Lower East Side Memories

A little bit late, but Happy New Year! I just finished reading Hasia Diner’s book Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place In America. For several decades around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, many Jewish people from immigrated from Europe to the United States, with many of those living either temporarily or permanently in a Manhattan neighborhood subsequently known as the Lower East Side. Not all of the Jewish immigrants lived in the Lower East Side, and not all of the Lower East Side immigrant residents were Jewish at all. But that particular subset of immigrants created a culture in that neighborhood which formed a primary basis for Jewish culture throughout the country.

Many Jewish immigrants ended up in Boston, and in Chicago, and in St. Louis, and in Los Angeles, and in other cities across the country, and even in other parts of New York City. But a clear majority ended up staying in the Lower East Side, filling cramped apartments with so many people that Jewish culture flourished, and was easily found not just in the privacy of individual homes, but openly on the streets, in shops, in restaurants… And with such overcrowded housing, there was little privacy anyway, leading to characteristically private conversations happening in larger groups, spreading and sharing cultural ideas even further.

In this atmosphere of open exchange, many artifacts of historical and cultural record were created. Factual accounts were written. Journalistic photographs were taken. Novels and plays and poems and songs were authored, all in much greater abundance than what happened in other Jewish communities.

That wealth of history about, and emanating from, the Lower East Side surely would have been significant in its own right, but after the 1940s it became even more significant. Through the Holocaust events of World War II, huge amounts of European Jewish culture and history were destroyed. Many people were killed, yes, but on top of that, houses and businesses and religious institutions were wiped out. Italian immigrants still had Italy. Irish immigrants still had Ireland. But the Jewish people who had left their “old world” homeland for the “new world” in the United States no longer had an “old world” to correspond with or to ever return to, even for a visit.

As such, the Lower East Side took on a new level of importance in Jewish-American culture: it became their new “old world”. Whether if they ever actually lived there or not, through historical accounts and stories and other media created in or about the neighborhood, Jewish people all over the country began to see it as a common ancestral home. They started to travel to the neighborhood, take tours, sample food, and learn more about what “real” Jewish-American life was like.

More: read the book.

Sherwin Williams Porch and Floor Enamel vs. Border Collie

Samantha the border collie was easily house trained, and remained so for five years in our previous house. The current house has a basement utility room with an unfinished cement floor, and Samantha apparently decided that relieving herself on the cement floor was acceptable. Of all of the floors in the house, I agree with her choice, but after two years of this, I wanted something easier to clean up than unfinished, porous cement.

Ceramic tile, vinyl tile, and laminate flooring were all reasonable choices for a basement utility room, but I really didn’t want to go to that extent if not necessary. I’ve seen basement floors that were painted, and seemed pretty resistant to spilled liquid, so I trundled down to the home improvement superstore and bought a can of Rustoleum concrete paint.

I painted a small test area, let it dry, and then went through the motions of cleaning it with a wet paper towel. The paint rubbed off the cement floor onto the paper towel; clearly this was not going to be a good solution to the problem!

[Did I etch the cement floor prior to painting? No. Had I etched it, would the paint have adhered better? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed pretty resistant to scraping, and to scrubbing with dry paper towels. Only with wet paper towels did any significant paint come up off the floor. I am guessing that etching would not have made a big difference here, as the paint was just too water-soluble for what I needed.]

So I went over to the local Sherwin Williams paint shop, hoping that their staff of paint specialists could offer a better solution. The employee I talked to also had a dog, and recommended their porch and floor enamel paint. He showed me an area of floor in their storage room where they themselves had applied this paint, and it appeared durable. I bought a gallon.

Back home, another spot test came back with good results: the paint seemed to stay adhered well when cleaned, so I cleared and cleaned the utility room floor and painted away. For two days, Samantha did not relieve herself at all in the house. Excellent! But I was still curious how the paint would hold up to a more intense scenario. The next day, a thunderstorm rolled through, and a certain anxious border collie relieved herself multiple times on the painted floor.

Clean up from the comparatively smooth, non-porous surface was trivial. Damp spots from the cleaning solution remained, but within a few minutes the floor looked as if nothing had happened. A tiny bit of paint appeared to come up on the paper towel, but may have been some tiny clumps of paint left from my not-completely-smooth painting job. In any event, this paint is much more durable than my first choice, and even if an occasional touch-up is needed, no big deal.

