How Much Technical Debt do You Have?
Parshat Noach 5780
You’re having dinner in middle of February, and your furnace blows. The house slowly starts getting colder, and you call the HVAC guy who tries to troubleshoot it over the phone. When nothing works, he promises to come right away, but warns you that there will be a after-hours service charge add-on, he too was in middle of dinner!
He shows up a half hour later, spends twenty minutes t around in your basement and comes back up with the report. There was a buildup of rust and dirt on the computer board, which caused it to burn out, and he cleaned it up, switched out the board, and the furnace is running again. He reminds you to please clean the board off periodically because when they aren’t clean, they overheat and die. The bill is $235. But he also warns you that the blower motor is old and dying, and he recommends that you switch it out for $400, because if it dies and you don’t realize it, the resulting meltdown and mess will cost you over $1,000 to fix.
You don’t have an extra $400 sitting around, as a matter of fact you don’t really have the $235 for the current fix, but you have no choice on the current fix, and you have a choice on the $400, so you thank him and tell him that you’ll think about the blower motor and get back to him if you want him to switch it out. Phew, you just saved yourself $400! Or did you?
The precise term for what you just did, is that you saved yourself $400 but you took out a load of technical debt. Technical debt is what accrues when you fail to invest in a low-cost preventative solution now, which will likely cause you high-cost reactionary solutions later. You didn’t want to spend the $400 on the blower motor today, so it goes to the background and starts collecting interest at a pretty steep rate, because in two years when it overheats and takes out a number of other furnace parts with it, the cost of that repair is going to be $1200. That was roughly 100% interest per year!
The US is facing such a staggeringly high level of technical debt that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Let’s look at water infrastructure, which includes everything from wastewater plants, and stormwater drains, to levees, drinking water quality, and safe piping. Per capital federal funding on water infrastructure has dropped sharply since the 1970’s. In the 1977, the federal government paid for 63% of the total water infrastructure costs, today it only pays 9%. Politicians would much rather get publicity for introducing new benefits and subsidies or tax cuts than for spending billions on keeping our water infrastructure up to date.
So the US has built up over one trillion dollars in technical debt in water infrastructure. Many of the roughly one million major pipes carrying this countries water are close to 100 years old. Every day, we lose six billion gallons of treated drinking water to deficient pipes! The technical debt is starting to bubble to the surface with public scandals like the Flint Water Crisis, and extraordinary high water prices, which ironically are happening most acutely in Great Lake States, the ones that border the greatest bodies of fresh water in North America!
Since 2010, the cost of water for the average US citizen has gone up by 54%, but from 2007-2018 Chicago residents saw their water bills triple! Cleveland residents saw them double! In Detroit, a city with a median income of less than $27,000, the average family paid $1,151 for water! In Oak Park, our family paid over $1,800 last year for water, and we don’t sprinkle our lawn! This is the insidious cost of technical debt. People don’t want to pay the routine upkeep costs and end up with huge bills and crisis down the road that cost far more.
Across the US infrastructure is crumbling. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the overall infrastructure in the US gets a D+ on its report card, and they estimate that we need to spend $4.5 trillion in the next six years to bring the countries roads, bridges, dams, airports, and schools back to an acceptable level. One of Trump’s 2016 Campaign promises was a $1 trillion infrastructure package, he’s been in office for almost three years, and that promise has not been kept. On April 30, we were told that Trump, the Republicans and Democrats agreed to a $2 trillion dollar package, but they hadn’t figured out from where to fund it. That was the last we heard of that one. And the technical debt keeps accruing interest.
Part of that interest is being called in right now, as fires blaze through California, many of them started by power lines that haven’t been updated in decades. The Oroville spillway, part of the dam holding back California’s second largest reservoir of fresh water gave way in 2017 and needed a $500 million immediate band aid. Another dam collapsed in Williamson County, TX this past May and has yet to be fully repaired. Airport infrastructure is so behind that dozens of airports across the nation will experience Thanksgiving-weekend levels of traffic and delays once a week throughout 2020. We’ve also seen a few bridges collapse, from the I-5 bridge in Seattle, to the I-35 Mississippi River bridge which came with 13 fatalities and 145 injuries. You can push the technical debt further away, but sometimes the technical interest is impossible to ignore.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about a Water Infrastructure malfunction of the highest order, The Great Flood. In the Jewish year 1656, (2105 BCE), water covered the whole earth, not just bridges, dams and spillways, but hilltops and mountain peaks as well! The entirety of mankind was wiped out, save for Noach and his seven family members, and it was a long time before civilization would recover. Many wonder, why did G-d use water? G-d has infinite abilities; what made Him choose a flood? He could have used an army of alien fire-breathing cows, that would scorch everything on earth and then mosey on back out of the Milky Way. He could have deployed massive earthquakes, opening up holes in the ground, and shaking frightfully until everything was swallowed into the earth and sank down into magma. He could have brought a superfungus that would rapid-rot everything back into soil in a matter of hours. (Please email me your most creative ways for G-d to destroy the world and everything in it!) But He choose water; why?
An idea I heard from my Rabbi, Reb Shmuel Brazil, Shlita, is as follows. We know that in Genesis, the only day of creation upon which G-d does not declare “behold it was good” is the second day of creation. One of the reasons given is that on the second day, G-d worked with the water, dividing between the upper waters (water in outer space, of which there is far more than on earth), and the lower waters (the waters on earth). But since G-d would only finish with the water works on the third day of creation, when He would pull back the water and let the dry land show, it was not considered a finished job on the second day of creation, and an unfinished job gets no “good” grade on the report card.
Which of course makes you question, why didn’t G-d complete the water works on the Second Day of Creation? It’s not like He was using union employees, who walked out at 5pm sharp before he could complete the job?
