The Whole iMegillah

The Jewish holiday of Purim was a week ago Monday. It’s the day when Jews read the book of Esther, where the Jews of Persia are saved from persecution by the joint efforts of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. The antagonist and Bad Guy is Haman, who erects a wooden spike on which to impale Mordechai but ends up getting impaled himself. Purim is a joyful, boisterous and very noisy holiday, where everyone is encouraged to dress in goofy costumes. As the megillah (scroll) is being read aloud, whenever “Haman” is uttered his name is gleefully drowned out by yells and all variety of wooden and metal noisemakers. Haman’s name appears often, so there is a lot of yelling. Also traditional is the liberal use of adult beverages, although at my synagogue this was limited to one bottle of (very tasty) single malt whisky.

The whole megillah is read again the next morning, invariably a much more subdued setting. Behind me was a rabbi holding her iPhone. That in itself was unusual, because the use of electronics during services is frowned upon — but this being Purim, the rules are relaxed all around. Then I realized that she was following along with the reading — her iPhone app included the entire Book of Esther, in vertical scroll format! Better yet, it has five different noise options, including “booing crowd” and “wooden grogger”. Press the grogger icon, instant grogger noise! But my favorite feature: you can shake the iPhone itself to get noise — just like a real grogger. I was so captivated that I missed several verses of the reading.

Just two days before I had been to a Berkeley CyberSalon at the Hillside Club, where the topic was iPhone apps. There were a series of quick demos of new apps by their developers, after which we were polled about how much we would pay for them. I don’t own an iPhone, and had somehow missed the explosion of apps: somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 at this writing.  Too bad someone didn’t demo the Esther app (“Just in time for Purim!”). My favorite was Terra (formerly Blue Marble) by David Rowland, a Earth simulation that allows you fix a point in time and twirl the planet, or fix a point on the planet and zoom back and forth in time. Tough to describe in a few words, but if you like astronomy it’s very cool.

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