Blog: Reflections

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Ballot problems

Here in Pittsburgh, voting by mail in 2020 and in this year's primary was smooth for me. Ballots were mailed in time, the process was smooth, tracking worked. Naturally I assumed that for the minor off-year election today, the same would be true. Boy was I wrong.

My ballot was spoiled on arrival. It had my name printed on it (uh, secret ballot anyone?) along with a bar code. (Photo at end of post.) It was printed across part of the ballot, obscuring some candidate names. There were no return envelopes, neither the secrecy envelope nor the outer one with identifying info (the one you mail). Just this misprinted ballot in an envelope sent to me.

I visited the URL printed on that envelope and submitted a support ticket. Crickets. Later I called the phone number listed there. When I finally reached a human, the person said "oh you've reached the state; you need your county". So I tried to track them down. No luck.

It was now a week before the election. No time for a replacement ballot to arrive and be received back. I looked up how to vote in person (and confirmed their Covid protocols).

I want to interject that the people at my polling place today were great. This isn't their fault. They did everything they could to deal with this problem not of their making.

I learned this morning that this ballot misprinting happened to other people too. Mine was the first case in my precinct at my polling place, so they had to look up the instructions for handling a surrendered mail-in ballot. I had brought everything I received, as instructed. I filled out the form. Then they saw in their documentation that I had to hand over the ballot and the two return envelopes. The return envelopes I never got. We all agreed that my name being printed right on the ballot ought to confirm my ID for validation purposes (that's why they want the outer envelope, where my name should have been printed), but we didn't feel safe relying on logic. This is government, after all.

They offered to escalate so I could vote now but said that could take a while -- how long could I wait? I was on my way to work (I now go to the office one day a week). Fortunately my workplace is flexible that way, but I still didn't have another hour to spend on this at the time. I considered leaving and coming back after work, but figured anybody who could help worked 9-4 or something like that and wouldn't be available anyway.

So I cast a provisional ballot. I'm assured it will be counted some days hence. I have a tracking number. This still feels very wrong.

Even though my vote will probably be counted, even though it probably doesn't make a difference this time, I feel disenfranchised. What happens in the mid-terms next year when people are more motivated to place hurdles in front of voters? What happens to voters who are likely targets (like immigrants) or have mobility challenges or who lack confidence in standing up for their rights? I'm a white professional in the heart of a very blue city (albeit in a purple state) who had the time and perseverance to try to chase this down after the bad ballot arrived. I have way more advantages than many, and I failed. What hope did others have?

The problem wasn't at the state level where most of the attention is, and it wasn't actual election tampering as far as I can tell. It was an error made by the county that affected an unknown number of people. Nobody's watching counties in all the election shenanigans. I'm in Allegheny County, not voter-suppression-ville. This was an accident, but I couldn't get it corrected.

Brr.

Photo: Read more…

Looking back

A year in, I find myself thinking back to the beginnings. In January of 2020 we had early reports, increasing in February, but life went on mostly as normal anyway. There was a local SCA event on March 7, and part of me wanted to stay home but our choir was performing and a friend was coming in from out of town to attend (and crash with us), and we went and had a lovely time -- and a healthy one, fortunately.

Purim was a few days later, and at the last minute I decided not to go to a large gathering. (They advised the elderly to stay home, but they didn't cancel.) Our Shabbat minyan met on March 14, but we moved into the sanctuary, where the 25 or so of us could spread out in a room that seats over 300. We didn't know then, but it would be the last time we met in person for more than a year.

Over that weekend, or maybe Monday, the state had some early rumblings of a stay-at-home order. It must not have taken effect immediately, because I remember going into the office on the following Monday, and taking some equipment home with me so I could work from home. Our office formally closed around Wednesday, I think, but it was a formality; we'd all decided by then that staying home was the wiser move. And soon there was a stay-at-home order from the state.

