Friday, October 21, 2016

Worth the Wait - What happens when you plant a 2000 year old seed

We're in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot, where we'll shake the Lulav and Etrog daily. The Lulav, which consists of a bundle of branches from 3 different species is hardly lacking for symbolism. But here's a new (to me) story relating to the palm frond that that's included in the Lulav:

During excavations at the site of Herod the Great's palace in Israel in the early 1960's, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years. For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.

"I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong.

Amazingly, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout -- producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries, becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.

That's right, ancient seeds are discovered and promptly stored in a drawer. The tree grown from the ancient seeds is known as Methuselah.

It's been about 10 years since Methuselah was planted, and he's now able to reproduce:

"He is a big boy now. He is over three meters [ten feet] tall, he's got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good," Solowey says. "We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates."

Making dates...Mazel tov!

Interestingly, Methuselah's genetic makeup backs up the midrash about the origin of date palms in Israel:

Methuselah is a Judean date palm, a variety that was wiped out sometime in the 6th century, making the lonely male long the only one of its kind. Genetic testing reveal that Methuselah is closely related to an ancient variety of date palm from Egypt called Hayany – which corresponds with the legend indicating that dates came to Israel with the Exodus, Solowey says.

"It is pretty clear that Methuselah is a western date from North Africa rather than from Iraq, Iran, Babylon," she tells National Geographic. "You can't confirm a legend, of course."

So what does this have to do with Sukkot? As I've written about before, it's hard not to see our own mortality in the Lulav and Etrog. These object start off as fresh and brimming with life, and in just a few days dwindle to a shadow of their greatness. It's a humble reminder of where we are all headed.

Methuselah reminds us that this simple arc of life can be upended. Methuselah came from the seeds found in Masada, spent nearly 2000 years just waiting for an opportunity to grow, and then grew out of the most unlikely circumstances. Looking at the palm frond in the Lulav bundle, I can't help but think of Methuselah and remember to never count out the audacity of life. L'Chaim!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dawn and Grant Get Hitched

A huge Mazel Tov to our friends Grant and Dawn on their marriage! What an amazing weekend of festivities. From the signature drink, to delicious meals, to the great friends, to the dancing all night, to the neatly packaged hangover recovery kits provided in the goody bags - you guys nailed it all! (And by guys, I mean Dawn. Grant you rock, too, just not in a pinteresty way. Yet.)

Perhaps a small part of me wanted some emergency to pop-up, but alas, it never happened. Instead, it was just good times all around.

Oh, and you definitely set the bar high: if the ceremony doesn't include swords, why bother?

Here's to many happy adventures together!

P.S.: Welcome to the Navy Air Force!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wedding Survival Kit 2.0, Powering the more prepared bride and groom

Weddings. Who doesn't like to contribute to the festivities? If you've got a magnificent voice, you'd want to sing for the newlyweds. A brilliant artisan? Perhaps you'd lend your skills to create unique (and pinterest worthy!) table centerpieces. If you're that guy, you'd plan the ultimate bachelor party weekend. I've got none of those gifts, but that didn't stop me from doing my small part for a friend's wedding. My contribution: the wedding day survival kit.

Given my fondness for being prepared, and having created one in the past, I felt like this challenge was right up my alley.

Step one: research. Poking around on the web I compiled a list of well over 50 items that could go in a kit designed to help with any emergency on the big day. There's no shortage of good ideas on the web. Which brought me to step two: figure out how big this kit is going to be.

If I wasn't careful I was going to hand the bride and groom a duffle bag full of stuff, which would no doubt sit gathering dust in a hotel room somewhere. No, I decided that the wedding planner and photographer would have their own bags of goodies ready to deal with common emergencies and that my contribution should be pocket sized. I went the classic route and used a pair of Altoids tins as the containers. They're nice and pocketable, yet still hold valuable essentials.

Here's the primary kit:

I made heavy use of straw containers, as they're neat and tidy and don't take up a whole lot of space.

