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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
 
Feast of Weeks
If there's one biblical phrase that sums up Shavuot, aka the Feast of Weeks, it's "Na'aseh v'nishmah" - "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7). Shavuot is the holiday through which Jews celebrate receiving the Torah. This phrase indicates our faith in God and the rightness of His commandments in the Torah - we first commit to following the commandments, and only after that will we hear - that is, learn - what they are all about. This is counterintuitive to how we approach most other areas of knowledge - first we learn about something, then form an opinion and/or see how it can apply to our lives.

As religious Jews, we try to follow the details of the commandments even if we don't know the meaning behind them. In the course of raising children, this plays out naturally. Kids do a whole lotta stuff because they know they're supposed to, and as they grow older and can understand things in different ways they are taught (hopefully) what they might learn from these practices. As adults coming from the secular world to embrace our heritage, it's a little more difficult to accept. But I hope we can accept it, that we can trust in God and in our teachers and in all the people who have come before us that accepting the yoke of the commandments is a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding them.

As I say, this idea of acceptance without understanding is praiseworthy. However, I fear that the spirit of the second part of the phrase is often neglected. Not that there aren't plenty of people, thank God, learning Jewish texts every day. It just seems to me that I and others like me forget to search for meaning in the everyday practices that we have accepted upon ourselves. We allow them to become rote, or perhaps more accurately to remain rote.

My wish for all of us Jewish folks this Torah-receiving season is that we may continue to perform mitzvot, and whether we've been at it for a long time or a little, since birth or since return, that we may dedicate ourselves to searching for the greater meaning of all that we do.
 
Life's too short
Life's too short to waste your days in a job you're not passionate about. Dealing with issues you don't care about.

But life's too short to jeopardize your family's well being and your children's education by trying to follow your dreams in your mid-30s, too.

Not that I really have any dreams. I'd just rather spend my time watching movies and reading comic books. And blogs.
Friday, May 26, 2006
 
Nu, you think you can dance?
Last night the producers of American Idol gave America a new contest show, where hopefuls can strut their stuff on the dance floor. As usual the best parts are watching the idiots who think they can dance but, well, can't. I was just flipping around the channels, so I just saw a couple of guys. This one guy was flailing around and slipped. He somehow was unable to brace himself, and he landed face-first on the floor. They kept showing this and showing it - in slow motion, of course. He was not seriously hurt, and seemed like a good-natured dweeb who, well, can't dance. Here's what got me: when he fell, his white yarmulke flew off.

Yes, I said his yarmulke.

Look, I'm all for pop culture, I love listening to Matisyahu, but I have a plea for all of my orthodox brothers out there: if you are planning on auditioning for a reality show where the odds are high that you will come off like a moron, lose the lid. Or at least wear some other sort of cap. Not a lot to ask, I think.
 
Memorial Day
As we relax this weekend with family and friends and consume large quantities of grilled cow, let’s not forget that the rights and freedoms that we take for granted are not the natural state of most humans in the world.

That many of us own our own home and our own business, that we are free from roving paramilitary criminal gangs, that we worship as we choose, that we can speak freely and critically of our government, that our government’s powers are limited not by its abilities but by the law, and that we are more-or-less free to chart our own path in life – these are largely impossible in most of Africa and Asia and some of South America. These fundamental freedoms were established by the founders but protected in every generation with the lives of American soldiers.

So this weekend thank a veteran, and remember that our freedom is not free.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
 
The Most Controversial Column Ever Written!
Dave Konig wraps up The Da Vinci Code, Madonna, South Park, Iran, and The Passion of the Christ. It's a very funny article about what matters and what doesn't. Read it during lunch.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
 
Scientists Grow Artificial P3n!s in Lab
Oh, they called my theories "peculiar" and "radical". They laughed when they thought I couldn't hear them. None of the peer-reviewed journals would publish my papers. But they'll see. They'll all see that I'm a true scientific genius. I'll show them.

Flip the switch, Boris, and say hello to Giant Mister Happy!
Monday, May 22, 2006
 
Scenes from the bug fair
Last week I mentioned the LA bug fair. Here's a coupla pix:



One of my daughters holding a nasty ol' millipede.



A tranquil image from the butterfly garden (which stands year-round, not just for the bug fair).


All-in-all, a good time had by all. And it really was sponsored by an extermination company. They even had a large statue of their mascot, "Kernel Kleenup."

 
Physician Assisted Suicide, Revisited
Almost a month ago I posted about medical ethics and physician assisted suicide. Immediately thereafter I had to prepare for and go to an out-of-town conference and then to visit Psychotoddler. Many very thoughtful comments were left and I never replied. Apparently a couple of die-hards (uggh, bad pun) were still lurking around waiting for me to answer their comments, so I did. I am grateful for your patience.
Friday, May 19, 2006
 
Terrible News
Psychotoddler's father, who had been ill for some time, passed away last night. Please click over to his blog and leave him some words of comfort.
 
Bug Fair
This Sunday Team Ralphie will take a trip the Natural History Museum for their annual Bug Fair. From the description:

"Be sure not to miss the 20th Annual Bug Fair – North America’s largest. Explore the world of insects and their arthropod relatives. See live spiders and scorpions, start your own collection of butterflies and stay for some great cooking tips from two world-renowned insect chefs."

But the text at the bottom of the page made me literally LOL: "Support is provided by Western Exterminator Company."
Thursday, May 18, 2006
 
So, Is It OK?
It was told this story today by a (male) drug rep, and it happened to him in the last several days while making his rounds at a local hospital. Everything past this paragraph is this drug rep telling me the story.

I was in the hospital lobby and the guard walked up to me.

“Are you a doctor?” he asked me.
“No, I’m a pharmaceutical rep.”
“Can I ask you a question? I have a problem.” He continued. I don’t know if he didn’t hear my answer. He spoke in very broken English. “My wife had to have a surgery. She had a bump on her vagina, and the doctors had to take out her uterus and her ovaries.”

Now, we’re in the middle of a busy lobby and there are people walking all around us, and also, did I mention that I’m not a doctor? But he keeps going.

“And ever since the surgery, she can’t be with me anymore the way she used to, you know like a wife. Before the surgery, whenever I needed it, you know, what men need, I would smile at her, and she would smile at me, and we would understand what that meant and you know, we would behave like married people, and it was fine. But now if I even mention the bedroom, all that happens is a hug.”

And he makes this big horizontal hoop with his arms in case I didn’t understand what “hug” means. And I’m staring at him mortified, like a deer caught in headlights, which I’m sure he misinterprets as concerned interest, because he keeps going.

“But she understands that I am a man. It’s true. I am a man. And she told me that she understands that. So she told me that she does not mind if I go and pay for it. She said that it is all right with her. And so that is what I do, but when I come home, I feel guilty. So, is it OK?”
 
When a Grown Man Cries
A nice little piece on the Orthodox Union web page by none other than Treppenwitz himself.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
 
Exponential Explorations – Part II
(Part I is here.)

I want to thank everyone who gave Part I a try and encourage everyone who didn’t to at least follow along. There will be bits of this that everyone will be able to do, though other bits will be quite challenging.

To review the solution of Part I, the insight lies in realizing that if the chain of exponents is infinite, then adding another x at the bottom makes no difference. So
f(x) = x ^ f(x)
If we want f(x) to be equal to 2, we just plug 2 in for f(x).
2 = x ^ 2, so x = sqrt(2).

Let’s demonstrate that numerically and play with some different values of x. This is where an Excel spreadsheet comes in handy. Open a new one. (You may be able to do this with a calculator, but it’ll be a pain.) In cell A2 (we’re leaving A1 blank for now) type

=sqrt(2)

and hit enter. The cell should display a number around 1.4142. Widen the A column by dragging the thin line between the header of column A and column B so that you can see as many of the digits of the square root of 2 as Excel can calculate. (You can also double click on that line. That automatically sizes a column to the width of its fattest cell.) Now in cell A3 type

=$a$2^a2

and hit enter. Quick Excel lesson: the dollar signs make the first cell reference absolute, meaning “no matter where this formula gets copied, always point to cell A2.” The second cell reference without the dollar signs is relative, meaning “wherever this formula gets copied, always point to the cell one above the cell that the formula is in.”

Cell A3 should have a number about 1.63 if you’ve done everything right. Now click back on cell A3 to select it. The right lower corner of the selected cell is a square black drag box that I circled below for you.

drag box

That drag box lets you easily copy from one cell to others. Grab the drag box with your pointer and drag it straight down the A column so that you cover about 100 or two hundred cells. What you have now is a whole bunch of cells that each calculate “the value in A2 taken to the power of the cell immediately above me”. So if we put x in A2, the rest of the column calculates progressively close approximations of f(x).

