Blog

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.

Office check-in

Before the pandemic, I went to the office every day, as one does. Our office manager did what he could to make it an ok environment, but it has the usual pathologies. Pandemic-induced working from home has been good for me in oh so many ways. I'm fortunate to be at a point in my career where I am quite comfortable telling my employer "I really do insist". (There's some pressure, mild so far.) I'll go to the office if there's a specific reason to, like the group outing we had a few months ago, but most of the people I work with aren't local, so going to the office is social, not productive.

On the day of that outing, I learned -- via a coworker finding out the hard way -- that corporate security disables badges that haven't been used in 90 days. That makes sense, though doing it silently isn't so great. Fortunately for me, I last changed my domain password around the time of that outing, so the "time to change your password" reminder serves double duty.

A few days ago I changed my password, and today I went to the office to wave a badge at a sensor. While I was there I cleared out the last of my personal belongings; demonstrably, I no longer need to keep an umbrella or a spare USB charging cable in my desk drawer there.

Order matters

"I put the lemonade and limeade on the door next to the Coke."

"Is it Coke or Pepsi?"

"Uh, Pepsi."

"Ok, then that's the correct order."

Look, they're in unmarked bottles and almost the same color so I needed a way to tell, and alphabetical order is obviously the way to solve that problem, and why are you looking at me like that?

(If it had been Coke, I'd've asked him to swap; reverse-alphabetical would also be fine.)

Mastodon: thoughts after a few weeks

A few weeks ago I created an account on Mastodon and have been trying it out as an alternative to Twitter (and I suppose Facebook, which I don't use). I'm not leaving Dreamwidth, my friends here, and DW's support for longer-form posts; DW and "social platforms" are good at different things.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the part of the Mastodon community (-ies) that I've encountered so far feels to me like the earlier days of the Internet. It feels more friendly, helpful, and supportive than even pre-Musk Twitter (driven by algorithms and ad sales). It kind of reminds me of some of the more social Usenet newgroups of yore, like the Rialto and alt.callahans.

It's different, and different takes time to get used to, and different is sometimes better and sometimes worse. And getting set up isn't going to be as easy as going to Twitter or Facebook and clicking "sign up".

barriers to entry

I actually looked at Mastodon back in the spring, when the Twitter thing was starting to happen, but I bounced. You see, Mastodon isn't a service, like Twitter or Facebook is; it's a federated platform. The best analogy I've seen to setting yourself up on Mastodon is getting an email address. You can get email services from lots of places and they all inter-operate. Choose Gmail or outlook.com or your ISP's bundled account or your own server or anything else; no matter what you choose, you'll be able to send and receive email. Email providers aren't all the same and you might find your choices have consequences -- Gmail silently nukes certain messages and you'll never know, and aol.com is oft seen as a bad neighborhood. You choose an email provider, follow its rules, and deal with its issues -- and if you decide to move later, with some disruption you can. Your choice matters some, but it's not permanent.

Mastodon servers are like that. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Mastodon servers out there, and there are lists of recommended servers that you can find with a search for something like "find mastodon server", and from the outside it can be overwhelming. Back in the spring I saw that I had to Make Decisions first, and I didn't know enough to make decisions, and I hadn't seen the email analogy, and I was only casually looking and wasn't invested...and I walked away.

All of that is true today, too, except that more of my friends were moving there so I had a reason to dig a little deeper.

I found one of those pages of "50 servers you might consider" or some such, many of which are aligned to particular interests like Linux or open-source software or furries or art, and started browsing things I wouldn't mind being affiliated with. (Your Mastodon server, like your email provider, shows up in your "address", so there's an appearance aspect to it.) Servers can have their own moderation rules and terms of service and those are things I care about, so I read those pages on short-list candidates, eliminating some by what I found there. I identified a server that aligned well with my interests, my views on moderation, and the expected local conversation (more about that in a bit), and applied for an account.

Yeah, "applied" in this case. Some servers are totally open -- anyone can create an account. Some were but then Twitter started to implode and servers that had had 5000 people were seeing tens of thousands of new accounts and buckling under the load, so they went to a wait-list model. The server I joined asked for a short "why do you want to join this server?" message.