While some of the items are obvious (thread, needles, pocket knife, Advil, safety pins, etc.), others are less so. The container makes use of a clamp made out of white duct tape. I've found reports of people using white duct tape to repair wedding dresses and such.

The gray and purple circles are silicone wedding rings, often marketed to cross-fitters. They're provided as backup wedding rings should the unthinkable happen and the real ones are misplaced.

The item marked 'chalk' is a section of plain white chalk, which again, the internet tells me is useful for quickly fixing stains on a white wedding dress. Hopefully a hack we won't need to try.

Floss is provided because floss is awesome. It can be used for anything from white thread, to hepling to cut cakes. Oh, and it can actually be used as floss, if need be. (Insert joke about joke about breaking out of prison here).

The candle is a lavender scented tea candle. When combined with the matches, it turns any space into a sea of tranquility.

Nestled in with the safety pins, needles and buttons are two extra earring backs. Again, this was an internet inspired suggestion.

Not shown, but included in the kit is a dose of Pepto Bismol, which should help with any tummy discomfort on the big day.

I was pleased with how neatly all the items fit in the kit, allowing it to close without any difficulty. It's one thing to deliver a pocket kit, it's another to deliver a kit that you can actually use and repack with ease.

Finally, if all of the above fails, I've provided a secondary emergency kit:

Yes, that's two packets of peanut butter and honey shoved into an Altoids-sized case. And yes, I believe all problems can be solved with peanut butter.

I hope the happy couple will have no need for my little contribution on the big day. Instead, they can look at is as a reminder of the road ahead: while things won't always go as planned, with a little preparation and improvisation, you can weather any storm. Oh, and peanut butter fixes everything.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Turtles at Sunset

Yesterday I had an awesome run with friend and long time running partner, Elizabeth. We managed to catch the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial shortly after sunset. We had the place to ourselves and as strolled through it, admiring the amazing work of the memorial designers and creators. It's so well done and definitely one of the most powerful memorials in the DC area.

After the run we hit dinner at Cantina Mexicana, not exactly our usual Mexican restaurant of choice, but one that definitely exceeded expectations.

Last time I ran with Elizabeth we caught a sunrise so it seems appropriate we should catch the sunset this time. Not sure how we'll top all of this at our next run, but I'm looking forward to trying.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Outdoorsy Hack: Measure distance using your thumb

I know the old hand trick for measuring how much daylight is remaining, and I know how a string of beads can be used to measure distance. But this is a new one for me: Estimating distance with your thumb:

Estimating distance by using only your finger is based on this known fact about human anatomy: Your arm is about ten times longer than the distance between your eyes.

The distance between your eyes is about 2” apart and the distance from your eye to your extended finger is about 20” apart. How can this be useful for estimating distance?

Read the instructions in detail here, but the quick and dirty version is as follows:

  1. Hold up your, thumb up, elbow locked open
  2. Close one eye
  3. Note where your thumb is placed
  4. Switch which eye is open
  5. Estimate how far your thumb has jumped in feet
  6. Multiply this value by 10
  7. That's the rough distance the object away is in feet

Step (5) is the dicey one. The article suggests picking an object in the distance that has a known size (such as a building you're pretty sure is 100' wide) and then estimating how many of those objects fit within distance your thumbs jump.

This all works because your eyes are in two different locations:

When you hold out your thumb and view it with one eye open, then with the other eye open, your finger seems to shift relative to the object background. This makes it appear that the object has “moved” from side. This phenomenon is known as parallax. The parallax of a distant object is the angle between its directions of view from the two ends of a baseline.

Math to the rescue!

Incidentally, the same approach is used to determine how far (some) stars are away from our planet.

Can't wait to give this a try.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Hiking Billy Goat Trail with Actual Billy Goats

OK, technically they aren't billy goats, they're our friend's teenage kids. However, given how they flew down the trail, they might as well have been.

