Blog: September 2014

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.

Cycling hazards

Bicyclists oft complain about drivers, and I understand the perspective: if there is an accident involving a car and a bike, you know that the damage will not be distributed evenly. Locally there has been some effort for the last few years to create more bike lanes and educate drivers, and we have a law about passing distance. This makes sense. Bike lanes make things safer for all of us, and some drivers (a minority in my experience) don't understand what to do with bikes on the road.

But. I am finding it very hard to remain sympathetic when the very same people who complain about dangers from cars are themselves dangers to pedestrians. Cyclists, you have to rein in your own -- the blatant disregard for traffic laws is bad enough when you just do it to drivers, but it's inexcusable when you're running down people who have no defense against you.

Friday night while walking home from services I was crossing Forbes at a marked crosswalk. This crosswalk is marked not only with painted lines, and not only with one of those signboards in the middle of the road, but also with flashing yellow lights on either side. It's the most visible crosswalk in the neighborhood. Nonetheless I always stop and look at oncoming drivers to try to confirm that they see me and are slowing down.

Friday night I looked both ways as usual and then started to cross. A bicycle whizzed in front of me at high speed (much faster than the last car to pass), its rider cursing at the "f---ing b----" in his way. I stopped and turned to stare, looking in vain for anything I could use to identify him. That's when two more whizzed by me, also cursing. One of them grazed me (I'm not sure with what, but no blood). All of them continued on, spewing vulgarities.

They had no headlights, by the way, and all were wearing dark clothes. Not that it was, legally, my job to see them -- just self-defense, which I attempted. I, on the other hand, was in a marked crosswalk wearing brightly-colored clothes.

This infuriates me. Not only did they blatantly ignore traffic laws, not only did they nearly mow me down, not only did they not even stop, but they acted like I was the problem. I think drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all need to learn to share the roads, but some need to learn way more badly than others. These cyclists clearly thought they shouldn't have to care about anybody else.

Just the previous day I'd been nearly run down by two (more-slowly-moving, but still) cyclists on the sidewalk. That happens to me a couple times a month on average, not counting children -- I just mean adult cyclists here. Sidewalks are for pedestrians; we shouldn't have to be constantly on the lookout for speeding traffic hazards of the wheeled variety.

I am going to write a letter to my City Council representative (can't hurt, could possibly help), but I'd like to go beyond complaining. What concrete suggestions can I make, as our city expends effort (and money) altering public roads to work better with cyclists? What has actually worked in other cities to get everybody on board with sharing the road, and what has been done to hold cyclists accountable for following the rules of the road (and sidewalk)?

They are unregistered, so there are no license plates to spot; they are unlicensed, so their privilege to use the roads can't be taken away; they are almost never seen in the act by police officers, because that would require quite a bit of luck; they can easily leave the scene of any problem, so if the police are not already there they will get away with whatever they were doing. Does anybody require licenses or registration? What else can be done?

I'm not trying to persecute cyclists. I recognize that not all cyclists are like those ones on Friday. But I am trying to find a way to get them all to play by the rules -- and maybe even to recognize that when they do to pedestrians what they accuse drivers of doing to them, they do not help their cause.

What concrete suggestions can I take to my local government?

Restoring trust after leaders swindled the organization

Somebody asked a question about restoring trust in an organization's leaders after a major board failure. The previous board swindled the organization out of a lot of money, and now staff members (who were not part of that) are trying to set things right -- but, of course, nobody trusts anybody now. What to do to prevent collapse?

I answered based on my experience both on a board and having sued a board over financial issues. Read more…

Machzor pre-review

The Reform movement is publishing a new machzor (prayerbook for the high holy days) after several decades. The format is similar to Mishkan T'filah, the new rest-of-year prayerbook that was published a few years ago. Just as MT was intended to replace Gates of Prayer (its predecessor), the new machzor is intended to replace Gates of Repentance (GoR). I am one of the people in my congregation who was asked to evaluate it for possible purchase. (Actually, what we're evaluating is draft editions of certain services. My comments are based on the morning services for Rosh Hashsna and Yom Kippur.)

Now that I've shared my comments with my rabbi and the head of the committee, I'll go ahead and share them here. I'd love to hear opinions from people in other congregations who have also taken a look at the drafts.