The floor looks nicer and is much easier to clean, offering daily time savings. Thank you Sherwin Williams!

[Note to self for future touch-ups: color selected was Pewter Cast (SW 7673).]

Photography Rules Around the National Mall

The last time I was at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., I took a mediocre photograph of the very dimly-lit Declaration of Independence on ISO 400 film. A couple of weeks ago I was back, armed with much higher ISO on a Canon 6D digital camera and lens with image stabilization.

To my dismay, the National Archives no longer permits photography of any of their exhibits. They used to allow photography without flash, as flash could promote deterioration of their rare artifacts, but too many people ignored the no-flash rule, either intentionally or unintentionally, and they have now banned photography altogether.

How strict are they about this? I witnessed a guard pounce on a tourist with a mobile phone camera sneaking a picture of the Archives’ copy of the Magna Carta:

“No photography!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You can delete that picture.”

Of course, deleting the picture after the fact doesn’t solve anything regarding artifact deterioration…

Meanwhile, in the third-floor observation deck overlooking the main reading room of the Library of Congress, where photography used to be banned, flash-free photography is now allowed. Sitting inside the reading room, waiting for books to be delivered, I couldn’t help but notice some flashes going off, and it was indeed kind of distracting, but the library didn’t seem as intense about enforcing their newly-loosened rules as the National Archives was about enforcing their increasingly strict rules.

Speaking of rules, I would not have thought that these words would have ever had to be spoken, by a National Archives guard, to a child next to me: “Excuse me, there’s no sitting on the Declaration!”

Hanukkah in America

Over the recent holiday season, I read Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America, which chronicles the history and development of Hanukkah (mainly in the United States) from its origins over 2000 years ago up through nearly present day.

For most of that time, Hanukkah was a fairly minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, perhaps not celebrated at all. Two catalysts worked together to encourage Jewish immigrants in the United States to make a bigger deal out of Hanukkah than their European ancestors had: their desire to retain and promote their own religious and cultural values; and Christmas.

Christmas also had not always been the major gift-giving, family-oriented holiday that we know today, but through the 1800s into the early 1900s it grew, for various reasons, including corporations turning it into a commercial event (as Charlie Brown might be all too familiar with!), and for the benefit of U.S. soldiers, either being sent Christmas care packages when abroad, or having more substantial family events when home.

As the appeal of Christmas events grew, and especially as the wonder of Christmastime grew in the eyes of children, Jewish children longed for something similar. They found what Christian families enjoyed in midst of winter to be enticing.

Many Jewish holidays have strict guidelines regarding what to do; if the holiday is traditionally observed, there is little or no room to modify how it is celebrated. Not so with Hanukkah, which was hardly celebrated at all. Thus there was room for Jews in the U.S. to adapt Hanukkah to meet their present-day needs, including more appeal to children.

Besides the appeal of Christmas, many Jewish people were feeling distant from their religious and social traditions, and their overall Jewish identity began to wane in the new homeland. This ended up being another opportunity for Hanukkah to grow, not only for children, but as a holiday for Jews of all ages to reflect on who they were as a people, and to strengthen family bonds.

A delightful read! Also available in electronic form.

USB-C Connector on USB 2 Audio Interface

Upgrading to a new Apple computer (2017 27-inch iMac) involved facing the fact that FireWire is truly ancient technology. I had already been linking my FireWire 400 Focusrite Saffire interface into my 2010 Mac Book Pro using a FireWire 400 -> FireWire 800 cable. Now to plug into a Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port on the iMac, I am routing from FireWire 400 to FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3… Amazingly, it works! But it does leave me contemplating an audio interface upgrade.

Thus I was interested in a recent product announcement from Focusrite, a new Clarett audio interface that was touted as working with USB-C. This would plug directly into the iMac with no adapters, and USB-C is markedly faster than either FireWire 400 or FireWire 800, with a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 10Gbps. However, further research on the Focusrite website shows that the new Clarett USB interface is USB-C in connector only; maintaining backwards compatibility with USB 2.0 through an adapter cable, it operates at a USB 2.0 bandwidth level.