There are some huge, general-purpose, open servers. I recommend against trying to join them now. Across the network of all public Mastodon servers, there were something like a million new accounts in the first week of the Musk era. These servers aren't usually being run by well-funded megacorps but by mostly volunteers trying to keep up with demand.

the fediverse

Mastodon isn't a single site or a single thing. It'd decentralized and distributed. "Mastodon" is the name of the software. Strictly speaking, when you join a Mastodon server you are joining a server that is part of "the fediverse" -- "fed" like in "federated". People talk about being "on Mastodon", and what they mean is "on one of these servers", and sometimes a well-meaning person tries to correct your terminology, and I want to give y'all a heads-up.

The fediverse has other "things" besides Mastodon. There's a whole big set of open-source projects for sharing different kinds of things across a network, with an interface called ActivityPub at the center of it. I don't know very much about that stuff yet.

So, technically: there is the fediverse, and Mastodon servers are part of it, and so are other things. But there's no mastodon.com that runs it all, like twitter.com or facebook.com. Remember: like email, not like corporate social media.

(There is a mastodon.com. Of course there is; every URL you can imagine that consists of a single English word is claimed by someone. This one is a forestry site.)

sounds like a lot of work; how's this better than Twitter?

Still with me?

On the surface Mastodon looks kind of like Twitter, federation aside. You can see short posts from other people in a feed, and you can interact with them (liking them, replying to them, etc). There's a big difference, though, and I think it's an important difference that helps with constructive discourse instead of amplifying the loudest people.

Twitter creates, and Google+ after the early days created, a "feed" for you, curated by an algorithm. I don't know how G+'s worked; on Twitter, a post (tweet) is more likely to show up in your feed if it's posted by someone with a lot of reach (the reach get reacher), or if it has a lot of likes (encourages socks, bots, and echo chambers), or if it's somehow connected to someone you follow. That last seems to be the least important, anecdotally. I almost never use my Twitter feed because it's full of stuff I don't care about. In Musk's Twitter, rumor has it that paid members also get substantial priority.

Mastodon gives you multiple feeds (I'll get back to that), and the "algorithm" is "reverse chronological", like it is here on DW and probably on every blogging site you've ever used. You see stuff as it was posted, not something yanked out of its context from three days ago and pushed at you now, and not yanked out of its context of all the other conversation happening around it. Nothing has priority; you get what you asked for, in order. I've found the things I read and interact with here on DW to be much more thoughtful, nuanced, and civil than what I see on Twitter (granted post length is a factor too), and so far that's what I'm seeing on Mastodon too. (BTW, posts on Mastodon are by default 500 characters, larger than Twitter, and it's a server setting. I've seen one server that lets you use 5000 characters so long as you put most of it behind a cut tag.)

Mastodon also gives you multiple feed options, so you can choose the size of your fire hose. You can see just posts from (or boosted) by the people you follow, or just posts from your local server (regardless of who you follow), or a "federated" view that reaches out to other servers and does, um, something based on the people you follow and their connections. I haven't explored that one much yet. It's big. But it's still reverse chronological, no prioritization, no buying or shouting your way into top position.

I think that local feed will end up being pretty important. If you choose a server that aligns with some of your interests, then that "local" view can connect you with people who share those interests. Because people are usually multi-faceted and the instance is a home, not a topic restriction, you'll see a variety of content from the people there. It's not like Usenet newsgroups or Codidact communities where you can only talk about this thing here and not that thing, but there's a rough sort based on some shared interest, if you want to use that. (Of course, if you want to create multiple accounts on multiple servers, for example to separate personal and professional content, you can do that too.)

I'm being an armchair sociologist here with too few observations and no data, but I think this "local community of multi-faceted people" aspect will act somewhat like physical neighborhoods (back when we socialized with our neighbors, but maybe your barony or congregation is a model too) or like the more social Usenet groups. Because these online neighborhoods aren't bounded by geography or (probably) by culture, the people I see on that local feed are more heterogeneous, more diverse, more "like me in some ways, very unlike me in others". I hope easy interaction with that community will help build connections and resist polarization. I'm game to try the experiment, at least. On Twitter, only the loudest (and probably most extreme) "people not like me" would make it to the feed, the feed that was overrun with topics I don't care about from people I don't know so I never looked at it anyway -- but if I did look, I wouldn't find the "regular people", only the people with big fan followings.

(Aside: a week or so ago I came across a server for my city. So physical neighborhoods might be represented too.)

boosts and retweets

On Twitter, you can "retweet" something, which means "show this to my followers". On Twitter you can also retweet and add your own message. If you've seen tweets that embed other tweets, that's what's happening. So you might see Musk's latest policy flip-flop and retweet to your followers, adding a snarky comment of your own, and your retweet will be its own tweet, not part of the thread of replies to the original tweet.

On Mastodon you can "boost" something, which is like that first kind of retweet. I saw something that I wanted to add my own message to (further support in my case, not snark), and I couldn't figure out how to do it -- the "boost" button doesn't have an option for adding a comment. On investigation, I learned that this was an intentional design choice.

My initial reaction was "huh, weird". Then I thought "ok, maybe if you can't easily snipe at people you'll be less likely to snipe, so maybe that improves the climate?" and that sounded like a good idea. But since then I've seen more cases where it would have been helpful to either add something (as the booster) or comment to the booster not the original poster (as a reader). So I'm not sure how I feel about this now.

You can always do this manually, of course -- you can link to anything, after all. You won't get the fancy rendering, that thing that looks like an embedded tweet on Twitter. But if you decide to just boost something, instead of creating your own post, then people who want to respond to you can't. Like, if you didn't know that that thing you boosted has been debunked or has more context or something like that... no easy way to do that.

mindset

Mastodon, and the fediverse in general, exudes a scrappy "do more for yourself" mindset. There's no single entity making decisions for you -- what you see, how it's moderated, how the software works, etc. Servers are run by ordinary people who make those decisions for their servers only. Norms can vary. I expect that the most successful servers operate by some form of consensus, either up front or emergent (as people opt in or out). Servers can block other servers, so there's some level of shared baseline to operate in polite society. You can set up your own neo-Nazi server if you want to, but you might find that a lot of people don't want to talk with you.

I've seen the fediverse compared to anarchy (you and those with shared goals can do whatever you want), and I've also seen it compared to fiefdoms (somebody controls your server and it's probably not you). I don't think it's a fiefdom in the way that Twitter is; first, you can move to a different server, and second, that you can set up your own server for you and your friends mitigates if you don't like any of the options. A serf can't just say "well I'll take that land over there and do my own thing", because all land is ultimately owned by someone. On the Internet, you can buy a domain and set up shop -- the space isn't wholly owned. But whether you're a serf or an Internet denizen unhappy with the existing servers, you have to do work -- setting up your own place isn't free. And that effort can be a substantial barrier, too. So it's not a complete mitigation for networks with problematic owners, but I think we'll be better off on the fediverse than on Twitter or Facebook, which feels like an even bigger fiefdom to me. Time will tell.

Some Twitter-related links

If you are using your Twitter account to sign in to other sites ("the "sign in with Google/Facebook/Twitter/etc" system), you should stop doing that now. Also, if you are using SMS for two-factor authentication with Twitter, that same article has advice for you. Some parts of their 2FA setup have stopped working, and apparently SMS validation is now unreliable.

There is an outstanding thread -- on Twitter, natch -- about the kinds of things that SREs (site reliability engineers, the people who keep large systems running) worry about. Parts of large systems fail all the time; in a healthy setup you'll barely notice. Twitter is, um, not healthy.

Debirdify is a tool for finding your Twitter friends on the Fediverse (Mastodon), for those who've shared that info. It looks for links in pinned tweets and Twitter profile ("about") blurbs.

I'm at https://indieweb.social/@cellio, for anyone else who's there. I'm relatively new there, like lots of other folks, but so far the vibe takes me back to the earlier days of the Internet -- people are friendly, help each other, presume good intent, and have actual conversations. It is not Twitter; some intentional design choices appear to encourage constructive use and hinder toxicity. I hope to write more about Mastodon later.