A brief note on context: Gates of Repentance, like Gates of Prayer, took what I consider to be a somewhat haphazard and often dishonest approach to the liturgy. It mixed Hebrew and English, but sometimes the English was a translation and sometimes it was a "creative reading". Most of these creative readings were pretty horrible. And by omitting some translations, the book failed to serve people who wanted to actually know what the Hebrew prayers said.

Mishkan T'filah takes a better approach. For each prayer you get: the Hebrew, the transliteration (often missing in the prior books, and that deterred some), a good translation (~98% of the time), and one or two alternative ("creative") readings (which might be poetry).

And now, with that as background, here's the feedback I sent:

I've spent time studying the drafts from the new machzor, looking at them from the perspective of the infrequent worshipper, the regular worshipper, and the service leader. My recommendation is that we not buy this machzor for the congregation, though there might be merit in buying a smaller quantity for special services. Details below.

Infrequent worshippers:

Most of our congregants come infrequently. They will not notice the many inconsistencies between Mishkan T'filah (our rest-of-year siddur) and this machzor, and thus won't be bothered by them. They will benefit slightly from having everything transliterated. They will be of mixed opinions on the new translations and creative readings; in some cases they will appreciate a fresh text and in others they will be unhappy about the loss of their favorite readings (whichever they are). The innovation, therefore, is neutral (except for shofar blowers; see below). For our infrequent attendees I see no benefit in a $30,000 expenditure to change from one book that they use infrequently to another. There's nothing really wrong with GoR from their perspective, and they may even find it comfortable and familiar because it's what they've used for decades.


For people who come fairly regularly (let's say, at least once or twice a month) for Shabbat and yom tov, the new machzor should be attractive. It's "like Mishkan T'filah", which they're used to. But the new machzor makes gratuitious, disconcerting changes, throwing away that benefit. Specifically:

  • The machzor rearranges parts of the liturgy that are common to most/all year-round services for no apparent reason. For example, the torah-study part of the morning service now comes before the blessings for body and soul and the birkat ha-shachar section. Even if they had a sound reason for doing this (and if so I'd love to know what it was), for a book that's used only a few times a year, consistency with the book that's used the rest of the year is important.
  • The machzor makes some significant departures, from both GoR and Jewish tradition, in the HHD-specific parts of the services, again for no apparent reason. The result is that it feels random, like they're making changes for the sake of change. What was wrong with keeping the shofar service together, the way every other Jewish community in the world does?1 (I'll have more to say about the shofar service later.) The machzor downplays Shabbat when that coincides with Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur; while preparing for the YK Ruach service [a service in our minyan's style that I'll be leading this year] I found that the psalm for Shabbat has been reduced to tzadik katamar. I wonder what kabbalat shabbat has been reduced to in the evening services (which we don't have). This net effect is that this machzor feels like "Judaism Lite", like it threw out some HHD liturgy to make room for... I'm not sure what; more creative readings maybe?
  • Just as we've gotten people used to reading, in MT, from Hebrew and/or translitaration, sometimes switching between the two within a single prayer, the machzor changes the layout to make that more difficult. In MT, the line-by-line transliteration is on the left and the Hebrew is on the right, and this occurs almost always on right-hand pages in teh book. In the new machzor they reversed these, so the gap between Hebrew and translit now widens as you read a line instead of narrowing, so someone who just needs to check the occasional word will struggle. Also, reading Hebrew, a different alphabet, is challenging enough for some without throwing in the wrinkle of having the text run into the gulley, as it will do on all right-side pages (where almost all the Hebrew is). I am not just whining about page layout; this is a noticable drop in usability. I've heard this from many people, with and without vision issues.
  • In a similar vein, italicizing the transliteration makes it much harder to read.

As a result of all this, I think that, to someone already comfortable with Mishkan T'filah, the new machzor is a step backward from MT. It's worth noting, however, that some people in this group may see it as still a little better than GoR; GoR is pretty awkward now if you're used to MT the rest of the year. Is that enough, given all the problems? I don't think so.

The shofar service:

[Contextual note: this part of the service, unique to Rosh Hashana and pretty important, is traditionally done in one clump. The editors of this book have split it up into three sections and distributed them throughout the service. This is, frankly, bizarre.]

Whatever benefit the editors might have seen in breaking the shofar service up into three parts scattered throughout the morning, there is one major negative consequence: it's hard on the shofar blowers. In many congregations there's one shofar blower and he's on the bimah, so this doesn't matter -- but in a congregation where we try to get groups of people to participate in this, and especially with young children, this is a logistical nightmare. It seems our choices are to either have the disruption of moving people around three times instead of once, or to plot a different path through the service and re-assemble the shofar service (which means jumping around in the book). Both of those are disruptive, and both add some time and a little stress/confusion to what is already the longest service of the year.

A possible use:

While I do not think this machzor is suitable for the whole congregation, it can be put to use for the Ruach services, which attract our most-dedicated, most-liturgically-fluent, members. (We're already using it in that service, despite the book's flaws.) These are the people who are comfortable enough with the service in general to not be thrown off by some page-jumping, and who also stand the best chance of adapting to the re-arrangements because they already know the prayers (in a different order). The people in this group (what Rabbi [Name] calls the "chassidim") are dedicated enough to make it work and might enjoy the benefits that the book does offer. Not everybody who comes to the Ruach service is such a person, but there's enough of a friendly core that these books could work specifically for that service.

We could either buy 100 or so books for this purpose or just buy enough more copies of the draft edition to bring us up to the right number. We've already bought some, after all, and I don't think anybody in the congregation would fault us for getting the less-expensive paperbacks containing only the morning services that we use.

Final notes:

I really wanted to like this machzor. I wish it had followed in more of the footsteps of Mishkan T'filah. I assume that the decisions they've made are a done deal at this point, that there's no chance that they will restore the missing prayers, fix the shofar service, or change the layout to match MT. That's a pity, because it's nice to have honest translations and some of the left-side readings are nice. But that doesn't make up for the damage they've done elsewhere.

I was really hoping we could improve on Gates of Repentance, which has many issues of its own. I think a better outcome for our congregation would be to choose a different machzor to replace GoR with, but I understand why that does not work politically. Since we can't do that, it's better to stick with the less-than-appealing machzor we already have than to replace it with one that is differently less-than-appealing, especially when budgets are tight.

1 A comment pointed out that in an Orthodox service the shofar calls are not all together either, though they are not as far apart as in this Reform machzor.

Protecting a community from misrepresentation by a single user

Somebody asked a question on the SE site Community Building, paraphrased:

Our site has a fairly specific scope -- for the purposes of this question, unicorns. We have a vocal user who misunderstands our purpose and is maligning us and spreading misinformation elsewhere. What can we do to protect ourselves from the negative image he's giving us?

This is the answer I posted: Read more…

De-escalation for moderators

A moderator (of another community) asked a question on the SE site Community Building about handling conflicts between other users. The moderator worried that trying to pull them apart might make things even worse.

I wrote the following short treatise on handling conflicts in response: Read more…


A writing site I'm part of has a weekly writing challenge -- somebody throws out a topic, you write for ten minutes, and then share what you've got. I decided to try it this week. The topic was "high school crush".

He opened his eyes to the cacophony of voices. Faces came into focus -- Mr. Jacobson, a man in uniform -- wait, police? -- and a giant towering over him. Was that the truck driver? He tried to clear the fog from his brain as he reached up and brushed broken glass from his hair.

"Don't try to move; you're hurt", someone behind him said. Another face came into view, a man wearing glasses in which flashing red lights were reflected. "We'll get you out of there, hold on", the stranger said.

Hands pulled him free of a jumble of metal and glass, pulled him onto a stretcher. "No wait, I'm ok", he said as he tried to stand, wobbled, and fell back. He noticed for the first time the shooting pain.

He returned that afternoon, swaying on crutches into his chemistry class. Darn, he said, couldn't they have taken another 45 minutes at the ER? He hated this class, his last of the day.

Just before the bell the speakers crackled, calling the class to attention. "Driver ed is cancelled tomorrow due to mechanical issues", the voice said. Mechanical issues, eh? No, no amount of body work was going to fix that crushed mess; they were going to need a new car.

What, you were expecting romance?

Bite-sized education

Today I was wearing my "there's no place like" shirt, and thus found myself explaining as much of how the Internet is put together as will fit in an elevator ride in a tall office building. I explained to my inquirer that while he's used to referring to sites by names, computers also have numbers, like this, and that this particular number is very special: it refers to "this computer that I'm typing on right now". Oh, he said, like "home base". Ding.

At that moment the elevator arrived in the lobby, so we did not get into IPv6.