Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A New Year's Wish | Animated Gif Edition

L'Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!

This year we celebrated Rosh Hashanah with a new cinnamon and raisin challah recipe. It was outstanding. Here's Shira braiding one of the loaves:

On Rosh Hashanah we traditionally eat round challahs. Of course, there are many reasons given for this. Here's one that resonates with me:

The round challahs have no end, symbolizing (and actualizing) our wish for a year in which life and blessings continue without end.
—Rabbi Moshe Sofer in Torat Moshe, Mahadura Revia, Rosh Hashanah, p. 129.

Looking at the Shira's handiwork gave me fresh appreciation for this idea. Shira's loaf of bread ends up round, but it doesn't start that way. It's four lengths of dough that have been cleverly weaved together to make a round, beautiful challah.

And that's my wish for you in this new year. Not that you strive to have some impossibly perfect year. Rather, I hope you're blessed with the opportunity to weave together the ups and downs the year throws at you to make something truly beautiful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

After listing to two very intense books I wanted something lighter. Browsing Sci-Fi options at our library turned up what seemed like a winner: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan.

Quickly, I found myself enjoying Brennan's faux-memoir. The premise and story-line held my attention, and the notion of being immersed in an enchanted land where dragons were a thing was just the break from reality I needed. Sure, I don't usually read about dukes and earls, but even I could get onboard with a little victorian'esque adventuring.

The book adds depth by showing the obstacles Lady Trent navigates as she tries to be more than the prim and proper head of household society says she must be. I could see reading this book with kids and using her challenges as a jumping off point to understand a host of issues where society has boxed people in.

One device I had to smile at was how Brennan puts a series of summary statements at the beginning of each chapter. These seem out of place, but were reminiscent of Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World published in the late 1890's. My guess is that chapter summaries were a thing back then, and as a nod to completeness Brennan follows suite.

I also appreciate how A Natural History of Dragons manages to put science front and center even while covering a topic that's complete fiction. It underscores what science truly is: the search for truth through observation. It's tempting to think of science as the stuff of textbooks, when in reality it's far more active and far reaching. Again, there's depth here that's elegantly packaged as entertainment.

My comments on A Natural History of Dragons should end here. It was a fun and thought provoking book, what else is there to say? But one of Brennan's choices has left me with an additional heap of questions.

Recall that A Natural History appears to take place in an alternate, but familiar universe. The places, seasons and months for example were all, to my ear, made up. So when we learn that locals of Vystrana are "Temple Worshipers" who celebrate the "Feast of Reception" I didn't give it much thought. Buddhist, Jews, Mormons and Mayans to name a few could all be classified as temple worshipers so it seemed an appropriately vague religious description.

Fast forward a couple chapters and things get interesting. The townspeople are convinced that Lady Trent and her band of explorers have brought evil spirits into town. We know this because they form a mob and descend on the group armed with--get this--graggers. OK, so townsfolk using a primitive noisemaker to stamp out evil spirits seems reasonable, but groggers? Then Lady Trent informs us that she'd only ever seen graggers used during the Tale of the casting of lots.

Hold up. Groggers? Lots? She's clearly talking about Purim, which is Hebrew for lot. From then on, I realized that the religion of Vystrana isn't some made-up invention; it's Judaism. Mikva, mechitza and shiva, to name just a few concepts are all mentioned. We get a glimpse inside the local temple and find a stone alter, the sort precisely prescribed in the Torah. And we learn that there's a ner tamid, the same light that every synagogue today has that remains lit at all times. And the Feast of the Reception? To my ear, that sounded originally like a Christian holiday. But in hindsight, Brennan is clearly referring to Shavuot: the holiday Jews celebrate as when we received the Torah. How do I know this? Because Jews today, and as did the people of Vystrani the book tell us, stay up all night before the holiday studying.

So what's going on here? Am I getting a glimpse into a trick fantasy writer's use? Need a religion, grab one that most of your readers don't know about it and pass it off as invented. Or maybe Brennan is Jewish or has a biblical studies background and wanted to embellish A Natural History with this knoweledge. There's even the slight possibility that Brennan is making fun of Jews, after all her biblical Judaism is the religion of choice for a group superstitious country bumpkins. Though I think I'm being too harsh with that suggestion. There's just too many references to Jewish concepts for this to be a coincidence.

It turns out, it's most certainly not a coincidence. First, my thanks go out to the Velveteen Rabbi who had observations similar to mine. She picked up on another dimension I hadn't fully appreciated. She suggests that both the Vystrani and Lady Trent's homeland both practice Judaism, it's just that the Vystrani practice the sacrificial kind while Lady Trent and her neighbros follow the study-based variety Jews practice today. I'd seen hints to this, but didn't make the full connection. More importantly, the Velveteen Rabbi pointed me to this post from Brennan herself where she explains her decision to use Judaism as the religion of of choice in the story.