Hadestown

Last night we saw the Broadway tour of Hadestown, a musical retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (and Hades and Persephone). I'll assume my readers know (or will Google) the Greek myths, so in that sense there are no spoilers, but this show puts an interesting spin on it. Narrated by Hermes and with active participation by the Fates, we see both Orpheus and Eurydice "up above" and Hades' realm "down below", which is reached by a train. The train motif shows up in the music, the staging, and (I kid you not) the lighting. The company is smaller than many musicals and put to effective use. I enjoyed the music and don't have a good way to describe it.

Eurydice's and Oprheus's world is harsh from climate change, the program notes, though I might have missed that specific angle otherwise. Orpheus is focused on writing a song that will bring the world back into balance, but it's slow going. In this version Eurydice isn't bitten by a poisonous snake; starving and cold in the midst of winter and unable to find work, she is lured to Hadestown by promises of work and shelter. But the workers there toil away in misery in a factory, building fortifications for Hades' domain. ("Why We Build the Wall" resonates well beyond this show, I assume by design.) When Orpheus shows up to rescue Eurydice, the other workers are taking note too. Meanwhile, Persephone, whose marriage with Hades is rather rocky (shall we say), is also taking note of the power of love.

The story is a tragedy; we know it from the myth and we're told so by Hermes in the introductory stanzas of the show. But it has a positive vibe, too. I don't want to say more about that for people who haven't seen it yet.

Orpheus's music calls for falsetto in some key places -- whole passages, not just a note or two -- and the actor in this production pulled it off very smoothly. At the other end of that, uh, scale, I find myself wanting to catch a glimpse of the score, because Hades has some very low bass notes, also performed well in this production. C2 maybe???

I don't see a lot of Broadway-class shows so maybe this is normal, but I was very impressed by the staging and especially the lighting. There's one set, used throughout, that evokes the different settings just through the movements of small items (by cast members, not gophers) and changes of lighting. The lighting in this show is very active; I commented to Dani that the lighting operators deserved cast credit. It's that integral to the show, and it's not a small effort. One warning, though: there are strobe effects, and there were times when lights were pointed at the audience for brief periods.

There were some sound problems in the show we saw -- engineering problems, not cast problems. When things got loud, they spiked the levels and we got some distortion, making it hard to hear the lyrics in a few places. I'm told by somebody who sees a lot of shows there that this is not uncommon in that venue (Benedum Center), alas.

I enjoyed the show, even with those sound issues. I wasn't familiar with the show and hadn't heard the soundtrack before seeing it; this was very much an "I've heard good things about it" outing.

The trust thermocline

John Bull wrote a post (in tweet-sized pieces, naturally) that rings true for me, and he gave a name for the phenomenon we're seeing with Twitter, saw with LiveJournal, and partially saw with Stack Overflow. The thread starts here on Twitter and here on Mastodon (the Fediverse). Selected quotes:

One of the things I occasionally get paid to do by companies/execs is to tell them why everything seemed to SUDDENLY go wrong, and subs/readers dropped like a stone. So, with everything going on at Twitter rn, time for a thread about the Trust Thermocline.

So: what's a thermocline?

Well large bodies of water are made of layers of differing temperatures. Like a layer cake. The top bit is where all the the waves happen and has a gradually decreasing temperature. Then SUDDENLY there's a point where it gets super-cold.

The Trust Thermocline is something that, over (many) years of digital, I have seen both digital and regular content publishers hit time and time again. Despite warnings (at least when I've worked there). And it has a similar effect. You have lots of users then suddenly... nope. [...]

But with a lot of CONTENT products (inc social media) that's not actually how it works. Because it doesn't account for sunk-cost lock-in.

Users and readers will stick to what they know, and use, well beyond the point where they START to lose trust in it. And you won't see that.

But they'll only MOVE when they hit the Trust Thermocline. The point where their lack of trust in the product to meet their needs, and the emotional investment they'd made in it, have finally been outweighed by the physical and emotional effort required to abandon it. [...]

Virtually the only way to avoid catastrophic drop-off from breaching the Trust Thermocline is NOT TO BREACH IT.

I can count on one hand the times I've witnessed a company come back from it. And even they never reached previous heights.