Shira and I were psyched to lay down a challenging hike for the kids day off from school and figured Billy Goat Section A would do the trick. While the hike was outstanding, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it, it was hardly a challenge for them. At one point I was gingerly making my way along the knife edge of a bolder, only to look up and see the three kids leisurely walking along the same knife edge. It was truly amazing.

They did give pause at the trail's notorious 50 foot traverse. However, after a few moments of disbelief (we're really going up there?!), they were climbing away without a care in the world.

Great Falls was truly breathtaking, with views of the Potomac that seemed to belong in a far off exotic location. It's hard to believe they're just a 35 minute drive from DC.

We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day to hike. It was a bit chilly in the morning, but at 8am we had the entire trail (not to mention the parking lot) to ourselves.

After hiking the trail we hit Bangkok 54 for a recovery lunch. So tasty. It was the perfect way to end the perfect hike.

Next up, it's time to drag these kids to Old Rag Mountain. Now that should be a challenge.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Gotcha of the Day: Generating formatted output from a Berkeley DB file

I was debugging a problem with virtual users in vsftpd and narrowed down my issue to this: how do I convert the Berkeley DB file filled usernames and passwords into plain text?

I saw that there was a script lying around that used db_load to add users to the virtual file. When I typed db_ and hit TAB I saw various options, the most promising of which was db_dump. However typing:

  db_dump /etc/vsftpd/vusers.db

spit out gibberish. What I wanted was a nicely formatted output.

Reading the docs I learned that db_dump -p ... will dump the database in printable form rather than hex. Running db_dump -p generated the following:


Closer, but still not quite the format I was after. Time to bust out sed and awk. Here's a command line I conjured up:

db_dump -p /etc/vsftpd/vusers.db | \
 grep '^ ' | \
 awk 'BEGIN { line=1 ; } \
     { printf "%s", $0;  \
       if(line % 2 == 0) { printf "\n"; } \
       else { printf "\t"; }; \
       line++ }' | \
 sed 's/^ //'

The output is now:

bob   XvLtPKE69eAR2Glc
alice TXpZxXNjoyKfhzWG

Where the columns are separated by tabs.

Mission accomplished.

Improvised Fisherman's Eggs

So far, life without a kitchen isn't proving to be especially difficult. Today's breakfast: Fisherman's Eggs in an improvised ramekin. Yum!

Here's the recipe (shamelessly lifted from thingsmybellylikes):

  • 125g can sardines
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsps fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 1/4 small, white onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  1. Preheat oven to 375, place an ovenproof dish inside while you assemble the ingredients.
  2. Flake the sardines together with the parsley, garlic and onion. Season generously with black pepper and tip into the heated ovenproof dish. Put in oven for five minutes.
  3. Gently crack the eggs into a bowl. Remove the sardines from the oven and carefully pour the eggs on top. Season generously and return to oven for 15 minutes until the eggs are cooked but jiggly.
  4. Let sit for a few minutes before serving so they congeal further.

Actually, the only appliance I'm really missing is the dishwasher. And even that I'm slowly, but surely, adapting to life without.

I'm pretty convinced that by the time our kitchen is done being built, I won't need one. Shira assures me this will not be the case.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Exploring Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve

While I continue to rest a sore tendon, I dragged Shira to Bell Haven Marina for a bit of kayaking. Specifically, we explored Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, which has an impressive bird population among other features.

From what I can tell, we saw quite a few Great Egrets, a good sign considering they were once relatively scarce. The problem? Their feathers became fashionable. This 1898 profile of an Egret hunter makes for fascinating reading. At the time, the sale of feathers to hat makers earned the hunter around $80,000 in today's dollars. We're quick to scoff at tribes that may hunt rhinos for just their horns, or fisherman who kill sharks for their fins, but apparently not too long ago we were fine with wiping out a bird species all for a snappy looking hat.