But when I came back to the project several years later, I found myself looking at that word and frowning. There’s a Middle Eastern analogue in the setting, too, so I’d been pondering what sort of religious history the region should have, and then out of nowhere I asked myself: why make the dominant “European” religion pseudo-Christianity? Why not pseudo-Judaism instead?

The anthropologist in me immediately started raising a cautionary hand. Cultural elements aren’t modular; you can’t just plug them in wherever you like without affecting other things. Then again, it isn’t like I was trying to plug in Hinduism or Shinto; Christianity and Judaism have much more in common with one another. The bigger issue, I realized, was that I didn’t really have a model for Judaism in the role I envisioned. The rabbinic form of the religion was not, until the modern establishment of Israel, a dominant and state-backed faith; it’s deeply shaped by the Jewish diaspora and the persecution that brought. There was a state version of the religion, but that was localized and ended two thousand years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It never covered an entire continent, nor did it deal with the social and technological changes of the intervening history.

Thinking about those two forms called up echoes of the Protestant/Catholic divide in my mind. The bigger issue, I realized, was that I didn’t really have a model for Judaism in the role I envisioned. The rabbinic form of the religion was not, until the modern establishment of Israel, a dominant and state-backed faith; it’s deeply shaped by the Jewish diaspora and the persecution that brought. There was a state version of the religion, but that was localized and ended two thousand years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It never covered an entire continent, nor did it deal with the social and technological changes of the intervening history. ...

What if I incorporated both versions of Judaism into my setting? One would be Temple-based, a centralized faith taking its lead from a high priest back in the original homeland. The other would be modeled on rabbinic Judaism, with many teachers and sects in different places. Fantasy tends to have only One True Version of any given religion, so I really liked the idea of mixing things up a bit. I consulted a friend who studies Judaism and worked out the “evolution” of both forms, adapting them to the context of my world, and went back to work on the story, which had suddenly come to life in new ways.

You’ll never see the word “Judaism” in the novel, of course, nor any other widely recognizable terminology associated with it (e.g. “rabbi”). Since what’s in my story is based on Judaism, rather than being the religion itself, I decided to take the same approach to my word choice. There are magisters instead of rabbis, assembly-houses instead of synagogues, the Feast of the Reception rather than Shavuot. But readers familiar with the subject will notice that “synagogue” comes from the Greek word for “assembly,” and Shavuot commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the people of Israel: I’m still talking about the same things, just in a slightly altered guise. There are other details along the way, drawn from both forms of Judaism, sometimes tweaked to a bit of an angle, which make it clear what I’m talking about, even if it never gets a familiar name.

And some readers, at least, are noticing. I knew it would fly under the radar of many people; if you’re not personally conversant with Judaism, it can be easy to overlook the hints. (Many of them are things I wouldn’t have noticed, before I began researching this for the book.) But I’ve seen reviews and gotten e-mails that mention this thread, and every one of them makes me happy.

Wow. Her selection of Judiasm was the opposite of the short-cut I naively suggested above. The thought experiment that she's done to imagine a Victorian world where both Rabbinic and Priestly Jews co-exist is remarkable and inspired. And she did all this to add detail that most of her readers wouldn't detect. Brennan is taking her world-building to the next level with this sort of nuance, and as a Jew I can't help but marvel at here dedication and creativity.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Hiking, History and a Heck of a good Time | Adventures in Hemlock Overlook Regional Park

This past weekend I was itching to go hiking with my nephew and his parents, but I tried to be temper my expectations. We were trying to coordinate an outing with two families and two babies. Figuring out a location and time that worked for everyone was going to be the major accomplishment, the actual terrain we hiked was going to have to be secondary. Heck, I would have been happy hiking through the mall.

After some discussion we decided to hike Union Mill / Bull Run Occoquan Trail which is found within Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. It was marked as an easy, 3.6 mile hike.

It took us about 45 minutes to get to the trailhead, and by 8am a good chunk of the parking area was full. I started to worry that the area would be overwhelmed by crowds. Within a few minutes of hiking, I forgot all about my concerns and the joy of being on a hike with those I love took over.

The trail started off as a delightful woodsy affair that felt like a proper backcountry experience. Just as I was fully appreciating the forest trail we found ourselves at the edge of Bull Run, a picturesque river (or, well, run as they are called in this area). From there, the trail continued along the water for a little over a mile. The scenery was perfect, and my brother I agreed that this would be a top notch place to fish.