The Clarett USB interface seems to have a useful market for people still using USB 2.0 connectors but wanting to future-proof themselves with USB-C connectors. USB 2.0 is slightly faster than FireWire 400 on the Saffire interface, but if buying a new interface today, for a brand new computer, it seems like a better option to go for a unit that supports faster bandwidth.

I’ll be watching for a true USB-C audio interface, but maybe Dante over Ethernet is the way to go…

[UPDATE: I could try to cover up my ignorance by claiming that I’m really more of a software person than hardware — which is true — but apparently bandwidth isn’t the main attribute to consider here. USB 2.0 bandwidth is plenty for over a dozen audio tracks simultaneously in and out of the computer system. If you need lots of tracks, extra bandwidth can help, but otherwise, it would make no difference. What can make a difference is the speed at which the data gets into the computer; in the computer audio world, the term is latency. USB 3.0 does not improve latency speed over USB 2.0. Thunderbolt, however, does; on the computer end, a Thunderbolt connection gets closer to being an internal bus connection, and thus can deliver that same bandwidth (or more) at a higher velocity. Since the difference occurs on the computer side, not on the interface side or along the cable, a USB-C connector that goes into a Thunderbolt 3 port might offer that latency improvement as well? A whole Thunderbolt chain definitely should!]


I don’t play a lot of electronic games, but have recently been enjoying the Electronic Arts release of Monopoly on my iPhone. For some reason, Electronic Arts is pulling the game from the Apple iOS application store tomorrow, but if you already have it on your device it should continue to work until an operating system upgrade renders it unusable.

Playing a physical Monopoly game with other people tends to be a once-in-a-while event. Playing it on your phone, against software opponents, you can play it over and over and the lessons in the game can become obvious. What can we learn from Monopoly?

  • Owning income-generating assets is a very good thing. Some assets (like Boardwalk) generate more income than others (like Baltic Avenue), but even so, it is far better to have some sort of assets than none at all.
  • Likewise, owning many assets is better than owning few. The more you own, the more likely someone will make use of what you have and pay for it. But again, it is far better to have at least some assets than none.
  • Obtaining and developing assets (like buying a property and building houses on it) may be expensive, but that expense is well worth it once it starts generating income.
  • Wage income (like collecting a paycheck as you pass “Go”) is nothing compared to asset income. You may need some of your wage income to pay bills, but put as much as possible into obtaining and developing assets.
  • Others who own assets might be willing to sell them for cash. Or they might only want another asset in return. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and you can probably come up with a deal that adequately benefits both of you.
  • Taxes are really annoying if all you have is wage income. (You can pass “Go”, collect $200, and land on “Income Tax”, and pay $200!) If you have asset income, taxes feel like just part of doing business.
  • Paying rent to others is really annoying if all you have is wage income. (You can land on a property with a hotel and instantly be out $1500!) If you have asset income, it’s no big deal, because the other players are paying you rent too. (You will quickly recover the $1500 that you paid.)

In the real world, developing properties into houses and hotels is literally a great method of building assets. But there are lots of things that can be assets: books, music, training videos, computer software, and more. On the other hand, while all possible assets in Monopoly are at least somewhat desirable, in the real world it’s entirely possible to own or to create things that nobody actually wants!

Electronic Arts has a fine rendition of Monopoly for iOS here. They sell if for 99 cents, and, with the Apple family sharing plan, up to five people can play the game indefinitely for that initial 99-cent sale. I don’t know why they are pulling the game, but regardless of the reason, maybe Electronic Arts could have made the game into more of an asset for themselves! People often sell iOS applications for dirt cheap, but this one is easily worth several times what they were charging.

Privacy Not Included

Mozilla has put together a guide to some popular internet-connected home technologies, including children’s toys, with descriptions of to what extent these devices could be used spy on you or your family.

Voice-controlled computing that could benevolently observe you and track your location looked so neat on Star Trek; now that it’s actually here, I don’t think I want it in my house…

Apple and Privacy

After hearing that the new iPhone X would encourage unlocking via face recognition, I forgot about how nicely they handled voicemail transcription and immediately started considering the privacy implications.