Social media and moderation

I've participated in a lot of online communities, and a lot of types of online communities, over the decades -- mailing lists, Usenet, blogging platforms like Dreamwidth, web-based forums, Q&A communities... and social media. With the exception of blogging platforms, where readers opt in to specific people/blogs/journals and the platform doesn't push other stuff at us, online communities tend to end up with some level of moderation.

We had (some) content moderation even in the early days of mailing lists and Usenet. Mostly1 this was gatekeeping -- reviewing content before it was released, because sometimes people post ill-advised things like personal attacks. Mailing lists and Usenet were inherently slow to begin with -- turnaround times were measured in hours if you were lucky and more typically days -- so adding a step where a human reviewed a post before letting it go out into the wild didn't cost much. Communities were small and moderation was mostly to stop the rare egregiously bad stuff, not to curate everything. So far as I recall, nobody then was vetting content that way, like declaring posts to be misinformation.

On the modern Internet with its speed and scale, moderation is usually after the fact. A human moderator sees (or is alerted to) content that doesn't fit the site's rules and handles it. Walking the moderation line can be tough. On Codidact2 and (previously) Stack Exchange, I and my fellow moderators have sometimes had deep discussions of borderline cases. Is that post offensive to a reasonable person, or is it civilly expressing an unpopular idea? Is that link to the poster's book or blog spam, or is the problem that the affiliation isn't disclosed? How do we handle a case where a very small number of people say something is offensive and most people say it's not -- does it fail the reasonable-person principle, or is it a new trend that a lot of people don't yet know about? We human moderators would examine these issues, sometimes seek outside help, and take the smallest action that corrects an actual problem (often an edit, maybe a word with the user, sometimes a timed suspension).

Three things are really, really important here: (1) human decision-makers, (2) who can explain how they applied the public guidelines, with (3) a way to review and reverse decisions.

Automation isn't always bad. Most of us use automated spam filtering. Some sites have automation that flags content for moderator review. As a user I sometimes want to have automation available to me -- to inform me, but not to make irreversible decisions for me. I want my email system to route spam to a spam folder -- but I don't want it to delete it outright, like Gmail sometimes does. I want my browser to alert me that the certificate for the site I'm trying to visit isn't valid -- but I don't want it to bar me from proceeding anyway. I want a product listing for an electronic product to disclose that it is not UL-certified -- but I don't want a bot to block the sale or quietly remove that product from the seller's catalogue.

These are some of the ways that Twitter has been failing for a while. (Twitter isn't alone, of course, but it's the one everyone's paying attention to right now.) Twitter is pretty bad, Musk's Twitter is likely to be differently bad, and making it good is a hard problem.3

Twitter uses bots to moderate content, and those bots sometimes get it badly wrong. If the bots merely flagged content for human review, that would be ok -- but to do that at scale, Twitter would need to make fundamental changes to its model. No, the bots block the tweets and auto-suspend the users. To get unsuspended, a user has to delete the tweets, admit to wrongdoing, and promise not to do it "again" -- even if there's nothing wrong with the tweet. The people I've seen be hit by this were not able to find an appeal path. Combine this with opaque and arbitrary rules, and it's a nightmare.

Musk might shut down some of the sketchier moderation bots (it's always hard to know what's going on in Musk's head), but he's already promised his advertisers that Twitter won't be a free-for-all, so that means he's keeping some bot-based moderation, probably using different rules than last week's. He's also planning to fire most of the employees, meaning there'll be even fewer people to review issues and adjust the algorithms. And it's still a "shoot first, ask questions later" model. It's not assistive automation.

A bot that annotates content with "contrary to CDC guidelines" or "not UL-certified" or "Google sentiment score: mildly negative" or "Consumer Reports rating: 74" or "failed NPR fact-check" or "Fox News says fake"? Sure, go for it -- we've had metadata like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and FDA nutrition information and kashrut certifications for a long time. Want to hide violent videos or porn behind a "view sensitive content" control? Also ok, at least if it's mostly not wrong. As a practical matter a platform should limit the number or let users say which assistance they want, but in principle, fine.

But that's not what Twitter does. Its bots don't inform; they judge and punish. Twitter has secret rules about what speech is allowed and what speech is not, uses bots to root out what they don't like today, takes action against the authors, and causes damage when they get it wrong. There are no humans in the loop to check their work, and there's no transparency.

