmael taught: "at his right hand was a fiery law unto them" (Deut 33:2), meaning: the Holy One, blessed be He, said: these are worthy to be given the fiery law. Some say: the laws of these are like fier, for had not the law been given to Israel, no nation could withstand it. R. Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) said: there are three distinguished in strength: Israel among the nations, the dog among animals, and the cock among birds. Some add: also the goat among small cattle, and also the caper-bush among shrubs. (25b)

(I had to look up that last one. A caper-bush apparently grows very quickly.)