As with the voicemail transcription, it turned out that the face recognition works all on the device, not through sending data to Apple’s servers. And Apple has published a nice overview of various ways that their technology works to enforce individual privacy.

While end users can never be 100% assured of how proprietary technology works, Apple at least appears to be doing the right thing in this regard!

Seven Months with a Fitbit

A little over seven months have passed since I started using a Fitbit. Trying to meet my daily step goal, even while I have not reached it every day, has undoubtedly resulted in me walking more than I would have otherwise. I still feel encouraged seeing my Fitbit iPhone application light up when I reach my goal, and feel embarrassed when I see that I failed to do so.

One of my favorite Fitbit motivators seems to have slowed substantially. The application celebrated my reaching various points such as 10,000 steps in a day, or 25 flights of stairs in a day, with presenting a cheerful badge. While it still records how many times I have walked 10,000 steps in a day, it only makes a big deal out of presenting you with the badge once. I suppose if it’s an achievement that you reach basically every day, getting the badge over and over could get old and annoying, but perhaps the application could be smart enough to see that some achievements you reach only infrequently, and try to make a bigger deal out of those every time.

Another suggestion for the Fitbit outboard software: the solo challenges are really nice. Having walked in Manhattan in person, I especially enjoyed pretending to walk along the various lengths of New York maps. But after a month or two, the half-dozen built-in maps started feeling boring. How about letting users create custom maps? Or, as an additional revenue source for the company, Fitbit could offer more maps as 99-cent add-on purchases.

If they would really like to splurge along these lines, perhaps some sort of virtual reality technology could be developed, so users could be standing in their living room walking in place, but seeing what it would look like to walk in various locations.

The Fitbit device itself seems to be holding up just fine to daily use. The wristband broke a few weeks ago, I suspect due to being stressed from a dog leash around my wrist (the other end of which being attached to a certain border collie suddenly lunging toward rabbits or deer or other points of interest along the trail). Amazon reviews of inexpensive third-party Fitbit bands didn’t look entirely optimistic, so I ordered a replacement directly from Fitbit.

One of the new features that Fitbit rolled out this year was to offer tracking of sleep stages, not just time spent sleeping. While I usually remove my Fitbit when sleeping, for the times that I have left it on, I have not yet seen it report any sleep stage information. I’m not sure if this feature only works on select Fitbit models (not including mine?) or what.

Overall I have been very happy with the product, and look forward to seeing more fitness-encouraging features be developed over time. [As a disclosure, I have in fact been so impressed with my Fitbit, and hopeful for the company behind it, that I am at the moment a stockholder.]

Euler’s Method in Hidden Figures

Having thoroughly enjoyed seeing the movie Hidden Figures, I wondered about the “old math” breakthrough shown late in the story, when the Euler method is applied to aerospace calculations, after several scenes claiming that the math needed to do the calculations did not exist. While I remembered Leonhard Euler as the graph theory guy, I had to look up the referenced method.

It turns out that it is a method of doing numerical approximations of ordinary differential equations. But wait! Ordinary differential equations had been around since the days of Newton and Leibniz. We even saw differential equations written on chalkboards in the movie. Surely solving differential equations was not the mysterious new math that was needed?

The movie did not go into details, but perhaps the numerical approximation approach was key because the IBM 7090 Fortran programs that they were using to automate calculations was not able to handle symbolic differentiation and integration yet? Symbolic calculus on computers started becoming possible over the next decade, but a numeric approximation would clearly have been the best approach to feed into the computer they were using in the early 1960s.

This still doesn’t answer, though, why using Euler’s method would have been such a breakthrough. The method was written up in Hamming’s classic 1962 book on numerical methods, so while it was indeed “ancient” math as depicted in the film, it was hardly unknown. I guess we might have to presume that then (as now) a study of numerical approximations to symbolic calculations are not necessarily a mandatory part of a university mathematics education? I have worked with aerospace engineers for more than twelve years, and I would not be at all surprised if most of them have never studied numerical methods at all…  but hey, I didn’t take the class either… :-/

Fortunately, we have access today to unprecedented quantities of free and low-cost mathematics educational materials, and any movie that inspires us to take some time to study is surely a good thing.