You should be able to scroll down and see that the numbers eventually converge to 2 and remain 2 ever after, which is just the result we were hoping for.

With me so far? Good.

Now what if in Part I asked you to find x such that f(x) = 3? Using the same solution we would come up with x = the cube root of 3, or 3^(1/3). Let’s plug that in. In cell A2 type

=3^(1/3)

and press enter. A2 becomes about 1.442 and the entire column recalculates, and we scroll down eagerly anticipating the numbers in the column to settle down to 3. But they don’t. They settle to about 2.478.

What’s going on here?

Let’s see if we can get a higher answer by just plugging in bigger numbers. If we type 2 in to A2, the entire function blows up after just three iterations. That makes sense. f(2) just gets bigger without limit and doesn’t converge. Try 1.5 in A2. Same thing. It blows up, but it takes a little longer. But the square root of two and the cube root of three which are over 1.4 but less than 1.5 both converge.

Here’s the challenge for this part, and I admit, it’s hard. Find the upper limit of convergence of f(x) exactly. That is, find the highest x for which f(x) converges to some finite number. You can play with the spreadsheet to give you some ideas, but ultimately to get an exact (not a numerical) answer, you’ll need to put the spreadsheet away and do some math. By exactly, I mean give the answer as a mathematical expression, not as a number. For example the exact answer of Part I was “the square root of 2” whereas 1.41 (or any number of digits) would not have been exact.

Feel free to use the comments to collaborate with others and share ideas or partial results. If there’s no progress, every day or two I’ll give you a step towards the solution.
 
My Evil Twin
Normally I ignore banner ads, but one of the ads that appears when I'm in my Yahoo e-mail account disturbs me. It looks like... my evil twin. I left it up on the computer and walked away. My eight-year old son called after me, "What's this on the computer? It looks like you with a big nose and a mustache." So it wasn't just me. What the fuh?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
 
cord blood
We stored our kids' cord blood at a private bank. To me, this kind of thing smacked of preying on parents' fears and of science fiction, but we found one with relatively low starting and maintenance costs so we went ahead with it. I'm still not thrilled about it - still seems fantasyland-esque and if you have a blood-related problem it might not do you much good - and now all the prices have increased dramatically. Now the next kid is due in a couple of months and the missus and I are torn.

Dear readers, I implore you. What do you think about this practice? Should we go forward with storing for #3? Should we donate the blood to a public bank?
Monday, May 15, 2006
 
I Got Your Blog

Psych-O Records and Tapes
Presents:

For the very first time in almost 5 months!

Psychotoddler
&
Doctor Bean

Together again for a special rendition of their classic hit single,

I Got Your Blog!
Sunday, May 14, 2006
 
Exponential Explorations – Part I
During my visit at the home of Mrs. Balabusta and Psychotoddler, I had the pleasure of meeting Gerald Glazer, a retired math professor. It’s not every weekend that I meet someone with as much interest in recreational math as me (or more!) so it was quite a treat to work on the math puzzles he tossed at me while dining on Mrs. B’s yummy cuisine.

One of the problems he gave me had me thinking for quite a while and even after solving it, led to some interesting discoveries. Allow me to give you the puzzle first, and then after one of you solves it, we’ll explore a little further in Part II.

Here’s the problem.

Define f(x) as follows.
f(x) = …x^(x^(x^(x^x)))
Where the dot dot dot at the top means keep going with the ladder of exponents forever.

Find x such that f(x) = 2. Show your work.

Now, let me make sure you don’t make the mistake I made when I first heard this problem. I got the order of the exponentiation backwards. I initially thought that the function was (((x^x)^x)^x)… Meaning, if we were to plug in 1.2 for x we would calculate 1.2 to the 1.2 power, to the 1.2 power, to the 1.2 power, and so on. That’s NOT right. Since (a^b)^c = a^(bc) that would have meant that f(x)=x^(x x x x…) which for any x > 1 is infinite.

The right way to read the function is f(x) = …x^(x^(x^(x^x))). That means you first start with the top exponent and work your way down the ladder. Meaning, if we were to plug in 1.2 for x the way to calculate it is 1.2 to the 1.2 power. Then 1.2 to that power, then 1.2 to that power, and so on and so on forever. Makes sense?

