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Jun. 22nd, 2016 @ 01:09 pm Rafi Zarum: Defecation and the Divine
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Traditional Jewish prayer for after going to the toilet

So if you don't already know, the most interesting thing about it is that there IS one. It talks about how we're grateful for the orifices and sphincters because we couldn't live without it.

Lots of people have an instinct that it's not really appropriate to mix defecation and prayer. And there's some of that in Judaism, eg. you're not supposed to pray on a toilet. But a big part of his talk was quoting bits of talmud about toilets, to illustrate, there's nothing _bad_ about it, it's like things like sex (and maybe surgery?) which are great and good topics for prayer, even if you're not supposed to mix the two.

Although he never explicitly SAID that distinction. I think it might have been helpful if he had, rather than just giving pro-toilet examples without explaining the distinction explicitly. (I got a lot of this from hatam_soferet's comments on liv's post.)

The overall thesis

I felt like I was missing background here, like there was some cultural disconnect. His overall thesis was related to the fact the prayer refers to god as roughly "throne of glory" and also (?) uses "throne" in reference to the toilet. And there's most probably SOME connection implied there.

But he seemed to imply it was more than that. Which seemed very odd, like, the rest of the talk made the point that it was ok to pray about bodily functions as much as anything else. But (I don't know, but I got the impression that?) it's really shocking to imply God might do _anything_ physical, even eat -- and I didn't get the impression that defection was so much MORE holy it was ok to talk about God doing it.

But I was clearly missing something, like he didn't EXPECT to prove that thesis. He just wanted to advance it. And I guess that's partly him, and partly a tradition of commentary? After all, most talks don't have a thesis they even pretend to prove. But partly, I'm frustrated because if someone SAYS they're going to prove something, I'm not used to the idea I'm not supposed to believe them.

And partly I'm frustrated because I'm really interested in this sort of cross-cultural meta-conventions about study and prayer, but people rarely *talk* about them, even though it might be something Rafi could do very well.


In fact, I get the impression he's rushed off his feet delivering these popular talmud sessions. He always encourages people to participate with ideas and interpretations (less so this time, but more in other sessions I've been in), how you're supposed to when studying something. But a few things made me realise he maybe usually lacks time or preparation to really *engage* with any of those comments, except by plowing ahead with his thesis. So he's still a really good popular educator, but I'm sometimes left not sure what I'm missing.

R. Akiva follows R. Yehoshua into a bathroom and spies on him

He followed with half a dozen pieces of Talmud which supported his thesis in some way, but really, one of the most interesting aspect of the talk is just seeing them in their own right.

R. Akiva: Once I followed my teacher R Yehoshua into a bathroom and watched what he did, so I would know the most appropriate way to go to the bathroom.
Ben Azai: And "not spying on people" you didn't think you could figure out for yourself?
R. Akiva: How to go to the bathroom is part of the teachings (oral Torah?), I had to learn it!
R: Kahana: It's funny you should say that, because I hid under your bed and listened to you with your wife. You chatted and giggled like new lovers. I had to learn how to behave in the bedroom, it was part of the teachings.
R. Akiva: *with a straight face* That was highly inappropriate.

It's also followed by a passage where rabbis argue why you should wipe with the left hand. Because you eat with the right. Because you wrap tefillin with the right. Etc. I'm not sure if any of them end with the obvious answer "all of the above".

The dangers of learning from Joshua the Nazarene

Liv linked to a partial translation here: https://www.ou.org/life/torah/masechet_shevuot_13a19b/

R. Eliezer was accosted by a follower of Jesus (or, so we guess), commonly supposed to be James (?). He proposed a point of teaching, which is implicitly not traditionally correct, but R. Eliezer was amused/moved by the argument, and even though he didn't respond, came under suspicion of following the teachings of Christianity, which was illegal at the time, and temporarily arrested by the Roman authorities.

What's fascinating is that it's one of the few (possible?) mentions of Jesus in the Talmud. And it gives me dissonance, in that I know much Talmud was written down about the same time as Jesus, but they don't easily go together in my head. R. Eliezer stars in such stories as the oven of achnai, where he pursues an academic argument by making increasingly impossible miracles, culminating in being outvoted shortly after God speaks from the sky to endorse him personally. And is exiled, and loses it, and gazes on the crops and sea, which are ruined wherever he looks. It's like the time of myths. But then there's other stories like this one where he bustles around early-AD middle east going to market, administrating universities, arguing with political authorities, etc. (Right?)

And the particular point in question was, it was forbidden to use money from exploitation and vice[1] as donation to the temple (subject to a lot of details). The disciple asked if it was appropriate to use it for the high priest's privy, that already being full of uncleanliness in some sense. And this gives a very strange view of how jewish leaders at the time might have viewed christianity at the time (or the temple for that matter). Eliezer is inconvenienced by being associated with Christianity, but he doesn't recoil shouting "blashphemer, blasphemer". And the christian disciple is more persecuted, but not so much he can't stop in the middle of the market to buttonhole rabbis and have theological arguments.

It seems likely this is an implicit criticism or mocking of Jesus' followers' beliefs of the time SOMEHOW but I don't know the context to say how. I don't know if that's something Jesus' followers WOULD have had an opinion on, or if it's supposed to discredit them.

[1] The translation is fee from a prostitute, but I prefer to read that as the bad thing being betrayal of vows, exploitation, or whatever, rather than prostitution per se, anyone able to add details?

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Jun. 21st, 2016 @ 01:06 pm Cambridge Limmud
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On Sunday, Liv and I, ghoti and cjwatson, and youngest and middle child attended cambridge limmud, a one-day Jewish conference. At some point, I got lucky or got better at judging which talks would actually be interesting to me, and went to several talks I'm really glad I got to see.

And maybe because I've started carrying caffeine pills, which I resolutely do not use day-to-day, but I find really useful if I'm at an all day event, or in a foreign city, and even if there is tea/coffee readily available, it may be inconvenient to actually get hold of it.

The limmud makes a big effort to have an actual children's program, with things that are exciting to go to and several of the same speakers as the adult program, and not just be somewhere to leave children. Middle child loves people and really loved it -- hummus making, drumming, puppet show, a little bit of the aleph-bet etc. Youngest child finds it quite difficult to meet new people, he said "i don't always like adults", and I sympathised a lot. But we were allowed to sit with him, and after a couple of sessions of wanting ghoti, I was really impressed he joined in a lot of things. He was always good at cooking (I am in awe, I'm only now really learning any cooking) and also colouring, and talking to people. And said he was looking forward to next year!

The organisation was pretty good. There were a few problems, but none really evident to me. It was a bit smaller than the previous one, but they managed to get the popular speakers into the big rooms so there was no-one turned away, which had sometimes been a problem. Lunch is always tricky to arrange, but was handled fairly well.

Talks I went to:

Calne - a famous transplant surgeon (?) who talked about the ratchet of science, how science always gets more, not less, and we have an obligation not to build dangerous things with it. With a smattering of interesting history and philosophy. I kept expecting him to make some overall philosophical argument, but I never really heard it.

Freedman - expert on Middle East problems. Mostly conflicts between other countries, not Israel. It was mostly about "why it's so difficult", but to felt optimistic in that it was at least talking about how things could improve, even if it was hard to ever achieve.

Rita Rudner -- light anecdotes about her life story and life in hollywood

Rafi Zarum - talmud study for non-experts, he does this a lot and is a really good speaker. This was on the prayer for after going to the toilet. Pending a post about it.

Boyarin -- a real scholar, always talking about something that doesn't really exist at all yet, usually to be future published in a book, he was the one I was most excited about. But I correctly predicted it would be full of digressions on the bits he was working on this month, and hedged around with detailed justifications of dating of texts etc some people will find controversial but I'd be happy to take his word for, and generally I didn't have enough background to understand. So I sent liv and cjwatson to listen, and went to Freedman instead, and made them promise to explain it to me at length afterwards which worked pretty well. May be a future post coming.

Levine -- talking about how what some of Jesus' parables might have been interpreted by people belonging to jewish tradition at the time. I love that sort of thing, and she apparently published an annotated NT in addition to some other books, which we should maybe seek out. And she was a hilarious and effective speaker. However, I had some reservations about the actual examples she used, I didn't get any good idea what they might have meant other than "not what Luke said", and when they're only known via Luke, you can only go so far in expecting Luke to have preserved a clarity of meaning different to the one he said they meant. May be a future post coming.