Regardless, the preserve is definitely a treasure. I really need to return with my telephoto lens and a few hours of free time to make the most of it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

A Talmudic Take on Hello My Name Is Frank

Over the weekend I managed to watch Hello My Name Is Frank, a movie that I surely would have never seen had it not been on Amazon Prime. The movie follows Frank, a middle aged man with Tourette Syndrome, as he goes on a road trip with 3 recent high school graduates. Yes, the movie is a predictable road trip / coming of age movie, but even still, I found that I really enjoyed it.

There's no denying that when I first saw Frank on screen I saw little more than disability. No doubt this is exactly the reaction the director was shooting for. By the end of the film, again as designed, I couldn't help but see Frank as an affable and smart guy. His ticks, both verbal and physical, began to recede and you could see the person behind them. It all reminded me of a conversation I'd had a few months back.

In shul the Torah reading had included chapter 21 of Leviticus which outlines various 'defects' that disqualify a priest from service:

17. Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God's food.
18.For any man who has a defect should not approach: A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs;
19. or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;
20. or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles
21. Any man among Aaron the kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up the Lord's fire offerings. There is a defect in him; he shall not draw near to offer up his God's food.
22. His God's food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat.
23. But he shall not come to the dividing curtain, nor shall he draw near to the altar, for he has a defect, and he shall not desecrate My holy things, for I am the Lord Who sanctifies them.

The implication is uncomfortable to the say the least. Put bluntly: if you look less than perfect that's because you are less than perfect. And while you're not disqualified completely from priestly responsibilities, you're also able to 'desecrate My holy things' just by being present. Ouch.

On the walk home from shul I made mention of this to one our members, who just so happens to be a professor and has studied this section in of the Torah in depth. In response to my questions she pointed me to Megillah 24b. In this section of Babylonian Talmud the sages get into a debate about who can lead the priestly blessings. Again, the topic of appearance comes up:

A priest whose hands are deformed should not lift up his hands [to say the priestly blessing]. Rabbi Judah says: also one whose hands are colored with woad or madder should not lift up his hands, because [this makes] the congregation look at him. ...

And it goes on from there. Again, being outside the normal appearance is seemingly enough to get you disqualified from being able to lead this practice.

And just when you think the case is closed, the sages throw in a curve ball:

But was there not one in the neighborhood of R. Huna who used to spread forth his hands? The townspeople had become accustomed to him. It has also been taught: A man whose eyes run should not lift up his hands, but if the townspeople are accustomed to him, he is permitted. Yohanan said: A blind person in even one of his eyes should not lift up his hands. But was there not one in the neighborhood of R. Yohanan who used to spread forth his hands?... The townspeople had become accustomed to him. It was also taught in a baraita: A blind person even in one of his eyes should not lift up his hands, but if the townspeople are accustomed to him, he is permitted. Judah says: A man whose hands are discolored should not lift up his hands. It was taught: If most of the men of the town have the same occupation it is permitted.

The problem, the sages explain, is that the above conditions are a distraction. Once the community becomes accustomed to these individual, the distraction falls away and the individual can participate fully.

Thus we have an antidote to this conundrum: familiarity. Very clever sages, very clever.

Turns out, my walking home partner didn't just study these topics, but apparently has written the book on them: check out Guide to Jewish Values and Disability Rights for a fascinating take on disability and Judaism.

As she explains on page 12 of this document:

Jewish law invokes the principle of “familiarity” (dash be’ iro) in modern rulings about whether priests with disabilities may recite the blessing. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, a widely accepted code of Jewish law, it takes only thirty days in a place to become familiar, as long he person intends to stay for a while. To put this principle into practice, the community has an obligation to see disability as commonplace and to recognize people with disabilities as a familiar presence in our midst.

In the hour and 25 minutes I spent with the character Frank, I gained just enough familiarity to stop seeing him as dangerous, unpredictable and unthinking. While this was certainly the result of a well scripted movie, there's no denying the power of simply being around those who don't look, talk or act like ourselves.

Black or white. Republican or democrat. Seeing or blind. Immigrant or native born. Never underestimate the power of familiarity.


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