The answer is like this. Our world is made of four primary elements; earth, wind, water, fire. All of them surround the globe. The earth’s crust is at all points of the globe. Wind, the atmosphere, covers the entire globe. Fire, represented by the heat and light of the sun, touches all parts of the globe at some point. Water is the only exception, water only covers 70% of the earth. But at the end of the second day of creation, the day the water works began, indeed water covered the entire earth, as it naturally should. Then the next day, the third day (which parallels the sixth day where G-d created mankind, check out the 1-4, 2-5, 3-6 parallels) G-d pulled back the water to show the earth so that mankind could live comfortably in a dry environment.
Which of course makes you question, if water is supposed to cover the earth, why not just create mankind (and all the other land based animals) with gills so that we could live under water too, and this way all four elements get to be left in their natural state?
Aha! You are good at this! The answer is that G-d wanted to show mankind, “Look, I’m changing the natural order of the world, so that you can thrive in your environment. Water should cover the world, but I’m changing it, so that you, a gill-less creature can thrive. And the lesson I want you to take is that in order for your to thrive in this world, you will have to change your nature too. I’m going to give you some negative traits, and the only way you will be able to thrive in this world is by learning to conquer and hold back your natural instincts, to create holiness, beauty, giving, love, and sanctity.”
What happened when all of mankind refused to try to curb even their most base instincts? When everyone man did whatever he wanted, without trying to pull back any desire or whim? G-d says, “Let me show you what a world looks like when no one holds back anything!” And G-d let’s the waters go back to their natural state, and water covers the world once again.
The message of the Great Flood, is that in order for us to thrive as humans, we need to learn to hold ourselves in check, and not follow every inclination, every base desire. When we do that, the world itself, nature itself bends to support us. When we don’t nature goes back to its natural state, which is one filled with natural disasters which are really natural occurrences.
The preventative maintenance that G-d wants to see us do in this world, is learning to put ourselves in check. I want that- but it’s not appropriate, so I look away. I want to say that- but it’s not appropriate so I bite my tongue and say nothing. I want to make lots of fast profits, but it’s going to cost the earth too much, so I take the more responsible route. When we do that, there is not a lot of build up of technical debt. We won’t have to pay for it down the road, and neither will our children.
I spoke with a heating and cooling technician today, and he said that when he looks at a furnace, in ten seconds he can tell whether the family has been responsible about their maintenance or if they’ve been sitting back and accruing technical debt, and it makes a world of difference. Let’s put in the extra effort early on, do our preventative maintenance, and we’ll be amazed at how beautiful a technical-debt free life feels!
Parsha Dvar Torah
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. (Gen. 6:9-10)
The Torah begins Parshas Noach by introducing Noach and his family, the people who would survive the Great Flood and repopulate earth. However, the wording seems a bit strange. In Biblical Hebrew the word aileh – “these are,” is an exclusionary phrase. What is the Torah coming to exclude when it says these are the offspring of Noach, who else might I have thought would be his offspring?
In the answer to this question lies the key difference between Noach and the patriarchs. While Noach was a righteous man, he is not considered one of our great leaders and didn’t merit becoming a patriarch. Noach did what was right, but he didn’t concern himself with the welfare of those around him. The opposite of this approach was that of Avraham, the first of the patriarchs. In next week’s portion, G-d tells Avraham to leave his birthplace and set out to a place which would be more conducive to spiritual growth. In describing the journey, the Torah tells us, “Avram took his wife Sarai, Lot, his brother’s son, all the possessions they had acquired, and the soul that they had made in Charan, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 12:5)
What or who were the souls they made in Charan? Did Avraham have a soul factory with his wife, where they made souls (if there is such a thing, I would love to buy some extra souls for some of my professors from grad school, since I am quite certain they have no soul of their own)? Rashi explains that these were the people that Avraham and his wife Sara converted while living in Charan. When Avraham found the ultimate truth, which was known to almost no one else in his time, he didn’t simply keep it to himself. Rather, he tried to teach all of humanity about the new monotheistic understanding he had reached.
Avraham and Sara were rewarded by having the Torah call the converts that they helped create “the souls that they made in Charan.” The Torah recognizes that when one instills spirituality into someone else they are, in a sense, similar to a parent. One type of parent gives people their physical life, while the other type gives them their spiritual life. We see that Avraham felt a parental concern even for the sinners of his generation by the way he prays, beseeches, and entreats G-d on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorra, asking that they not be wiped out. A person like Avraham, while only having a few biological children, has thousands of spiritual offspring.
Noach, on the other hand, didn’t pray that the people of his generation not get wiped out in the Great Flood. Nor do we find that he worked with them to try to turn them into true penitents who would merit to survive the Flood along with him and his family. For this reason, the Torah tells us, “these are the offspring of Noach” highlighting a deficiency – Noach only had the biological children that the Torah continues to list, not the numerous spiritual offspring he could have had.
The Sages tell us that one must always ask himself, “When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers?” One of the important ways in which we should emulate our patriarchs is by feeling a sense of responsibility for others, even sinners. Those that we can influence for the good, we should, and those that we can’t, we should pray for, asking that they repent and become good people. In this way, when the time comes for us to take leave of this good green earth, we will leave behind offspring too numerous to count!
This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)
One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.
G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys).
The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area. The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.
When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.
For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding. Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.
When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.
From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.
Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel, the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!
Quote of the week: We will not know, unless we begin. – Howard Zinn
Random Fact of the Week: If you shake a can of mixed nuts, the larger nuts rise to the top.
Funny Line of the Week: Flying is simple, just throw yourself at the ground, and miss.
Have an Exhilarating Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham