Ramadan Part 6: Isha’a

The final of the five formal daily prayers is the Night Prayer, Isha’a. It is now offically night and the day is over.

And so is my Ramadan experiment. It was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. I didn’t really get hungry, about six hours in my stomach would grumble but then the feeling just faded. I was thirsty, however. The cotton mouth and lack of liquid gave me a slight headache, and I can see long naps being part of my routine during the month if I had to do it every day.

I did learn a lot more about the holiday, and it kind of reminded me of when I was first really exposed to Islam in Damascus.

I can remember talking with Safwan, who read to me the 99 names of God. But then he had me look at my hands. If you look at your left hand the lines kind of make an upside-down “V” (٨) followed by a “1”. This is reversed on the right hand. In Arabic, the ٨ character represents the number 8. So your left hand reads 81 and your right 18. Add them together and you get 99.

Cool, huh?

I have new respect for people willing to fast for an entire month for their beliefs. I was happy that I don’t have a job that requires a lot of manual labor out in the heat for my single day of Ramadan, and I can imagine it represents a true test for many.

I would make a poor Muslim. Pork BBQ is a cultural tradition where I live, and I make cocktails as a hobby. I also share my house with dogs. But by some standards I make a poor Christian so there’s that.

I do think I’ll make my #onedayoframadan a yearly tradition, although I probably won’t be so verbose about the experience next year.

السلام عليكم‎‎

Ramadan Part 5: Maghrib and Iftar

The fourth daily prayer is the Maghrib (west, for sunset) prayer. It also coincides with Iftar which is Arabic for “eatin’ time” (well, breakfast).

Fast update: over and completed.

I was surprised I wasn’t overwhelmingly hungry, but I was very thirsty. I went to my friend Mohammad’s restaurant, and although he wasn’t there I did get my platter half price since I had fasted. I broke my fast with a salad, falafel, dolmata, hummus and tzatziki. I also had some dates that I brought with me, since that is what the Prophet ate to break his fast and I thought it was appropriate.

Ramadan Part 3: Dhuhr

The afternoon prayer in Islam is called Dhuhr. It falls halfway between the first prayer at dawn, Fajr, and the last prayer at nightfall, Isha’a.

Fast update: no real hunger but I am getting thirsty. The “no water” rule kinda sucks.

I think it must be hard to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim country. For example, my app went off to tell me about Dhuhr while I was in the middle of a haircut. In a Muslim country everyone would be aware of the prayer times, but I can imagine a number of conflicts happening in countries outside of them.

My thought for this prayer time is that it is possible I wouldn’t be able to write this if not for Islam. Here is my argument.

After the fall of the Roman empire, European civilization fell into what is often called the Dark Ages. There was a sharp decline in the amount of scholarly work being published, and the original term “dark” was used to indicate a lack of written records of the time. Needless to say, since publication is a key part of the scientific method, not much science was advanced during that period in Europe.

However, in the Middle East there was an Islamic Golden Age where science was both preserved, encouraged and advanced. A lot of that information was fed back into Europe during the Renaissance, and since modern science arose out of that period my computer might not exist without the Mohammedans.

It seems quite the contrast with modern ideas of Muslims, mainly through the acts of radical Islamists. I am constantly filled with sadness when I read about the destruction of historic sites, especially those I haven’t visited. When I was in Syria I visited Saidnaya, a town where Aramaic (the language of Christ) is still spoken. I visited a church from the sixth century that still stands and rarely have I felt the palpable weight of history as when I entered the original sanctuary.

Where I live in the US we have nearly 400 years of history. When I was in Damascus I walked through streets that had been around for thousands of years and saw buildings nearly 1500 years old. It would be a shame to lose that.

I’m not sure how to stop further destruction, but I do know that it starts with understanding.

Ramadan Part 2: Fajr

According to my phone, dawn arrived at 04:37, so no food or drink until 20:37 tonight.

In Arabic Fajr means “dawn” and it is also the name of the first of five daily prayers practicing Muslims make.

For this post I thought I’d share some of my views on religion. Since this can be a sensitive topic I do want to stress that these are my views and I am not trying to force them on anyone or to suggest that your views are wrong.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church where I was baptized and confirmed when I was old enough. My mother was raised Catholic and on my Father’s side the men were raised Presbyterian and the women Catholic, so I have some exposure to Catholicism. My middle name is “Paul” after Pope Paul VI, as my maternal grandmother wanted to make sure I had a good saint’s name after I was christened “Tarus”.

In my teens I went through the same period of questioning that a lot of kids go through. I think there was a time that I would have claimed to be an atheist, but that passed as I experienced more of the world.

For example, take a look at your hand. As I look at mine I see lines across my palm, a cut on my index finger that I got from swapping a hard drive in an old Mac Mini earlier this week, nails that need trimming with a small amount of dirt underneath them from loading hay in the barn yesterday. The human hand is an amazing thing, and I can’t help but think that there was something spiritual in its creation. It is so well designed.

At some point in my life I accepted Pascal’s Wager. Since the rewards of believing in God are infinite and there is a finite possibility God exists, one should believe in God since you have everything to gain and little to lose. But then the choice became: which God?

I actively explored a lot of religions, but organized religion seemed to have one main flaw: they all want to answer the questions for you that are the most worth asking.

For example, I bet I could take two twin women, religious spinsters together all of their lives, and find some point of religion on which they disagree. It isn’t cut and dried. The word of God, whether it comes from the Bible, the Qu’ran or the Torah, requires interpretation.

Now, if I take St. Thomas Aquinas’s argument of the existence of God through perfection, a perfect God would have given me an ability to reason my way to being the best person I could be. In other words, I should be able to determine, with study, right from wrong, and then take action because I believe it in my heart and not because some guy in dark clothes told me I had to or I would go to Hell.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about what are the right things to do and what are wrong.

One of my “holy” books is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. I keep a copy by my desk for those hard days. In it, he explains in simple terms concepts of the Tao, the idea that everything is connected and that there are certain harmonies to existence. When one is in sync with those harmonies, it is known as “happiness”. If you work against them, you will be unhappy. This is a gross oversimplification but I hope you get the gist. If I had to put a label on my religion, I would chose “lapsed Taoist”.

I also consider myself a Christian as in “a follower of the teachings of Christ” but most Christians would claim I wasn’t one since I think the point of whether or not he was the Son of God is moot. He said some pretty cool things that really fit into the idea of the Tao, such as “ask and it shall be given”, “knock and it shall be opened” and “turn the other cheek”.

I had a pen pal in an author named George Alec Effinger who died too young in 2002. He wrote a futuristic cyberpunk series set in a Middle Eastern world, which was one of my first exposures to the Islamic culture and Ramadan (in his books people just slept during the day for the month and worked at night). One quote he wrote that was supposed to be from the Qu’ran was “God delights in the infinite variety of his creation”. While I haven’t been able to confirm that is truly from that book (it doesn’t exist as written in any English translation I’ve found), I do like the sentiment.

I think if we spent more time “delighting” in our differences, we’d all be happier.

I still don’t see any light in the East, but I did my research and apparently it is okay to go back to bed after Fajr, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll be back this afternoon.

Ramadan Part 1: Suhūr

Muslims have three standard meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) like most cultures around the world, but during Ramadan those are often reduced to two: Suhūr before fasting and Iftar to end the fast.

The fasting starts at dawn, not sunrise, or as most people call it “o’dark thirty”.

I usually eat fruit for breakfast so that is what I made for Suhūr. I added in some Greek yogurt and some pomegranate juice, as well as a large glass of water. I’ve been told you want to avoid salt as it can make you thirsty. No food or drink, including water, is allowed during the fast.

I found myself paranoid that I would oversleep, and I ended up waking at 03:58 – two minutes before my alarm. As I write this I keep looking out to the East to see if there is any light. Dawn isn’t supposed to be until 04:37, but you are supposed to stop eating ten or so minutes before just to be sure.

So with my sugar, my fiber and my water, I think I’m ready to make it through the day.

Ramadan Part 0: Niyyah

There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, roughly 23% of the population of the planet. There are five main “pillars” of Islam, and these are:

  • Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith.
  • Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
  • Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
  • Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  • Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

We are currently in the month of Ramadan, a holy month spent fasting and reflecting. The Islamic calendar is based on the moon, not the sun, and so holy days tend to move around a bit each year. Since this year Ramadan corresponds with the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the days are particularly long. Since fasting is done from dawn to sunset, this means the fast lasts a lot longer than if Ramadan had occurred in the winter.

