Blog: February 2015

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.

The Internet is made of people

Yesterday we got word that one of my fellow Stack Exchange moderators (not on a site I moderate, but a different one) had died. I didn't know him well, but we had talked in our moderator-only chat room intermittently, we'd read each others' posts, and I felt like I'd gotten to know him some. It seems like that was mutual. The last conversation we had started with him telling me he respects me "a heck of a lot" (that's mutual) and ended with plans for him to come to Mi Yodeya with a question he was forming. And now he's gone. We found out because somebody -- we don't know who -- updated his profile, and investigation showed it not to be a cruel prank.

I've been on the net a long time, and I still manage to be surprised by how much I grieve people who I may have only known as names and gravatars. But they are still people, people who shared their thoughts and knowledge and aspirations, people I got to know, and online communities -- the ones that are really communities, not drive-bys and transient places to post comments and stuff like that -- cause us to form connections that are every bit as real as those we form with the people we see, speak with, hug. It blows my mind.

And as we grow more and more connected, and frankly as I get older and have online friendships that stretch from years to decades, I know there's going to be more and more of this. Affable Geek wasn't the first in my digital life by far, he won't be the last, and we knew each other only casually, and yet his passing still touches me deeply. I still expect to see his digital face pop up on the network, but it won't any more.

How should a werewolf observe Pesach? (Purim Torah)

A Purim Torah question on Mi Yodeya asked: how can a Jewish werewolf observe Pesach and other holidays that fall on the full moon? I answered:

I've heard conflicting rumors about the characteristics of werewolves. For purposes of this question I'm going to go with the common modern-day interpretation: a werewolf undergoes involuntary transformation into wolf form at the full moon, losing most of its human instincts, and typically hunts and gorges on something before returning to human form in the morning with few if any memories. If you had some other kind of werewolf in mind, you should specify.

All of these holidays will pose problems for our werewolf because the full moon rises at sunset, which is before festivities can be concluded (or in some cases even started), but his transformation into wolf form commences with the appearance of the full moon. If you follow the minority opinion that it's the sight of the full moon that does it then you might be able to prevent transformation for a time, but the majority seem to hold that the transformation happens at moonrise with or without consent.

One possibility is that he's not obligated in mitzvot while in wolf form (because only human Jews are obligated). If he is obligated, though, he's going to face some challenges: Read more…

Purim Torah: why don't we accept Zaphod Beeblebrox as the messiah?

A purim torah question on Mi Yodeya asks what I think is a brilliant question. Due to the nature of purim torah I can't really summarize it, so I will quote it and then share my answer, which I had a lot of fun writing. Read more…

How do mandatory evacuations work?

We sometimes hear about mandatory evacuations because of storms (hurricanes, winter storms, etc). Hearing about one a couple of years ago that was announced on a Saturday morning prompted me to ask this question about evacuations on Shabbat. Now the question of timing has come up.

I've been fortunate to never have to evacuate my home or city. (Buildings yes, but that's different.) I have this impression, perhaps informed by Hollywood rather than reality, that announcements get broadcast far and wide and then police or National Guard or whoever start going through the area making sure people clear out, and you maybe have an hour or two to get underway at best. But then I thought about the logistics of that, and I'm wondering if you really have several hours, maybe the better part of a day, to do your prep and get out.

I'm not talking about cases where the problem is immediate (there's just been an earthquake, the missile will strike in half an hour, etc), but about other cases where the threat is dire enough that there is an evacuation but it might not be "drop everything and go right now" -- the storm is making landfall tonight, cases where you have (or think you have) time to get everybody home from work/school so you can leave together, pack your car, contact people outside the affected area to arrange for shelter, etc. I realize it's a good idea to get out as soon as you can, if nothing else because of traffic, but we know people don't always do that (and can't always, if not everybody is together to start with).

So for those of you who've been through these kinds of evacuations, or who know more about it than I do, what's the timeline usually like? How long do people take to clear out?

Reverse image search

Last night Dani and I went out for dinner, as we always do after Shabbat, and chose a restaurant in Monroeville (part of the mall complex but not in the main building). We had a nice dinner and, upon leaving, found the front door locked and other people standing around. The employee at the door told us that we were on lockdown because there was a shooter in the mall. Somebody asked if we were permitted to leave and she said "I can't stop you". After conferring briefly we decided to leave, as did some of the others there. (Our car was nearby and not in the direction of the mall.) By the time I went to sleep last night they hadn't yet found the guy, so I'd say that was a reasonable call.

But that's not the main point of this post. Several news articles (here's one) report that they identified the suspect by matching store surveillance video with pictures on social media. This future contender for the Darwin award had actually posted a picture of himself on Instagram four hours earlier, wearing the same distinctive clothing he wore in the mall later, but most such searches would presumably be harder.

Image search (by keyword) is not new, of course, and more recently Google offers reverse image search (upload an image and find ones like it). I don't know how well the latter works (haven't tested it). Searching "social media" for pictures matching surveillance footage is a large task unless Google has already indexed it for you. Either way, I wonder if they are also using geo-coding information when that's embedded in photos or posts to narrow the search. (Or law-enforcement organizations might have a big, private database that includes web scrapes and lots more; they wouldn't be the first government agency to do that.)

So this all got me wondering: are local police using Google to find suspects? What kind of success rate do they get doing that?

Asking authors for improvements

This post was from the "meta" site attached to Mi Yodeya, where the community discusses community issues (among things). There had been some complaints of overly-critical comments, and I opened a discussion and offered my guidelines for how to give feedback.

Q: Sometimes we get a question or answer that is unclear or leaves out important details, and people comment to elicit improvements. Sometimes that works well (and the post gets improved); other times there are complaints that we're overly critical. How do we do more of the former and less of the latter? How should we go about asking for clarifications and other improvements?


Clarity in answers (and questions of course) is important. Where it is lacking, we should seek to improve that -- it does nobody any good if people end up answering the wrong question or if an answer is built on what turns out to be an incorrect premise. However, I would much rather that we do nothing at all than that we do it badly.

Sometimes comments come across as overly confrontational -- comments like "what makes you think X?" or "how is this relevant?". I'm sure this is nobody's intent; we all "hear" what we write through our own filters and if we don't actively step back and ask "how will others read this?" we miss things.

Instead of asking "how do you" or "why do you" or "what makes you think", which sounds personal even though it's not meant to be, focus on either the post or on yourself:

  • "This answer would be more valuable if you could provide a source for X" (h/t @IsaacMoses)

  • "I would find this more helpful if..."

  • "I'm having trouble understanding X; could you expand on that?" -- or even just "could you expand on X?"

  • "Where do we learn that (assertion that forms the basis of a question)?"

In my experience, comments like the above are well-received. They emphasize that we are a community working together toward a common goal.

Some may find this approach too deferential, but I ask you to think again: better that we err on the side of deference than have an argument and bad feelings that could have been so easily avoided.

To those versed in more in-your-face argument styles, a comment like "what makes you think X?" seems natural. In a beit midrash (or a software-design meeting) or when you're in the room with the person, that's probably true. The Internet is different. We are not all coming from the same place or with the same assumptions. Take some extra care please.

We have lost some users over interaction styles. And while you might say "eh, the site's not for everybody", other than obvious trolls you don't know up front if somebody could have been a good contributor if given half a chance. We can err on the side of caution without compromising on quality by being careful in how we say things.

Or, put more simply, be nice:

Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules — they don't. And be patient while they learn. If you're here for help, make it as easy as possible for others to help you. Everyone here is volunteering, and no one responds well to demands for help.

It's a positive commandment; "not being un-nice" isn't enough.