Blog: November 2007

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.

Hebrew class :-(

The class I'm taking this fall in Biblical Hebrew had so much promise. But I'm now pretty frustrated, and I'm not sure what to do about that yet. Read more…

Morning minyan and melodies

A couple months ago I wrote about a musical issue in the weekday morning minyan. One of the regulars really likes a melody that the rabbi hates, so I was trying to find a way to make everyone happy. This is a followup.

I came up with a new melody that I thought singable enough (and perky enough) to satisfy the congregant without having the excessively-repeated text and cheesy melody that bothered the rabbi. (The cheesy melody didn't do much for me either, but that alone was not enough reason for me to change anything.) On the day I was going to spring it I wanted to take that congregant aside first to clue him in (I'd previously told him that I'd be bringing a new melody). But he wasn't there, and when we got to the t'filah I had my back to the congregation, so I didn't see him come in late. So when we got to l'dor vador I just chanted it, and I heard him say something like "argh". Oops.

He had an aliya, so I was able to whisper in his ear something like "I have a new melody but need your help; stick around after" and he said ok. After the service I told him I needed his help to get the congregation to sing a new melody; I didn't know if they'd be able to follow just me (with my back to them), but if he was also singing it that would help so could I teach it to him right now? Sure, he said, and the person sitting next to him also stuck around. (Good, I thought; this second person has a good strong voice.)

So I sang it for him, then sang it with him a few times, then asked if it worked for him. He said yes, he likes it a lot, and I said he needed to be ready to sing next week. We've now done it for several weeks; the congregant is thrilled and the rabbi is satisfied. I think most of the congregation is indifferent. (In a brief moment of inattention I let slip to the congregant that I wrote it, but I do not believe this is widely known, nor would I want anyone to feel pressured because of that.)

Temporary cat

A friend had to leave town on short notice (family member in hospital), so I'm taking care of her cats. For two of them I just drop into her house once a day, but the third is diabetic. Not only does he get insulin twice a day, but he has very occasionally had what seem to be small seizures. I told my friend I'd be more comfortable having him here, where there's a better chance I would notice such a thing, and she agreed.

This friend has cat-sat for me before, including hosting Erik because he gets meds twice a day. So we already knew that Spud (her cat) and Erik tolerate each other, which is a third of the problem. And Spud is a pretty mellow cat, which helps.

She brought Spud over yesterday and I gave him a room of his own (with closed door). This morning I let Erik in for a few minutes; they touched noses and Spud growled a tiny bit but there were no fireworks. When Erik left I closed Spud in and went to work.

Tonight after choir practice I let Spud out to roam. Baldur went into his room, sniffed, growled, and ate Spud's food. (I have hope that the way to Baldur's heart is through his stomach.) Erik and Spud seem to be ignoring each other. Embla sniffed him and walked away, but has been hanging out on the bedroom windowsill for a while now. (Spud is probably too round to jump up there.)

I think I will put Spud back in his room tonight so my cats feel comfortable. Tomorrow after work I'll let him roam again, and if things seem to go well I might let him do so overnight. I think I will keep segregating him when I'm not home, though.

All things considered, this seems to be going well. (It's certainly going a lot better than Embla's integration into the household a decade ago.)

A picture from the end of his week-long visit: Read more…

Bad web sites

Dear Company That Wants to Make Money Through a Web Site,

It's 2007. Not only have enough people to matter abandoned IE, but Firefox has been significant for years. Why is Firefox special? Because its extensions allow people to customize their browsing experience to their hearts' content. That, and tabs.

What does this mean for you? Simply that you cannot make assumptions about the browser any more. We've been blocking pop-ups for close to a decade and selectively blocking Javascript (via NoScript) for at least a couple years. We use GreaseMonkey scripts to add content to your pages (we don't care if you like it), AdBlock to remove some of the annoyances, and Stylish to rewrite your CSS. Get used to it.

If you want to win, then -- short of being a monopoly, and good luck with that on the web -- you'll have to learn to cope with this. The users -- your potential customers -- are not going to switch browsers, disable security settings, or even just turn off things we like, just to use your site, unless you're really, really important to us. Do you really want to place that bet?

No, it's not fair; my problem in using your site could well be in one of my extensions. But you know what? That doesn't matter; if it only affects your site, to me that will not seem to be my problem. If I like you a lot I'll try to debug it; if I don't I'll move on. Your only recourse is to bullet-proof your web site. Use fewer bells and whistles, and make them optional. Stop with the gratuitious Javascript (and Flash, for good measure).
Do at least some testing of your site with the common Firefox extensions. Heck, write your own monitoring extension (that tracks and reports problems with your site) and offer it to your customers; we might help you out.

You do not need to use every new-fangled browser-thwarting doodad that comes along. Every time you do, your site breaks for a few more users. Designing resilient sites is not rocket science.

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A commenter asked me how strongly to discourage a friend about Flash. I replied:

Well, I suppose it depends on why the person wants Flash. If you're, say, in the business of animation, that's different from if you're selling books. But as with all "gadget" technologies, the key is appropriate use. It's one thing to use the technology to showcase what you do; it's another to require it for basic access. I've seen sites that rely on Flash for site navigation; that screws people without Flash, people using screen readers, people using PDAs and optimizing for text... Even if you're going to use Flash for the product-demo video, do you need it to get in the front door?

It's a good idea to always provide plain old text links on the page for everything that doesn't fundamentally require graphics or video. If you also want to do button graphics (for which you should use ALT tags) or something, go for it -- but the key is to consider the lower end, because there are all sorts of reasons that people you don't necessarily want to blow off might be at that low end. With Flash in particular, a trick used by some sites is to detect Flash, use it if you've got it turned on, and drop into a more basic scheme if you don't.

Some types of site just don't do text well. Flickr would be pretty useless in a text-only mode, for instance. :-) But to the extent possible, I think it's a good idea to provide some basic access to everyone, rather than greeting all visitors with "your version of Flash is too old" when maybe all they were looking for was an email address so they could ask you if you do freelance work. (Or whatever.)

20/what?

The results of my distance-vision test this morning were a little better than normal. In fact, my weaker eye scored its best ever. (We only got the "denominator" into double digits in the last year...) I commented on this and my ophthamologist said it might be partially due to her newer equipment: the contrast is better on the new LCD "eye chart" than it was on the old projection chart, which in turn gives better readings than the posters of yore. (Personally, I think my gadget-assisted glasses prescription helps, particularly in the weaker eye.)

Measured visual acuity depends on the equipment. What it also depends on (based on my own observation) is operator variation. Your vision score includes a judgement call by the person administering the test. Whether you get an extra point can depend on how quickly or how certainly you read a letter. When you say "um, I think it's an F -- no, wait, it's a P", what happens to your score is not well-defined.

This doesn't really matter for an individual patient with a consistent doctor (presumably what the test was designed for); what matters is not so much your raw score but whether and how it changes from year to year. But when that score is used for other purposes, like deciding who can drive and who can fly a plane, it gives me pause. According to today's eye test, if both of my eyes were as bad as my weaker one I would still be allowed to drive (albeit only during daylight). Yikes.

Toldot

The sixth aliya of yesterday's portion is particularly poignant and the trope helps amplify it, so before reading I gave an overview to help people listen for it. I said approximately:

In this week's parsha Yitzchak, now old and blind, blesses his sons before his death. In the fifth aliyah Yaakov tricks his father into thinking he's Esav; Yitzchak is initially doubtful but then accepts the deception. (Rashi says one of the reasons he doubted is that "Esav" was too polite.) The aliyah I'm about to read begins with Yitzchak's blessing of Yaakov. After this Yaakov will leave and, in the very same verse, Esav will come in for his blessing. When Yitzchak hears Esav he trembles, saying "then who was that?", and when they realize what has happened Esav begs his father -- "barcheini gam ani, avi", "bless me too, father". You can hear the desperation in the trope. Yitzchak responds that Yaakov took his blessing, and not only that, but listen to what I gave him. Esav begs his father again, asking "have you only one blesing?", and repeats his plea, "barcheini gam ani avi".

D'var torah:

It is clear that Yitzchak's blessing is vitally important to both of his sons. One son begs and pleads, grasping at straws, saying, essentially, "surely you can come up with something?". The other, portrayed as virtuous by our rabbis but not so saintly in the text, is willing to lie, cheat, risk the wrath of his brother, and be estranged from everyone for twenty years just to get this treat. Why? What's so special about Yitzchak's blessing?

Let us first establish what it is not. Yitzchak is not a prophet nor a messenger of God. He can wish well for his sons; he can ask God to grant them favor; he can say words that will reassure. But to all appearances he cannot himself grant anything; the dew of the heavens, the fat of the land, and the service of nations are God's to grant, not man's. Zichut avot, the merit of the fathers, goes only so far. Yitzchak's blessings are half hope, half prayer, but they are not guarantees. Surely his sons know this too. So why all the fuss?

I don't think it was really about the blessings.

I am not an only child, so the phrase "mom (or dad) likes you better" is not unfamiliar to me. As a child I both heard it and said it. Keeping score of parental favor seemed to be part of growing up. We wanted our parents to praise us, but we especially wanted them to praise us at least as much as they praised our siblings. Merit did not necessarily enter into it; we sought validation.

That's fine for kids, but what about Yaakov and Esav, who were grown men? Am I trivializing them, treating them like children? No, I don't think so. I think even as adults we sometimes behave like Yaakov and Esav, and the torah presents this lesson to us in a simple story to make it easier to see.

Most of us probably do not seek validation specifically from our parents any more. But don't we seek it from others? We want our managers to appreciate us at work, and not just for the financial reward that might come. We want the leaders of our communities to praise us, to take notice of us; we want to matter. We want our friends to tell us we're good people. When this doesn't happen, we are disappointed.

Wanting to be thanked and recognized for our work is healthy and natural. The danger comes when we feel validated only when this happens, when we are not able to see our own merit and must rely on others. I think we all know people who seem to assume they have no merit unless told otherwise, and I think we all fall into that trap ourselves from time to time. The good in us won't always be noticed by others. We have to be able to see it ourselves, and sometimes we feel too insecure to do that.

I'm not suggesting we become arrogant. Arrogance is the other side of the problem; it's what happens when we decide we don't need validation from anyone. We need to balance between arrogance and insecurity; our goal should be self-awareness -- honest self-awareness. We can provide our own validation, and it won't hurt as much if we don't get it from others. If it does come from others, we can enjoy the pleasant surprise.

I think both Esav and Yaakov had trouble with this. Yitzchak's blessing was so important to each of them because they were unable to see their own merits. Yaakov fixated on getting the blessing so much that it didn't matter if it was a lie, if this "validation" wasn't real. Esav needed his father to give him any blessing; it doesn't seem to matter what. Yaakov and Esav both felt validated only by good wishes from someone else, and they needed this external validation so much that they were willing to break up their family over it.

Let us not be like Yaakov and Esav. May we be secure in ourselves, so that praise from others is a treat but not our only source of sustenance.

Voting machines: too much automation

This isn't a gripe about the electronic voting machines with no audit trail and annoying user interfaces; that's a separate rant. This is a gripe about a feature also shared by the old machines: the "vote party line" lever/button.

I am offended by the presence of this option. It wasn't as glaring on the old machines, where the entire option space was in front of you and you watched the affected levers go ka-chink, but it was still wrong. My ballot this morning consisted of six screens, so I could have pressed that button without even looking at the effects. (Yes, there's a confirmation phase, but it's easy to just hit the big red "vote" button at that point.)

I don't want it to be that easy for people to vote for people whose names they won't recognize two minutes later. If you want to vote a straight Democrat or Republican or Pastafarian ticket, you should have to touch every lever, button, or check-box. Voting is a responsibility in which you should invest more than a few seconds' worth of thought. There were ballot items I skipped this morning because I did not feel well-enough informed; that should be more common [absent California-style voter information packets], and the party-line button makes it less likely.

If we want a parliamentary government where you vote for parties instead of people, we should make one explicitly. I've heard the argument that taking away this option would disenfranchise some voters. Well, yeah -- if you don't want to look at each ballot item on which you're voting, you should be disenfranchised. If you've gone to the polls at all, the incremental cost of facing the candidate's names (and parties -- you get that information) does not seem at all burdensome. If even a few voters look at a name and say "hey, wasn't he the one who was indicted?" (or whatever), it will have served its purpose.

It's bad enough that certain parties get consistent preferential ballot placement; they should not also get to carry along an arbitrary an invisible slate with a single button. Every voter should have to touch every decision personally.

Pittsburgh mayor

Tuesday Pittsburgh is having a special (off-cycle) election for mayor. The incumbent, Luke Ravenstahl, was the president of city council and stepped in after Mayor O'Connor died a little more than a year ago, so this election is for the rest of the term. Now, Pittsburgh has been suffering one-party rule for decades, with five times as many Democrats as Republicans registered, so usually the contest is in the Democratic primary, not the real election. But this year, for the first time in a long while, there's a credible Republican challenger, Mark DeSantis.

I was surprised to read this week that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which leans pretty far to the left, endorsed DeSantis. So did the police union. (So did the more-conservative newspaper, but that's not a surprise.) DeSantis doesn't have as much money in his campaign fund as Ravenstahl, but he's got a decent war chest, and his contributions have been outpacing Ravenstahl's for the last few months.

The election is probably still Ravenstahl's to lose, so I'm a little surprised that he's gone in for negative campaigning (and pretty stupid negative campaigning at that), and that he doesn't seem to demonstrate the political acumen to deal with the public blunders he's made while in office. Yes, elected officials misuse public property and blow off their obligations all the time, but he got caught and, instead of apologizing, tried to justify it.

DeSantis has credible ideas for getting the city back on its feet financially, he seems to know that he's accountable to the public, and he's not part of the "same old, same old" club that's been running the city into the ground for years. Is he perfect? No, of course not -- but he's better than maintaining the status quo. And he's got momentum, which the third-party candidates I would otherwise pay closer attention to do not.

I know it will be hard for DeSantis to accomplish all that much directly if elected. I have no illusion that the Post-Gazette's endorsement is sincere; I think they hope to dispose of the current mayor, use city council to prevent the new mayor from doing anything, and then come back strong in two years with whomever the Dems have groomed while out of the spotlight. But even so, all that said, I'd like to see what DeSantis can do, both directly (fixing some of the city's problems) and indirectly (breaking the one-party mindset). I plan to vote for him on Tuesday, and I hope enough others will step out of the "I vote for my party" pattern to give the guy a chance to improve things.

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Ravenstahl did win the election, with DeSantis getting about 35% of the vote, very unusual in a city that's 5:1 Dem:Rep.