Best Interactive Time Wasters

Since my last call for comments was less than impressive, I’m going to try again with another question. What is the best most addictive interactive time waster on the web. This doesn’t include reading blogs, watching amusing cartoons, or anything passive. These are things that require more user input than pressing the “play” button. For the record, I discovered these long before I came to Chicago.

I offer three suggestions:

News Hunter
This shockwave game is based on Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Skipping the so called “point,” this realistic flash game is highly addictive and entertaining despite the blantant shilling for the VW Touareg.

Fling the Cow
Initially done in DHTML, it is now available in flash as well. It delivers what it promises.

Broken Saints
This will be my “exception which proves the rule” (I love academia). Though passive – it’s a moderately animated graphic novel – it’s a fantastic piece of work. The work of three people over three years in their spare time, this work has won numerous awards including one at Sundance. (See their FAQ for more details).

So if you’re interested in something different, check this out. I’d recommend downloading “keepers” locally so you can view them at your leisure. One ambitious (probably unemployed) Slashdot reader clocked all 24 chapters at roughly 10 hrs 30 min total viewing time, so I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing in one sitting. One warning though: the beginning is really slow.

Update: It turns out that this isn’t much of an exception after all. I just noticed that there is an upcoming Broken Saints video game. If you have the bandwith, check out the trailer – although it’s more impressive if you’ve seen the original in its entirety. The game isn’t due out until 2006 and only for “next generation consoles.”

Disclaimer: Play at your own risk. I am not responsible if you get fired or suspended.

Posted in Popular Culture, Science and Technology.

Muzak Madness

Strange experience in the local Office Depot. I was in the filing section when I hear the faint sounds of “blessings on your head, mazal tov, mazal tov.” Since I was the only white person in the store and probably the only Jew around for a mile I thought it was just senility. A few minutes later, I clearly hear Sunrise, Sunset. In the computer demo section of this Office Depot in Hyde Park Chicago, they were actually playing the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof. Really.

Question for discussion: What is the strangest song you’ve heard either played in public either in normal form or the strangest Muzak experience? (BTW – check out Muzak’s website. I’m convinced they’re a cult). On the way out of the store, I heard Bruce Hornsby’s classic The Way It Is which wasn’t completly terrible.

It’s also good to know that some people other than myself remember the great SNL sketch with Paul Simon selling his soul to the devil and his Hell is being stuck in an elevator listening to muzak renditions of his songs.

Posted in Popular Culture.

Monty Python Shticks For Sale

Potter sent me a link to purchase the sheep in wolf’s clothing. This reminded me that I’ve been wanting to get the holy hand-grenade, but it’s a bit out of my price range. On the other hand, at U of C, I’m sure I can find plenty of arguments.

Update: For those of you wondering, the holy hand-grenade is not recommended (see the bottom of the page).

Posted in Popular Culture, Shtick.

New Shlock Rock Album

Mendy informs me of Shlock Rock’s new album which is mostly of Broadway parodies. As always, some are clever, and others are painful. Two comments though. Though I can’t prove it off of the web yet, I do remember Rechnitzer Rejects already doing a song called Get Me to the Shul on Time. (It began with the line “I’m getting maftir in the morning…”). I’m also noticing that he does a parody of Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah.” Been there, done that.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Richard M. Joel’s Investiture

YU posts on their website the text of Richard Joel’s inaugural address. It seems like a great speach – eloquent and more important, grounded in reality. This is where I find he differs from his predecesor. R. Lamm’s speaches and visions were abstract. While we would talk about the “ideas” of Torah U’Madda, he lost sight of what was actually happening in his own university. Joel appears to be more pragmatic. Not only does his have a vision, but his vision relates to what YU actually is at this point. Whereas R. Lamm rarely spoke to the students, Joel’s own children are recent students in the YU system.

I admire Joel’s commitment to excellence. YU certainly has the capacity to be at the forefront of numerous fields. There is no reason why Azrieli shouldn’t produce the leaders of Jewish education. Revel, with it’s impressive faculty should produce top-notch Jewish academics (and in fairness, they are improving). The major problem facing Joel is that he must change the culture of mediocrity prevelant throughout YU. Far too many people just want to “go through” YU without letting YU go through them. For most students, the plan is to get out as quickly as possible while doing the minimal amount of work. To establish a culture of excellence at YU, Joel must either change the attitude (not likely), or he must develop a critical mass of students with which he can gradually reshape the institution.