So find x such that plugging it into that function results in 2.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
 
From the Web Home of Joe Bob Briggs
The Mai Tai is our greatest American cocktail. It doesn't have an ounce of single-malt Braveheart wheat-juice in it. It has nothing to do with the latest cranapple-flavored Rooskie pseudo-vodka sloshed out of bottles by guys named Evan. The Mai Tai doesn't come from some candy-ass gun club lounge where racehorse owners talk about debentures in Singapore while sipping "juleps." A Mai Tai, properly made, is strong enough to put permanent fissures in a fat man's brain, yet delicate enough to make his girlfriend try to conjugate verbs with her thighs. The ingredients might come from the Caribbean. The South Pacific might have made it famous. But the Mai Tai comes from California and is so by-God American that any bartender who can't make it should be shot for treason.
 
BIG AD
Made from Beer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
 
Is the American Left Run By the President of Iran?
Or are they just smoking the same stuff?

Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the released letter from Iranian President Ahmadinejad to President Bush. Read it. It’s scary. It reads like it could have been written by a Muslim version of Michael Moore or a hirsute Cindy Sheehan.

It rants about every liberal criticism of the West. I’m surprised it doesn’t mention pesticides or big tobacco. It’s a waking nightmare that this man will in a few years have the power to melt a city.

His letter begs for parody, but praise be to Allah, James Lileks beat me to it. It’s Lileks at his screedy knee-slapping best.

UPDATE: Here is another version of the translated letter that's easier to read.
Monday, May 08, 2006
 
Springtime
I haven’t finished writing and posting the story of how I met and married Dr. Bean. Perhaps I never will. But here is a smaller story. When we met and fell in love, it was spring. The parts of the campus where we spent the most time were covered in jasmine. The strong scent filled the air night and day. I subsequently planted the flowers at our home merely for the memory. In full bloom you see, jasmine actually makes me sneeze. On Shabbat, Honey (4) was sitting in our yard and said, “What smells so good?” I told her it was jasmine. She replied, “It smells like love.” She was more right than she knew.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
 
Smashing sterotypes
I did some auto body work on Sunday. Bought me a new external passenger side mirror, popped off the interior door trim panel, stuck on that mirror, and re-attached the door panel. I was pretty proud of myself, yes sir.

But then I decided the glass on the aftermarket mirror I got over the Internet was inferior to the original mirror (it's one step above a piece of aluminum foil). I figured I'd just pop off the glass and replace it with the glass from the original mirror, which I'd savvily kept handy.

But the new mirror was built differently, and when I yanked off the glass something broke! I just couldn't leave well enough alone. I had to fly to close to the sun! Why? Why??!!!!

In the end, the auto shop dude was able to restore the mirror, using the aftermarket glass. That was a close one. I think we've all learned a valuable lesson here today.
 
Hispanic boycott
Some thoughts on this whole brouhaha:

1.) Traffic was light. Really light. I never realized how many immigrant rights supporters used the freeway every morning.

2.) I should have used the term "illegal immigrant rights" because it seems that was this is really about. On my way to work I passed a high school that was sporting a sign that read "USA: Nation of Immigrants." This was no doubt meant to be in support of the boycott, but who is saying the USA is not that? I'm a little tired of even pro-business conservatives hinting that opponents of creating incentives for illegal immigration are motivated by racism.

3.) The idea that we need illegal immigrants to jobs that no one else wants to do. That may or may not be true, but the crux is that it's not the jobs themselves that no one wants to do, it's the wages paid for those jobs. If all of the illegal immigrants earning a substandard wage became citizens tomorrow, the vast majority would become unemployed as well. Because then they'd have to be on the books, and these companies couldn't pay them 1/5 of minumum wage in cash under the ol' table.

...and who do you think would pick up the slack? Maybe those brand new illegal border crossers, given an extra oomph of the promise of citizenship.
Monday, May 01, 2006
 
Fat Cat
With gas prices at historic highs, I was starting to get a bit perturbed with the oil companies. Then I got a check in the mail, and remembered that I am the oil companies! A local oil company leases our "drilling rights" and our quarterly check was a little fatter thanks to the price of crude these days.

Thanks, Big Oil!

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