It's not just Twitter, of course. Other platforms, either overwhelmed by scale or just trying to save some money, use bots to prune out content. Even with the best of intentions that can go wrong; when intentions are less pure, it's even worse.

Actual communities, and smaller platforms, can take advantage of human moderators if they want them. For large firehose-style platforms like Twitter, it seems to me, the solutions to the moderation problem lies in metadata and user preferences, not heavy-handed centralized automated deletions and suspensions. Give users information and the tools to filter -- and the responsibility to do so, or not. Take the decision away, and we're stuck with whatever the owner likes.

The alternative would be to use the Dreamwidth model: Dreamwidth performs no moderation that I'm aware of, I'm free to read (or stop reading) any author I want, and the platform won't push other content in front of me. This works for Dreamwidth, which doesn't need to push ads in front of millions of people to make money for its non-existent stockholders, but such slow growth is anathema to the big for-profit social networks.


  1. It was possible to delete posts on Usenet, but it was spotty and delayed. ↩︎

  2. The opinions in this post are mine and I'm not speaking for Codidact, where I am the community lead. ↩︎

  3. I'd say it's more socially hard than technically hard. ↩︎

B'reishit: generations

D'var torah given in the minyan yesterday morning.

Ten generations.

At the beginning of this parsha, God created humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and declared it tov meod -- very good. Before even the first Shabbat, Adam had transgressed the divine will and been expelled from the garden, but that didn't merit further destruction. Adam and Chava produced children and their descendants began to fill the earth, as commanded. It might not have been tov meodany more, but it was apparently still ok with God.

Ten generations later, at the end of this same parsha, things have descended to the point where God is ready to blot it all out. The world had become corrupt and lawless, filled with wickedness and violence.

Ten generations isn't a lot. Many of us are blessed to have known three or four generations of our families, maybe more. As a child I met a great-grandparent and my niece now has a child -- that's six. It's hard to imagine that the distance from my grandparents to my grand-niece spans half the distance from tov meod to unredeemable evil.

And yet... it's been roughly ten generations since the founding of the United States. The US didn't start out as tov meod -- slavery was normal, native peoples were badly mistreated, and sexism and racism were the way of the world. But the people of that generation also pursued values we would call at least tov: basic freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and personal autonomy, protections from government abuses, and fostering a society where people could live securely and pursue happiness.

Ten generations later, how are we doing? We've made progress in some areas, but we've also done a lot of harm. We've pursued the destruction of the planet we were given to care for, there is widespread corruption and injustice from local jurisdictions all the way up to the international level, crusaders on both the left and the right seek to blot out perspectives they disagree with, and we've become a polarized, combative, and intolerant society. I'm going to focus on this last one, both because it's the one we can do the most about at an individual level and because I want to avoid the appearance of political advocacy in a tax-exempt synagogue right before an election.

Within just a single generation, we've become more polarized, more isolated in our bubbles, and more certain that we are right and anybody who doesn't agree with us completely is evil. We could blame social media for filtering what we see, but aren't we complicit? There was Internet before Twitter and there was mass media before the Internet, and we've always tended to gravitate toward people like us, haven't we? And yet, we used to more easily have civil conversations with people we disagreed with; we used to be better at respectful discourse and its give-and-take. Going farther back, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed with each other on almost everything, yet they found common ground in the study hall, maintained friendships, and intermarried. They taught each other's positions, not just their own, to their students. They disagreed, vehemently, without being disagreeable.

Very few issues in our society are cut-and-dried. We can't stay in echo chambers, only hearing perspectives we already agree with, and expect to get anywhere. We need to be open to diversity. Diversity means people and ideas that aren't exactly like us. Diversity means complexity. It means setting aside the goal of "winning" in favor of the goal of understanding the human beings we're interacting with. It means having civil conversations that are nuanced and complex. It means being open to new ideas. It means asking questions rather than jumping to the conclusions that would be most convenient for us, like "he's a bigot" or "she hates America" or "you're not capable of understanding". The results won't align completely with any side's talking points, but they just might help us move forward together constructively.