My choir had cancelled that week's practice, and the director cancelled through the end of the month, with the idea that we'd look at other options (outdoors? a really large space? the home we were practicing in was clearly out of consideration). We were so optimistic back then, despite the warnings we'd gotten from other parts of the world. It wasn't that we thought we were invulnerable; rather, we thought that with a little care, one could mitigate the risk without having to completely isolate. Ha. Read more…

#RenewDemocracy

Seen on Twitter:

We're excited to launch the #RenewDemocracy Challenge with @AVindman

During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate 3 friends to do the same! Be sure to use hashtag: #RenewDemocracy (source)

A friend tagged me. I responded there, but it didn't fit in one tweet and I want to record it here too. I'll preserve the original structure, meaning some compact language to fit in individual tweets.


Democracy is a decision by a society to band together to support all, not just the majority & powerful. It means working together for common good, not bowing to thugs. It means freedom, not free rein to cause damage. It means using your voice not your fist. 1/4

Democracy means being able to chart your own course so long as you don't trample others. It means owning your body, your beliefs, your goals - and consequences of your acts - but no one else's.

It means offering a hand to a stranger in need who is also part of this society. 2/4

Democracy means working together w/people not like us to understand other perspectives - a necessary precondition to make decisions about how the public commons operates & what policies need to change. It means each voice counting, once. It means losing, or winning, w/grace. 3/4

Democracy means hearing diverse perspectives but not granting any one of them authority. Democracy is communal and consensual or it fails. Fearing the mob isn't democracy; neither is minority rule.

Democracy is complicated and essential for civil society. 4/4


And here I'll add: any constructive societal structure, including democracy, requires dealing with complex ideas, nuance, and context, far more than fits in a sound bite or a handful of tweets. It means learning and adjusting one's perceptions, not holding stubbornly to One True Way firm in the belief that all others are wrong and out to get you. It means holding contradictory ideas in your head and reasoning about them and their implications. It means thinking critically, and also not dismissing new ideas because they're new. It means having the humility to know that we don't know everything, even about ourselves let alone the others in our shared society, while having the courage and confidence to speak up when we perceive wrongs. It means having the compassion to care about others and not just ourselves.

It means recognizing that sometimes you'll disagree with those on your "side" or agree with those on the "other side". We talk in the US about left and right, but it's not a line, it's a canvas. We can't reduce our discourse, or our caricatures of each other, to binary positions -- either/or, in or out. People are complicated, and societies made out of people are complicated.

The polarization we see in our country today isn't just bad because it's divisive and too often violent. It's also bad because it erases all of that complexity in the middle, the stuff we need to be able to understand and engage with if we are to get along.

2020

Somebody on Twitter asked:

What did you learn in 2020 (besides how to make bread)?

I responded there:

  • To grow food in pots.
  • To cut men's hair.
  • To cook more new things.
  • That my cat loves me being home all the time.
  • More about community-building.
  • How to set up a nonprofit foundation.
  • To cut people w/no morals or human decency out of my life.
  • And yes, sourdough.

I was up against a character limit there, but I'm not here. Read more…

Two years

Say their names:

  • Joyce Fienberg
  • Richard Gottfried
  • Rose Mallinger
  • Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz (who ran to the fire)
  • Cecil Rosenthal
  • David Rosenthal
  • Bernice Simon
  • Sylvan Simon
  • Daniel Stein
  • Melvin Wax
  • Irving Younger

May their memories be for a blessing.

They were good people. I miss them.

Election mechanics (not about the US)

A few days ago I was musing elsewhere about some online elections. Specifically, Stack Exchange has been running elections to replace all the moderators who have quit, and it's highlighting some weaknesses in their election scheme. Ranked voting is much better than "first past the post" but you still have to put the right checks in place.

If your election system uses ranked voting, think about how voters can reject candidates. The Hugo awards have "no award" as an automatic candidate in each category and you rank all candidates. My local SCA group lets you mark candidates as not acceptable and any who get 35% NA are removed, which gives the voters a veto when needed. Systems in which you pick N candidates lack this safety check.

"Cast N votes" doesn't let you distinguish between "this candidate is ok but not in my top N" and "I oppose this candidate". And even if you allow "not acceptable" marks on candidates (like my SCA group), you still need to allow ranking those candidates so voters can express "the clueless candidate before the evil one". If I recall correctly, my SCA group gets that part wrong; if you vote "not acceptable" you can't also rank the candidate, so you can't express degrees of unacceptability. If your goal is to deter NA votes that's a positive; if your goal is to elect people who are broadly acceptable then it's a negative. Read more…

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.


But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

If at first you don't succeed, redefine success

Stack Exchange (may their venture funders wise up speedily in our day) lost a lot of moderators in the great evil of last fall and winter. They also fired most of the community managers who knew how the election machinery works, so they've been slow to replace them.

Then in July they announced changes to the moderator agreement, saying all new mods would be bound by it and all existing mods had 60 days to sign it or they'd be out. (This does not seem like smart timing given the previous paragraph.) The new agreement contains some troubling language, and some mods have said they won't sign it. I don't know how many; I didn't spend a lot of time digging around on their network. The deadline is tomorrow.

So, all in all, it's not surprising that they're having trouble filling all those moderator vacancies. It's also not surprising that they're trying to spin this to cover up their many mistakes. Read more…

Religious uncertainty

The original post had restricted access. While I'm now fine with making my post public, people commented under the assumption of a restricted audience and I'm not going to expose those. Hence, no link to the original for this one.

With some trepidation, I have just sent the email that might lead to me joining an Orthodox congregation. While I always imagined that this would happen someday, I did not expect it to happen out of an acute need and during my Reform congregation's transition year between permanent rabbis. And so I need to be clear and up front about that acute need with the rabbi, that there is a complicating driver mixed in with the pull (and push) I've been feeling for a while. Read more…

"Click here" is usually weak, but not always

It's generally held among professional writers (and presumably some others) that constructs of the form "for more information click here", with "here" being a hyperlink, is not good style. It's far better, in general, to incorporate some clue about the content into the link -- "See the formatting help for more information", with "formatting help" being a link to documentation, provides more information at a glance and just reads less clunkily.

When answering questions on sites like Stack Exchange and Codidact, one sometimes wants to refer to another answer (for example to elaborate on it or disagree with a point made in it). I posted such an answer recently and used link text of "another answer" instead of "Joe's answer". If I had said "Joe's answer", somebody who's just read that answer would have context without having to go look. Someone who knows my general writing style asked me why I used the vaguer formation.

This is my general style on sites like these now, and I do actually have a reason. Two, actually, the more significant of which is caring about people's feelings.

On Stack Exchange, Codidact, TopAnswers, and presumably others with which I'm less familiar, users can change their display names. Using a name as text rather than an '@'-reference in a link can thus decay. I've seen too many posts that mention "Joe's answer" but there's no Joe evident on the page now, years after that text was written. So that's confusing and I try to be careful; some people change names frequently, leaving trails of dead references in their wakes.

But it's not just about avoiding confusion. For me this name-avoidant practice crystalized some years ago when a prominent SE user transitioned gender. I realized that old posts of mine (from before I was careful about this) now dead-named this person. Ouch! Also maybe dead-pronouned, though if you write posts in a gender-neutral way like I try to in such contexts, you can minimize that damage.

We don't know who's going to be someone different later. My desire to attribute properly is at odds with my desire to account for future changes that affect writing I might not actively maintain. For in-page references the post is right there; omitting the name in favor of a generic reference is not harmful and is more future-proof. For regular citations, I attribute by name because giving credit is important, and just do my best.

I know that people who transition -- even just names, let alone gender -- just have to deal with the fact that they had lives before and those references don't vanish. My friend Owen understands that sometimes we need to talk about Zoe. But sometimes we can do a small thing to alleviate a little bit of unnecessary frustration and not make people's lives more difficult. It seems worth doing in these cases where the cost of being mindful of these possibilities is small.

I don't do this everywhere. My blog, being more personal in nature, is more likely to refer to people by name, use gendered pronouns, and otherwise bake in current context. My blog isn't a public knowledge repository like Codidact is. We write differently for Wikipedia, Codidact, blogs, and email, and that's ok.