I have friends who are Muslim, and one of them, Mohammad (not all Muslims are named Mohammad but this one is) mentioned to me that in Michigan, with its large Muslim population, they are starting a tradition of inviting their non-Muslim neighbors to join them in fasting for one day.

As someone who is always seeking out new experiences, I thought, hey, that sounds like something to try, so tomorrow I plan to spend one day in the shoes of a Muslim. I will wake up around 4am for Suhūr (a pre-fasting meal) and while I don’t pray I plan to stop for Salat and write a little reflective blog post for each of the five times a devout Muslim would pray. I also plan to keep Halal for the day (I don’t plan to break my fast with some North Carolina pork BBQ and a beer, for example).

I should point out that I’m doing this with no guidance outside of what I can find on the Internet, and the lovely little app called Muslim Pro which will help me keep track of times. In much the same way as I believe in a concept called “karma” but do not claim to understand that term as a formal Hindu religious concept, I want to apologize in advance if I get something wrong. I mean no offense and only seek understanding.

Oooh, and it turns out that part of the process of fasting is to announce one’s intention to fast. That is called “niyyah” and this is mine.

Me and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Weekend

After a wonderful week at this year’s OpenNMS Dev-Jam, I came home on Saturday to find some problems.

On Friday there had been a pretty bad storm, and the farm lost power for over 12 hours. Earlier on Saturday Andrea had called me when I was packing:

Andrea: How many times do you have to pull on the generator cord to get it to start?
Me: Usually about ten times or so.

Andrea (calling me back): Thirty-five!

So, okay, perhaps I should run the generator more often. Of course, as soon as she got it going Duke Energy called to tell her the power was back on.

Anyway, due to the power outage I had to turn on a few machines when I returned. Everything is on APC UPS systems, but they only last 20 minutes or so. We have a room we use as an office that we call “The Study”, and I run a CAT6 cable from there to the living room. The living room is in the center of the house, so that’s where the DSL modem and the wireless router live, but for some reason I couldn’t get from the Study to the Internet. Also, I found out that my new Synology NAS wouldn’t even power on. No real worries, as I live by the rule that “RAID is not Backup“, but still annoying.

From what I can deduce, I think lightning hit near the house and generated enough of a spike that it was picked up by the CAT6 cable and the port on the router was fried. In fact, the port next to it was fried as well. When I moved the cable to the third port, the link light came back on.

However, that didn’t really fix the problem. Now that I could connect to the router, I could tell that it wasn’t behaving all that well. There was a lot of packet loss, etc. So, add a fried ASUS RT-N66U to the list along with the Synology.

I ordered a replacement from Amazon, but since I didn’t want to live without Internet, on Sunday morning I went to the office and borrowed an Airport Extreme we used to use for trade shows. It wasn’t a drop in replacement. First, this Airport only had three LAN ports (the Asus has four) and Apple’s software limits what network address ranges you can use. Of course, my network is different from their defaults, so I had to go around and renumber everything. I added in a small switch to make up for the missing port.

And it still didn’t work.

I wasn’t getting an IP address from Centurylink, so I called and sure enough, there was an outage (caused by the same storm).

Now, this year after Dev-Jam, several people followed us home: one Italian (Antonio) and four Germans. Antonio came in on Saturday and the Germans were landing Sunday evening. By this time on Sunday I needed to go pick up Antonio for the afternoon, and then we were going to go to the airport to pick up everyone else. So I had to leave the problem of the Internet connection for later.

The reason I got chauffeur duty was that I am the main driver of the new UlfMobile. Our company, OpenNMS, has grown to the point that we have a lot of people visiting from out of town and we need to rent a car for them. The frequency of these visits was costing us enough money that it made better sense to lease a company car. We got a Toyota Highlander, which can seat seven in a pinch as well as haul around gear for conferences, etc. Not my first choice in vehicle (I like small cars, preferably without tops) but now we had something that visitors could drive and instead of the hassle of renting a car (that more times than not shows up nasty) they can drive a nice, clean vehicle big enough to haul a bunch of people around.

Anyway, Andrea and I picked up Antonio, we had lunch, and then decided to visit the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. These are beautiful gardens in Chapel Hill and since it was a nice day it was a wonderful time to visit. As we were leaving, we noticed that the UNC police were in the parking lot. Apparently, someone smashed a window of a car to steal a phone. Andrea looked at me and said “Uh, I left my purse in the car”.

As I looked toward the UlfMobile, I could tell that the passenger side window was smashed, and was certain her purse was no longer in the car.


In all, the thieves hit seven cars in that fairly busy parking lot.

This set off a number of tasks. First, Andrea had to go and talk with the police officer. I had to call David to make other arrangements to pick up the Germans. And then there were all of the bank/credit card accounts to close.

The thief or thieves got her purse, which contained her wallet, ID, credit cards, ATM card, checkbook, house keys, car key, truck key, work key and ID. It also had a Nexus 5 that we were using as a media player (it didn’t have an active SIM card).

I called Citi to cancel the credit card and Bank of America to cancel the ATM card as well as close our checking account. Her work ID didn’t identify the exact place where she worked, so it was doubtful they could use the ID to get in or know where her car would be, but still I called to get it canceled. I then called my Nationwide insurance guy (if you are ever looking for an insurance guy in the RTP area, call Jody Shover) on his mobile phone and he promised to get that process started.

All in all it took about two hours before we were told we could leave. Then came the process of cleaning up the broken glass to the point where we could drive the car back to Pittsboro and return Antonio to his Bed and Breakfast.

I told Antonio, “Welcome to America”.

Of course, that didn’t end the evening. My Internet connection, which I could have really used to deal with all of this, was still down. I called Centurylink back, and when there was no “there is an outage in your area” message, I waited until I was connected to a support representative.

By this time I had my laptop connected directly to the DSL modem. It looked like the DSL circuit itself was fine, but it wasn’t passing data. I told this to Lei, the lady at Centurylink, and her response was “No, your Internet is okay, the light is green”.


Now I try very hard to be nice to people like Lei. But as the conversation progressed, she obviously wasn’t equipped to handle the issue, and to be frank I was pretty much at the end of what I could deal with at that moment. I started getting more and more angry, because, damn it, I just really needed to get one thing fixed before going to bed.

I finally just asked to be transferred to second level support. To my astonishment, she didn’t resist, and I found myself talking to Joseph.

Many years ago, when I worked at Northern Telecom, they had us go through a two day race relations course created by C.T. Vivian. It was one of the best things Northern ever did for me. It was intense. At one point we discussed the idea of “talking black”. It’s a stereotype that all black people talk a certain way and it can be harmful.

Anyway, Joseph immediately struck me as someone who “talked geek”. When dealing with technical support people, I often omit the fact that I run Linux and other open source software on pretty much every device I own. It’s just easier to lie. With Joseph, I just laid it all out. Look, I said, I have a Zyxel 660R that I’ve set up in bridge mode to talk to my router. I’m in the web interface and it looks like the DSL circuit is fine but I’m not getting an IP address.

He immediately went to work. The first issue was that it was provisioned wrong, and he adjusted the numbers which was immediately reflected in the modem’s webUI. Still no incoming packets, however. We tried a number of things but nothing seemed to work. I can remember at one point when I was resetting the router, he asked me to check the VCI/VPI values when I could get back into the interface. I told him “8 and 35” without waiting (I had seen it earlier) which turned out to be correct.

We narrowed it down to an issue with the cross connects in the DSLAM, but he couldn’t fix the issue remotely. About that time he gets excited and tells me that an outage has been registered on the device (apparently three people have to complain). They have people 24×7 who can work on things and he promised that my service should be better soon.

Centurylink needs to find Joseph and give him a raise. It makes me wish this XKCD comic were true.

So, I put everything back, brushed my teeth and by the time I got into bed the service had been restored. Yay! One thing off the list.

And it was a very long list.

I didn’t sleep well Sunday night. Knowing someone has your address and house keys is nerve-wracking. Even though I have a security system and two Dobermans, I knew I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep until the locks were changed.

On Monday I didn’t go to work since I had to go with Andrea to the bank to open up a new account. That afternoon I worked from home as the NC DMV for being able to request a duplicate license on-line. It hasn’t shown up yet but it certainly beats a trip to the nearest office.

I did keep checking on Google to see if the Nexus 5 would ever show up with a valid location. It hasn’t, which I didn’t expect since there wasn’t a SIM card in it. What does frustrate me is that I do have the IMEI (358239-05-036647-7 if anyone is interested) but that doesn’t seem to matter. In the US that phone will only work on AT&T or T-mobile. The moment it joins the network they will know, and they should be able to associate it with a person. It doesn’t look like they do that, though. I don’t blame them entirely (they sell data services and are not police) but still – the technology exists to locate that phone.

A slew of other, small problems also arose but this post is long enough so I won’t go into detail. Weather delayed our replacement credit cards as well as my router. I run Tomato by Shibby and I was frustrated to find out that the configuration backup and restore doesn’t work across different modems (even those of the same make and model). Apparently the NVRAM settings are too specific. I tried to cherry pick a few of them but obviously didn’t get all of the right ones, so I ended up manually configuring the router. The hardest part was re-figuring out my Hurricane Electric IPv6 tunnel, but overall the process wasn’t too bad.

So, most of my home network is back in business. The Synology box is on its way to Washington State for repair, and we still have a few loose ends (mainly dealing with automatic drafts) to clean up, but things are getting back to normal.

Well, somewhat. I’ve noticed a change in my attitude toward certain things, such as surveillance. The Botanical Gardens are a public place, and had they put up a few surveillance cameras there is a chance that seven cars would have been unmolested. This isn’t a certainty (the UlfMobile was parked next to a metal fence with a clear view from a very busy street) but at a minimum it would have provided a few more clues. I’m still not decided about this, but had there been cameras I know I would have been grateful.

I’m certain that the people who did this will be caught. The theft was too brazen to be the work of cautious thieves, although I don’t expect to get anything back. I know that we’ll be more cautious in the future.

On the upside, I guess it can’t hurt to periodically reset your life. I know exactly where all the keys to my house are located. We have new credit card and bank account numbers which have yet to be used. I just wish I’d had more say in the matter.

The Issue of Marriage Equality

Several months ago I read How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams. This is the guy who creates the Dilbert comic strip, and while I like Dilbert I never miss a chance to read Scott’s blog.

Fully realizing the irony of taking life advice from a cartoonist (well, then again, there is Bill Watterson, so maybe it isn’t ironic at all), I adopted at least one tip of his which is to limit your exposure to negativity. While I used to be a news junky, news on the whole leans strongly toward the negative, so now I limit myself to mainly skimming RSS feeds. So I am aware of things like the unrest in Baltimore and the earthquake in Nepal, but I know enough to feel sympathy for the victims without working myself into deep sadness or rage.

In the USA Today that sits unread on the desk in my hotel room, there is a story with the headline “High court split on gay marriage” and a deck of “Justices seeing no easy answer to age-old question.”

I can solve the problem easily, although the Justices won’t do it: get the government out of the marriage business.

The word “marriage” is too loaded with religious connotations. In many religions, specifically Catholicism, marriage is a sacrament (“a Christian rite recognized as of particular importance and significance”).

Now the Justices are supposed to uphold the Constitution, and they have spent over two centuries trying to interpret its meaning. In the first amendment, there is the phrase that Congress shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. When asked for clarification, Jefferson (pretty much the dude who wrote it) stated it meant “building a wall of separation between Church & State“.

It will be impossible to both uphold Jefferson’s intent and use the word marriage to describe any government sanctioned relationship. Thus we should throw it out.

I propose the term “household”. A “household” is a social unit that exists for the mutual benefit of its members, to care and raise any of their children, and the sharing of resources and responsibilities.

Note that it doesn’t include any reference to gender or even number of people. I think it should be managed like a corporation, without the idea of ownership shares. Two or more people can form a household by registering it with the government, and there should be a method for both adding and removing people from a household as well as dissolving it altogether.

This would cover one man and one woman, one woman and another woman or one man and another man, a young person and an older relative, polyamorous groupings or even larger communal living arrangements.

I’m not proposing this to promote or encourage any of those living arrangements, but instead to build on some of the work of one of the best social engineers who ever lived, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

I’m not claiming that we should adopt all of his policies, but he did institute a program that encourages people in Singapore to buy a home through payroll deduction (basically, a tax) that can only be used for that purpose. Having a large part of the population with a vested interest in preserving infrastructure promotes societal stability. In other words, people who own homes, even a small apartment loft, are a lot less likely to burn them down.

I think familial units, i.e. households, work pretty much the same way. By recognizing these relationships in a formal way, it gives them meaning. And by putting up at least some barriers to dissolving them, it gives them longevity. And thus we could apply similar tax breaks given to those who can file as “Married” on their current tax forms to promote this stability, and we can move the question of marriage back to churches and individuals.