Also see liv and ghoti's write up:

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Jun. 15th, 2016 @ 11:02 am Endless Hell and SMS
There's a story. I can't remember where I saw it (slatestarcodex?) It was really creepy. It described someone in hell, and he/she/they were walking across an endless desert, getting thirstier and thirstier, never relieved, never dying. And after an endless aeon, the devil came to them, and offered them a different hell. And he/she wouldn't tell them anything about the alternative, but they thought "anything but this".

And inevitably, the alternative was infinitely worse, and they suffered for another aeon, all the time thinking this was worse than anything and they wished they'd stayed in the desert. All the time blaming themself, and feeling they brought it on themselves. And then the devil came to them again, and offered them the choice to be put into a different hell. And they thought "I know it was a mistake, but anything at all is better than THIS".

And of course they were wrong, and the suffering was even worse, and they wished they could go back to the second hell. And this pattern repeated every aeon for eternity, getting ever worse and ever more self-blaming.

So anyway, it turns out, when I get an SMS, now google hangouts says, "would you like to install google's SMS messaging app?" and I say "surely it's more convenient than hangouts?"

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Jun. 7th, 2016 @ 12:28 pm Recent media
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Caped anthology

A collection of superhero short stories. Not a must-read, but I found all were a good read in a different way.

Archivist Wasp, book

Which was on the wiki of "potential hugo nominations" with a great title. I loved the basic setting, a post-apocalyptic world, where the protagonist is honoured/trapped as the archivist, ghost-hunter, forced each year by the priest to fight to the death to keep her role as intermediate to the supernatural. Straining to keep the community safe from dangerous ghosts, and to record what scraps of information she can, to add to the archives for future archivists.

Then she meets a pre-apocalypse (or contemporary-with-apocalypse) ghost, much stronger than any other, and they flee together, passing through the ghost underworld, and... Well, I liked the start but got bored, so I didn't finish it.

Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

I loved the premise here, all about life in a mostly-post-uplift solar system. The inner planets are ruled by some of the cabal who were uplifted first, now effectively Gods. The Oubliette is one of the few havens for non-uplifted, but ruled by a massive shared exo-memory, people share or refuse permissions from. Other humans live in the Oort cloud. Jean Le Flambeur is an anti-hero thief, with unspecified ties to the "gods", broken out of a virtual prison to recover... something from Oubliette.

When I first read it, I completely bounced off it. On second reading, all that mostly made sense to me, and I was really interested in it. But I wasn't sure how consistent it could be, if it would be kept up for the following books or not. I will probably try them at some point.

And it constantly felt like they waved "quantum" around as magic, and I'm not sure, if my understanding is lacking, or the book's is.

Better Call Saul

The prequel series to Breaking Bad, about Jimmy McGill (later aka Saul Goodman), an ex-huckster small-time lawyer trying to make good, and torn between his impulses to "be basically decent", "screw everything up" and "open his mouth at the wrong time". From the reviews it sounded like I would enjoy it more than BB, and I quite enjoyed the first half-a-dozen episodes, but then I mostly lost interest.

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 01:02 pm Saturday morning watchmen

The fictional saturday morning cartoon version of Watchmen was really funny. But it also looked pretty fun. Like actually, maybe a lot of what people responded to in watchmen was the characters, the worldbuilding... things which were good but separate from the "real life superheros would suck" message, and could be incorporated into an annoyingly-up show just as easily as an annoyingly-down show.

Just like you have Batman appearing in heroic, campy, and grimdark versions.

And in some ways, it's making the same parody about how the low collateral damage of of superhero fights used to be unrealistically low, but showing them EVER LOWER, rather than VERY HIGH :)

But also, given how relentless grimdark has become since, "happy watchmen" might be almost as subversive now as the original was :)

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 12:57 pm Uninitialised variable
In C and C++, you should avoid using an uninitialised variable for several reasons, not least of which, it's undefined behaviour (?) But in practice, what are the relative likelihoods of the (I think?) permitted outcomes:

(a) it being treated as some unknown value
(b) the following code being deleted by the compiler
(c) something even weirder happening?