I don’t know if Joel has specific plans for how to change the culture of YU. If he does, he wisely didn’t annouce them. Part of the culture at YU is the automatic resistance to any forms of change. If anyone wants to make an imporvement, someone will resist. Thus, any attempts at progress will almost always be undermined. (Sort of like Newton’s third law of motion). Right now, I’m optomistic that Joel has a good sense of what needs to be done at YU. I can only hope he will be successful.

Posted in Academia. Tagged with , .

Sweet Home Chicago

The move is done – I’m finally here in the windy city. With much help from my mom, we the move went surprisingly smoothly. We rented a Buick Century from National. The rate wasn’t horrible considering it was a one-way rental. Ironically, we picked a car with IL plates. The trunk was massive and we got incredible mileage – the entire trip took 1.5 tanks of gas. Including two rest-stops, we were able to do the trip in about 12 hours. It helps when you can average between 70-95 MPH.

Coolest name in my building: M. Powers.

The accommodations rated a “Very Nice” on the JMSTM (Jewish Mother Scale). I basically have everything I need here and the area doesn’t look much worse than Washington Heights. The only real down side is that I have an 18 min walk to get to campus which will get really annoying in the sub-zero winters. I might be getting DSL here which will help with the blogging (and hopefully research).

Orientation is this Tues, followed by registration Wed-Fri, and classes start on Tzom Gedalia. So, I have one more slow day to settle in before the craziness starts.

Posted in Personal.

Ch – Ch – Ch – Changes

As I wrote in the title, this is my “sometimes” updated blog. I’ve tried to keep the posts here intelligent and/or humerous and to post only when I had something to say, or more importantly, the time to say it. There’s the rub. This week I am finally moving to Chicago and trying to get the student loans and finances in order. It’s an exciting opportunity, but terribly nerve-wracking. At any rate, I doubt I will be able to blog until after I’m done moving and things calm down.

Also, I have been told that the new YUCS machine is in, and assuming I can get a redesign done, I will be moving the blog over there. Not that I have anything wrong with Blogger, but MoveableType is a more powerful system which includes a superior commenting system than what I’m using now (not that I get so many comments, but just in case…).

So, by the time I post again, I’ll be in a new state on a new server.

“Turn and face the strange” indeed.

Posted in Personal.

The Pluralism Equation

Continuing my “Greatest Hits” blogging (while moving away from the Purim Torah), I wanted to revisit my Pluralism Equation. During my second year of smikha, I participated in Clal’s Rabbinic Internship Program. One of the goals of this program was to promote pluralistic dialogue between the various denominations, and they accepted a diverse group of students. In addition to myself, my group consisted of one student from Chovevei Torah, one student from Drisha (though not techinically a “rabbinical” student), one student from AJR, one from RRC, two from JTS, and two from HUC (one of whom graduated Cardozo Law School which makes him a YU graduate).

Dealing with controversial issues usually leads to heated conversations which are usually not productive. Instread, we spent the first half of the year gradually getting to know each other before we got to the serious and sensitive subjects. Furthermore, even before we began to discuss the issues, we were asked to create ground rules for our pluralistic dialogue to avoid inadvertanly offending each other. I don’t remember if anything specific was said which prompted me to write the following, but I felt the need to express my throught on pluralism in general. The following is a slightly modified version of what I submitted as a premise to my “Rules of Engagement.”

The Pluralism Equation
Before we can discuss the rules for “pluralism” discussions, we must first understand that essentially, all such definitions of “tolerance” or “acceptance” as it relates to pluralism are fundamentally the same. Every Jewish movement has its positions and every individual has his/her own interpretation of those positions. I will argue that for any given movement, or any given interpretation, there must exist some position(s) which will be considered “beyond the pale” of what is acceptable. If a movement defines itself as “Jewish” then it places certain restrictions or limitations on itself to justify that definition.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Let y[] be the set of all possible ideas. The set of ideas which cannot be tolerated or accepted, for lack of a better term I will call such ideas “bad,”1 will be represented as x[]. The contents of x[] will vary from denomination to denomination, and person to person.
P[luralism] is then the acceptance of the set of all ideas minus the set of bad ideas. Our formula may then be written as

y[] = 1
x[] = [bad0..badn] // Any set of someone’s “bad” things.
P = y[] – x[]

All movements and all denominations must follow this formula. In order for this formula to be significantly different, the set x[] must be empty in which case a movement or individual is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas. Since this is extremely unlikely if not impossible,2 x[] will have a size of at least 1 and the equation remains meaningful. As long as there is something bad in x[], there is something which we do not accept/tolerate, we are placing our own defined restrictions on others. Although the size and contents of x[] may vary, the result is the same: people will accept/tolerate everything up to an arbitrary point.

