Michael J. Radwin

Tales of a software engineer who keeps kosher and hates the web.

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Plant a tree in memory of Ilan Ramon

Plant a Tree in memory of Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon and his fellow Columbia crew members A couple of weeks ago, before the Space Shuttle launch, Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon had a televised conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He said,

“I call upon every Jew in the world to plant a tree in the land of Israel during the coming year. I would like to see at least 13 or 14 million new trees planted in Israel exactly one year from now, on the anniversary of the [Columbia] launching. Here in space we are keeping busy and I would like to thank everyone.”

Posted on the Jewish National Fund website this week:

It is with much sorrow and a deep sense of commitment to the legacy of Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon and his fellow Columbia crew members that we send you this email today. It seems unbelievable that only one week ago we emailed you with Mr. Ramon’s request to have “13 or 14 million new trees planted in Israel exactly one year from now, on the anniversary of the [Columbia] launching.”

To fulfill this dream and the requests from many of our supporters worldwide, JNF is coordinating a global effort to plant trees throughout Israel, including on Airforce Bases.

It’s a mitzvah opportunity. And as my friend Chaim says, it’s “a fitting tribute to a man who has personally seen more trees in one glance than most people on earth will see in their lives.”

Mishe-nichnas Adar…

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar I. Since Purim is right around the corner, this is supposed to be a very happy time, but something seems terribly off in the universe. Part of me really just wants to block out the rest of the world and just sing the song of the season:

משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה

Mishe-nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha

When Adar enters, our joy increases (Ta’anit 29a).

But it’s tinged with all sorts of sadness. Yesterday’s space shuttle tragedy stands out foremost in my mind, but I’m also reminded of the matzav in Israel. Every time I hear that song, I’m reminded of the wonderful time we had at ulpan in the spring of 2000, when peace seemed imminent. (Six months later everything went to hell.)

We visited our friend Julie in the hospital today. She’s recovering from some really serious surgery. Thank God she’s alive. But she’s got several months (if not years) of physical theraphy ahead of her as she learns how to use her body again. Can you imagine learning to walk again in your mid-twenties?

I’m also bouncing back and forth between apathy and anxiety over the inevitable war with Iraq. Part of me thinks it’s a pointless political move, part of me really wants vengeance, and most of me is downright scared about the possibility of soliders coming home in body bags. Our friends in Israel have their gas masks and drinking water ready.

As my friend Rachel said yesterday, Rosh Chodesh — the New Moon — is always the darkest time of the month. But as the moon returns, night by night, the brightness increases. God willing, the coming month will bring more brightness than darkness.

משנכנס אדר…

70% considered low voter turnout?

Israeli polls opened about half an hour ago (they’re voting for Prime Minister). There’s little doubt that incumbent Ariel Sharon will beat Amram Mitzna in the election. The cover of last week’s Los Angeles Jewish Journal put it bluntly: Sure, He’ll Win the Election. But Can He Make Peace?

Skimming Ha’aretz for some news on the matter, I saw this:

An unprecedented number of undecided voters in Monday’s final public opinion polls indicate a possible turnout as low as 70 percent. [Ha’aretz]

Seventy percent is low? In the USA, we’d consider that superb. I guess when your very survival is at stake, people really get out the vote.

Hebcal by Phone beta

speaker.gif Well, it turns out it wasn’t that hard. After just a couple of hours of playing around with VoiceXML, I managed to create a Tellme extension that works.

  1. Call Tellme at 1-800-555-TELL
  2. Say extensions
  3. Dial 00613
  4. Dial or say your 5-digit zipcode
  5. Listen to the candle-lighting times for your area

If you want to see my VoiceXML code, check out shabbat.vxml (the main voice menu) and see the CGI-generated results for 90210.

Next thing to do would be to write a Tellme extension that reads my email for me. Actually, looks like the guy who invented Bugzilla has already done that.

VoiceXML for Hebcal

voicexml.gif I just thought of a new project for my Jewish Calendar website. I want to create a Tellme extension so people can call an 800 number to get candle-lighting times.

Over the past 4 years, I have used my hebcal.com site as an experimental test-bed for various web technologies. It all started when I wanted to learn Perl CGI.pm, so I created a web interface to the hebcal for Unix command-line app. Then I decided to add hebrew text, so I had to study up on Unicode and UTF-8. I even decided to learn PHP by adding an email subscription feature (might’ve been a little easier if I had written it in Perl like the rest of the website, but I wanted to learn a new language).

One particularly useful part of the website is the Shabbat Candle Lighting Times section (which tells you when the Jewish Sabbath begins each week). In addition to the regular HTML output, I have created JavaScript, WML, and even RSS versions of the same content.