Try it. Try having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you on something. It doesn't have to be something extreme and emotional.
Try asking the person to explain the reasoning.
Try asking questions.
Try to understand, and resist the urge to prepare your counter-arguments while half-listening for keywords to pounce on.
Assume your conversational partner is as principled, ethical, and thoughtful as you are.
Assume good intentions.
See how long you can keep it up. Then ask yourself: based on what I've learned, do I need to re-evaluate anything in my own thinking?

It's hard, isn't it? But what's the alternative? Can we afford to continue our descent? What comes after "uncivil"? How many generations do we have before our society is unredeemable?

Ten generations of social decay, hatred, and violence led from Adam to Noach. But that wasn't the end. After the flood, another ten generations led from Noach to Avraham. After sinking to the depths of evil, society climbed back toward tov.

Our society hasn't sunk as far as Noach's generation -- yet. We do not need to reach bottom, when only the divine promise prevents the heavens and the depths opening up again, in order to start climbing back up. At Yom Kippur we confessed to many sins including sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and we also said that we can return from our errors. We can turn from ways that are uncivil or worse – individually, one interaction at a time. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free from trying. Let's see how far we can get together.

Holidays

My synagogue has gone through some changes in the last couple years, on top of the changes forced on all of us by the pandemic. Last year we hired a new rabbi and this year we hired a new cantor, and in-person services are more of a thing than they were, so lots of stuff is new together.

The rabbi and the cantor work well together. I already knew this from the morning minyan, but it also carried over to the formal high-holy-day services with all their extra stuff. Later, when all the holidays are over (they aren't yet), I want to ask the rabbi about some of the choices he made, but it was generally fine. It was nice to be together again.

I was asked to read torah, even though I said I'd pretty much have to memorize it because of the vision issues that are why I stopped reading torah on Shabbat. The readings for Rosh Hashana aren't that long, so I could memorize it, and anyway I don't know the special trope for the day so I was going to have to learn the music by rote anyway. That all went fine. I had the last aliyah and I noticed that other people were translating after their readings, so I followed suit on the spur of the moment. Later I realized that most of the others were reading translations, not doing it on the fly. (I'm not fluent in Hebrew, but I knew this part.) Ironically, I did need to look at the scroll for that part and there were some stumbles as a result, but on Yom Kippur several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked my RH reading, with specific compliments. Wow.

We have programming all day on Yom Kippur so you don't have to leave if you don't want to. The "learning" slot had two class options, fewer than in the past but I think this worked together. I went to a very good class on the Vidui (confessional) prayer, taught by someone who used to be our associate rabbi 15-20 years ago. (He moved away for another pulpit and returned to Pittsburgh a couple years ago, taking an educational position rather than a pulpit.) We did a close reading of the text compared to the translation in our prayerbook and talked a lot about the word aval.

In some years I've gotten to the end of Yom Kippur on a high, feeling scrubbed clean and energized and stuff. That didn't happen this year. I think some of that is due to some liturgical choices they made. I wonder how much of it is due to having finally been to a traditional Yom Kippur service (last two years) and now I'm more keenly aware of the differences.

For festivals we combine with another congregation and Sukkot was there not here. "There" is a two-mile walk each way for me, so I went to Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation that also has an occasional musical Shabbat evening service that I've gone to. The people there were very welcoming, the service was complete and yet efficient, and the leaders and speakers were good. I was surprised to be offered an honor (carrying the first torah scroll). I had pleasant conversations with several people I didn't know at the kiddush after. I wonder if I should try to go there next Yom Kippur.

We've been able to have most of our meals in the sukkah this week, though a couple got rained out. This late in the year I didn't have expectations.

Ugly CSA week 12 (final)

The final week of the 412 Rescue Ugly CSA:

  • 1 spaghetti squash
  • 1 large cucumber
  • 5 medium-large yams
  • 1 large tomato
  • 8 Bosc pears
  • 3 heads garlic

Weight: about 10.5 pounds.

Definitely all stuff I can use! Winter squashes and root veggies are my favorite season.

The end-of-season survey included a question about interest in a winter share. Winter shares are uncommon, but the one my previous CSA did (before they shut it down) was very nice. I'd be happy to join one this year.