This holds true for the different denominations of Judaism. The crux of this pluralism debate is twofold: The contents of x[] as it relates to Judaism as a religion and the contents of x[] as it relates to what is unacceptable opinions for discourse. Regarding x[] as it relates to Judaism, there must be some ideas which cannot be compatible with Judaism. Or for example, the idea of human sacrifices would not be acceptable/tolerated according to any of the Jewish movements. The same equation can be applied to the dialogue itself: a group will have discussions with another, provided certain conditions are met. Complete “pluralism” in this sense cannot exist. The point of this is to realize that everyone has their own standards and their own breaking points or “red lines” and therefore will have their own ultimatums for acceptance/tolerance. Therefore “pluralism” requires 1) acknowledging that we all have our own boundaries and 2) recognizing each individual’s boundaries. I have included a sheet to keep track of each individual’s boundaries.3 Questions and comments should be customized to the individual.

1. In that it is bad for an individual’s or a limited collective’s definition of Judaism, not in any objective global sense. For example, eating pork isn’t objectively bad, but it is unacceptable for some Jews.
2. Any system which is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas would be nihilistic and anarchistic.
3. Note that this does not imply agreement, acceptance/tolerance, or legitimization for specific opinions.

Redux – not in the original submission
I don’t think I said anything new in this piece and I would be surprised if I found out I was the first person who said this (maybe not in this exact style, but I guess I was still feeling the effects of Discrete Structures). At any rate, I do get annoyed when I am told I “ought” to be more pluralistic since in essence I am being denied the very right to formulate my own opinions in deference to others. For example, one of the Clal memebers didn’t understand why Reform conversions were not accepted in Israel since after all, “we’re all Jews.” Not getting into the religious/political dynamic of Israel, if someone wants the right to define who is a Jew in his/her own way then that is their free will to do so. However, if one person or group wants the ability to define who is a Jew on the grounds of Pluralism, then they cannot deny the rights of others to do the same even if their definitions are mutually exclusive.

I remember R. Lamm writing someplace that if tolerance isn’t when you can see two legitimate opinions – that would be not making up your mind. Tolerance is when you firmly belive in something and can deal with others who disagree. You can therefore be an Orthodox pluralist and not be apologetic. You can give people the right to different opinions, and retain your right to your own. The nature and tone of the dialogue is not unique to religion, but basic civility of discourse.

Update: R. Lamm discussed pluralism at one of YU’s Dorm Talks not too long ago. Thanks Avraham!

  1. .inf
Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Masechet Bava Commie

The previous two posts were technically before my smikha days. My first year in smikha was also one of the more auspicious years in YU’s PR history. It started when YU removed stacks of the Commentator from Belfer Hall right before the annual open house. An embarrassed YU eventually compensated the Commie for the papers, but the fun didn’t stop there.

The story hit the mainstream press with YU being the evil supressor of free speach. The New York Times reported the story, and coincidentally was itself removed from campus. R. Lamm was even disqualified from US News’ ignominious Sheldon Award because “administrators are supposed to look the other way, not conduct the thefts themselves.” Of course, YU couldn’t do much about US News since they rely on them too much for their annual college rankings.

Censorship extented to Judaic Studies as well. Some of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva criticized the new Bible journal Nachalah and several copies also turned up “missing” after the SOY Sefarim Sale (it turned out that the Nachalah staff was to blame – since no one came to pick up the unsold issues, facilities management removed them.) Finally, the integrity of SOY’s prized publication “Beis Yitzhack” was compromised when two students dared to not only quote R. Saul Lieberman, but they actually treated him with respect.

With all this happening, we couldn’t just let this go by. I never attempted a fake gemara before, but this was too good to pass up. Ben came by my aparment and we created Masechet Bava Commie. While many fake gemaras just tell a story as it might appear in the Talmud, we quoted and paraphrased actual gemaras, rashis, and tosafot, weaving the shtick with actual sources to the point where we should have included mekorot with the Purim issue.

Posted in Shtick.


This next one came almost by accident. I was fooling around with an image editing program and I noticed one of the filters – I think it was called “charcoal” – created a similar effect as the Les Misérables poster.

That year most of the CS majors were not fans of the MIS department. This was probably due to MIS’ incompetence and stupidity.

After some more crude graphic work, I came up with:


The original plan was to have a completle musical, but we ran out of time and talent. So we just listed song titles, some of which made sense (Empty Chairs and Broken Cables), others private jokes (no more 501), and others were supposed to be changed before we went to print (Lovely Ladies).

It turned out that we didn’t need to write lyrics because people were making up words on their own. Go figure.

Posted in Shtick.