Along the river we passed a graffiti covered block house which turned out to be the remnants of an early hydroelectric plant. Nearby, though we didn't see them, may have been some ruins of the civil war era Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This railroad is the source of the "Union Mill" part of our trail's name. Despite what the name suggests, Union Mills, as it was known back in the day, wasn't a famous mill. It was the name of an influential Civil War railroad station that was coveted by both Union and Confederate armies. Railroads were critical infrastructure during the Civil War, but they were also easy targets for raiders. Rather than defend every mile of track, the Union army adopted a strategy of becoming experts in quickly repairing them. Union Mills became the poster child for this effort:

As the war got underway, it became clear to President Lincoln and his advisors that it was going to be impossible to guard long stretches of track against attack by Confederate raiders. If the rail lines could not be protected from damage, they would have to be repaired and returned to service in the shortest time possible. In April 1862, Herman Haupt, a railroad construction genius who had a reputation for getting things done, was called to Washington by the Lincoln administration and asked to fix the vexing problem. Haupt was appointed to the position of Chief of Construction and Transportation of the newly established U.S. Military Railroad (USMR), an organization responsible for all railroad operations on captured Confederate tracks.

As Haupt went to work, it was at places such as Union Mills that his highly organized and specialized repair crews honed their skills as they struggled to keep the Orange and Alexandria line functioning. The rapid repair procedures Haupt developed to replace bridges, track and just about everything else involved in keeping a railroad operating allowed the USMR to keep vital rail supply lines functioning.

The USMR established a base of operations at Union Mills. It was a facility to service equipment and store replacement parts for railroad rolling stock, water tanks, prefabricated bridges, ties and rails. The knowledge USMR crews gained in Northern Virginia proved to be an invaluable logistical asset to Lincoln's war effort. As new techniques were developed and tested, the information was passed along to the other locations where the USMR operated trains. During the later years of the war, Gen. Sherman's Union army drove into Georgia utilizing a sophisticated rail supply network that could be repaired almost as fast as Rebel raiders could wreck it.

Along with getting an up close view of history, the trail gave me the opportunity identify two new wild edibles. Thanks to Plant Snap, I was able to recognize spotted wintergreen and autumn olive. Now that I know what I'm looking for, I'm excited to go back and nosh on some samples.

If that all weren't enough, the hike also gave us a taste of the Bull Run Occoquan trail. We did a short segment of it; the full trail is 17.4 miles. I've already started nagging Shira about doing the whole thing.

Both babies enjoyed the outing. Each found himself being carried on the back of a parent, and dozed their way through the experience. Talk about living the good life!

When we finished the hike, we found a parking area full, with cars hovering waiting for spots to open. But here's the mystery: we saw just a few families on our hike. Where were all these people in the parking lot going?

I had planned for a fun day with my nephew, but got so much more. What a treat! If you're looking for a family friendly hike, Union Mill / Bull Run Occoquan Trail is an absolute winner. Just plan to start the day early!

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Lions and Tigers and People, Oh My!

Here are a few pics from our recent trip to the National Zoo. As you can see below, the lions and tigers were the most photogenic animals of the day.

Our 7 month old was mostly unmoved by the experience. He enjoyed the atmosphere I'm sure, but he's too young to appreciate what the fuss is all about.

This was the most crowded place we've been in months. Masks were mandatory and most people took this and the social distancing rules seriously. Overall we felt comfortable and it was a real treat to do something almost normal.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Gotcha of the Day: Fixing My S10+'s Horrendous Call Quality

The upgrade from my Galaxy S9+ to a Galaxy S10+ has been a mainly pleasent one. It's not the revolutionary jump in tech that marked past cell phone purchases, but it's certainly a nice upgrade. There was one glaring exception: the phone's call quality was horrendous to the point of being unusable.

I noticed the issue a couple days into owning the S10+. I'd take a phone call, and before I knew it, the party on the other end would announce that they lost me. I'd scramble to a different part of the house hoping to find better signal. The call might recover, but would quickly stall again. Before I knew it, I was doing my best can you hear me now? impression and cursing my new phone.

One work-around was to place my phone in just the right spot on my desk and use a Bluetooth headset. It seemed that moving the device, just a few feet in one direction, was enough to interrupt the call.

Not sure what else to do I called Samsung's tech support line. As if to underscore the issue, I initially called from my S10+, which due to the above issue, meant that the tech couldn't hear me. I called back from a landline and plead my case.

The first response from the support person was to mention that calling issues were the domain of my provider (T-mobile). I expected this disclaimer, but knew it was a cop-out. I explained that for years I'd had quality service in our home and that my last phone, a Galaxy S9+, worked fine. The agent gave no indication that he was moved by my speech.

Sticking to his script, the agent started to suggest things I could try. The first suggestion he arrived at that applied to me was to "Reset network settings." At first I protested: but it's a new phone, what is there to reset? I then realized that arguing was no use, so I asked how I could do this.

He explained: go to Settings » General » Reset » Reset network settings.

Huh, I didn't know 'network resetting' was a thing.

I followed his instructions, responding yes that I was OK with losing my network config and then rebooted the phone.

I then had the tech call me on the phone, eager to show him that his reset and reboot didn't fix the problem. Except, it did. He called back and conversation went off without a hitch. I wandered the house and he could hear me. Try as I might, I couldn't get the call to break up.

This happened a few days ago, and since then, the call quality has been back to normal. Making phone calls Just Works again.

Score one for Samsung Tech Support. I'm impressed!

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