The next obvious format to support would be VoiceXML. It looks pretty easy to hook into Tellme Studio so people could get candle-lighting times by telephone when they’re travelling. Instructions could be as simple as:

  1. Call Tellme at 1-800-555-TELL
  2. Say extensions
  3. Dial 00613
  4. Dial or say your 5-digit zipcode
  5. Listen to the candle-lighting times for your area

No fancy WAP-enabled cellphone needed. No clumsy embedded browser interface. Just a normal 12-button telephone and your voice.

Just gotta find the time to code the thing. It’ll probably get done before other ten hebcal feature requests that are in the queue.

Chanukah joke

dre2.gif A woman went to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards. She said to the clerk, “May I please have 50 Chanukah stamps?”

The clerk asked, “What denomination?”

The woman replied, “O my G-d, has it come to this? O.K. – give me 1 Haredi, 2 Hasidim, 8 Orthodox, 12 Conservative, 16 Reform, 7 Reconstructionist and 4 Humanistic.”

Thanksgiving and Chanukah back-to-back

newsday-turkey-5594348.jpg I’m quoted in today’s issue of Newsday in an article entitled Twice As Much Stuffing: Hearty appetites will be thankful for back-to-back holiday feasts.

The story, written by Erica Marcus, is entertaining and well-researched. She even spoke to my favorite Jewish Holidays expert: Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide & Commentary).

My quotation is at the very bottom of the article:

Michael Radwin disputed the contention that “Hanukkah is early this year.” “Hanukkah always begins on the 25th of Kislev,” he said. “It’s November that’s late.”

I actually need to credit Ariella with that line. It’s more clever than anything I could come up with.

Cool beans. I wonder if Danny and I will get any more PayPal donations as a result of the article.

Israelis love “West Wing”

Nov-2002-West-Wing-small.jpg We have many friends living in Israel this year. Last year we used to have a regular gathering on Wednesday evenings to watch The West Wing on our projection TV.

Now they’ve gotta wait months for someone to send ’em a tape from the States. They recently got together to watch a couple of hours and sent us this digital photo.

We’ll send ’em another tape soon. In the meantime, I can hardly wait for this week’s episode:

“Swiss Diplomacy”

The Iranian leader makes a secret request of Bartlet to allow his son to be flown to the United States for life-saving surgery.

I sure miss my friends.

Torahthon: the Zealotry of Pinchas

The second session I attended at Temple Beth Am’s Torahthon was Dr. Ron Reisberg’s class on “The Zealotry of Pinchas”. He advertised the title of his session as “Good Tefila, Bad Tefila”, but acknowledged at the beginning of his teaching that he decided to change the subject. Instead, much to my pleasant surprise, we did a little bit of Talmud study.

We read the story of Pinchas from Numbers 25 in English translation and made sure everyone in the group understood the story. We then moved on to the Gemara and read the Rabbis’ interpolation of the story to understand whether Pinchas was justified in his actions and whether we could extrapolate any halachic lessons from the story.

Reisberg made the argument that the Rabbis were trying to limit the applicability of the story to the narrowest case so as to discourage religious zealotry. I was reminded of this other discussion in the Gemara about the rebellious son who is supposed to be put to death for disobeying his parents. In short, the Rabbis found this story from the Torah objectionable, but they did not dismiss it. Instead of contradicting the text, they simply applied it as narrowly as possible, claiming that a child could be put to death under only the very specific conditions mentioned in the Torah. After much discussion, the punch line goes something like “There has never been such a son, and there will never be such a son.” In other words, the Rabbis couldn’t admit that the Torah was wrong, but since they felt that capital punishment was inappropriate for a disobedient son (no matter how extreme) they had to neuter the story so that it simply couldn’t apply in any real case.

In understanding the story of Pinchas, Rabbis similarly try to limit the situations in which religious zealotry is allowed. They can’t dismiss it outright, because the Torah explains that God is pleased with Pinchas and makes him a member of the priesthood. But the Rabbis explain that the murder of Zimri and Cozbi is justified because it was the manifestation of God’s jealousy. Had the killings taken place after Zimri had slept with Cozbi it would have been an unjustified act of revenge; the fact that Pinchas killed them during the act is what makes Pinchas righteous and not a murderer.

I know there are the makings of a good drash here, but I can’t quite get into it. In my book, zealotry is just plain wrong. Unlike the Rabbis of the Gemara I have the luxury of being able to say that Hashem made a mistake. Pinchas should not have been praised because murder, even if for the “right” reasons, is always wrong.