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 12:45 pm Compile to C
Why don't more languages compile to C?

It seems like, you can use your own memory manager etc if you want, and any specifics you want to optimise you can write a specific optimiser for, but even if it's a mess of pre-optimised assembly-in-C and higher-level-C, there's already a C compiler for most target systems, which produces reasonable machine code.

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Jun. 4th, 2016 @ 10:52 am McAfee
"Sorry to see you go. We'd love to hear your reasons."


(1) You have bugged me every ten minutes since the free trial expired to upgrade to the paid version. On windows 10, that makes an annoying "BOOONG" sound. Now I hate you with a firey passion and want to see all your works laid bare and low.

(1a) I clicked "Because there were too many notifications" SEVERAL times, but apparently there is only an option to toggle it on or off, the checkbox does not have a ternary option for "very" to express my EXTREME EMPHASIS in this matter.

(2) No, I did not already BUY other security software. I already have other security software FOR FREE because your program came pre-installed in windows 8+. In general, I feel the collation of more and more functionality into the operating system, while convenient, may stifle competition in a fashion long-term undesirable. But in this case, your entire business model being crushed by the microsoft juggernaut fills my heart with a warm glow of karmic satisfaction.

There, now. Do you feel more satisfied?

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Jun. 1st, 2016 @ 11:58 am Kevin Bacon Number
I googled to find the website that calculates kevin bacon numbers from IMBD. I googled for "kevin bacon number". Above the top hits, Google gave the answer "Kevin Smith's Bacon Number is 2". Yes, full marks for initiative, but, you know, minus several million for context awareness.

But what I wanted to know was, what counts as film for kevin bacon counting? A feature film? Anything released at a cinema? Anything released at a film festival? Anything on IMDB?

Several years ago, a friend of the family, an aspiring film-maker, made a short documentary film about my brother-in-law. I think it showed at some festival and mostly disappeared after that. But we all featured in it, as did the director in a voice-over (I think?) And at some point since, it appeared on IMDB.

If that counts, she has a bacon number of 3, giving my BiL and I a bacon number of 4, fulfilling a minor life ambition. My competitive brain latches onto anything quantifiable as something to achieve :)

But I really, really want to contribute to a scientific paper at some point in my life :)

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May. 31st, 2016 @ 04:22 pm Recent books and films
Good Dinosaur, Pixar Film

An alternate history where dinosaurs became farmers and ranchers and mammals mostly didn't. Arlo, a young apatosaurus is separated from his family farm, and journeys to find it again.

It was really beautiful. The water animation was amazing, it looked really wet. And the characters were very evocative, especially the little boy Spot.

I didn't really fall in love with it the way I have with most Pixar films. I'm not sure if that's because it's aimed at slightly younger people (though some bits are pretty scary), or because there's less to the overall story, or because I've got more jaded. Liv and the Osos enjoyed it.

It was very strange to see the humans apparently lacking language. The visual communication was really good, especially with Spot, but also with the other humans, and other dinosaur characters. But it's very strange to see a child portrayed like a dog, even a very beloved dog.

Tropic of Serpents, book by Marie Brenan

Sequel to Natural History of Dragons.

The future lady Trent this time journeys to alternate-world Africa (I think?) to study swamp dragons. In several ways, I enjoyed it more than the first one. With Isabella already established with a patron and a vocation to study dragons, we move straight to the difficulties of arranging the voyage and what happens there, with less agonising over whether she will do that at all.

Writing about colonial powers, even in an alternate world, is a very risky choice. The book does a good job of characterising the people she meets as people: the Moulish, sparsely populated in their deadly swamp, nestled between the newly expansionist Ikwunde, and Bayembe, forced to flirt between accepting alt-British help and joining the rapidly congealing Talu union. And not just presenting them as interchangeable non-English background. But none of the characters of any nationality have very memorable personality, her patron is almost the only character I can imagine vividly. And I can't pretend to know how the book would be received by someone who'd actually lived in a country visited by colonialism.

This is a mild spoiler, but I really expect everyone to know or not be going to read it by not, and I think in many ways it's as or more interesting if you haven't read the books. Read more...Collapse )

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