Blog: April 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.

A different kind of analysis paralysis

I was in a post office recently for other reasons, so I asked for a book of stamps. (I do occasionally send physical letters still.) The clerk pointed to a display showing about 20 different custom stamps and asked me which ones I wanted.

Several were people I didn't recognize (which doesn't mean I don't know them; I'm bad with faces and stamps aren't large). Some looked like "logos" of a sort but it wasn't clear what causes they supported. One had Arabic text on it. One said "Harry Potter". One had a big heart (Valentine's Day leftovers, maybe?). Most or perhaps all had small text that would probably have clarified who the people were or what the others were for, but I couldn't read the text at that size in the amount of light that was there, and I didn't want to hold up the line with what should have been a simple operation. But I didn't want to buy something I might not want to be using on my mail, either. (I once ended up with some very-religious Christmas stamps because I didn't specify. I won't make that mistake again.)

So I asked: don't you have something generic, like Liberty Bells (that's what my last set of generic stamps had) or flags? She dug around in the drawer and turned up some flags. I'm not especially patriotic, but they're unobjectionable so I took them.

As with quarters and license plates, I sometimes wonder if the desire to offer more and more customization options is starting to impede the primary purpose. I understand the desire to make special-purpose runs of stamps -- they're probably thinking that anything that helps make postal mail, or at least postage stamps, relevant is a good thing -- but in this case it hindered usability. Really, I just want something that conveys "mailing fee paid".

I'd happily buy flowers, fish, space shots (Hubble could supply), auroras, wildlife... anything like that. I like pretty stamps. It all beats flags and liberty bells. But faces of people I don't recognize seemed to dominate this set, and that's not very exciting to me.

Consequences of not going to the mikvah?

A couple has been married for 20 years. He came from an observant background; she didn't, but she consented to go to the mikvah each month to uphold the laws of "family purity". Over time she has become more resentful that the whole burden is placed on the woman. The man came to Mi Yodeya to ask what halachic leniencies or remedies might be available.

Others covered the halacha better than I did, but I spent most of my answer on the question behind the question:

Halachically, you transgress a biblical commandment if you knowingly have relations with a niddah, and the punishment is karet. Another answer cites Rambam Laws of Prohibitions on Relations 4:3. According to Rambam Issurei Biah 1:1 (h/t DoubleAA), punishments for forbidden relations apply to both except in a special case not applicable here.

By the way, the talmud on Ketubot 72 includes this case in a list of reasons for which a man may divorce his wife and not pay her ketubah. I know you don't want to get divorced; I'm just pointing it out as a possible consequence for other couples. (I don't know what later sources have to say about that, and one shouldn't go only on one daf of talmud.)

Having said that, I'm going to respond to the rest of what you wrote. By your report, your wife resents the niddah laws because they place the burden entirely on her -- what does she get out of this, beyond that it makes you happy? While spouses should always try to do things that bring each other happiness where possible, she's feeling burdened. It's not fair. I totally get that.

You care about her doing this and you both care about having a happy marriage. So what can you do to make this feel less one-sided? Halacha might not demand anything of you, but in the interests of infusing some positive feelings into this aspect of the marriage for both of you, I suggest you think about ways to make mikvah night special for her. Not as a bribe for going to the mikvah, but as a kindness that you do for somebody you love at a time when she's feeling burdened. You'd take some of the load off if she were sick, or stressed by work/school/kids/family, or just feeling down, right? So take some of the load off from this source of aggravation too.

What that looks like depends on the two of you, but, for example, maybe it would help if you cooked her a nice dinner that night (or took her out)? That's just one idea. Do something nice for her. From her perspective she's doing something nice (not required) for you, so if she feels like she's receiving some kindness too, maybe that'll help her feel better about it.

UI development in a dynamic world

It used to be that if you put out a software product, and particularly as you produced new versions of it, people might complain about things that were hard or different (change bad!) or broke their workflow, and you'd decide whether to add some configuration parameters or redesign it again or just tell them to suck it up. There wasn't much they could do within the scope of your software if you didn't give them hooks. (They could, of course, take their business elsewhere if your breaking change was important.)

Then, if what you were developing was a web site, you had to cope with some variations ("IE did what to our site?"), but you still had a lot of control. Well, until browser add-ons became a thing, and people could block your ads and trackers and make you use HTTPS and your site had better still work if you didn't want people to surf away.

Now, quite aside from the multitude of browser add-ons that might be relevant, we have tools like Greasemonkey and Stylish that empower users to rewrite your site to their heart's content. For some of us this lets us turn unusable sites into usable ones ("you chose what font? and assumed I had a 1500px-wide browser? feh!"). But it goes beyond that; Greasemonkey, by allowing JavaScript injection, lets us add, remove, and redefine functionality. I have several Greasemonkey scripts for Stack Exchange that make those sites easier for me to use and moderate, scripts that let me add shortcuts and override assumptions the designers made that don't quite fit my circumstances. I like SE's designers and, mostly, the designs of the sites I use, but some things just don't work so well for me out of the box. I'm not picking on SE; I think this happens with lots of sites.

All of this got me wondering: how do you develop web UIs in that kind of world? Are there some best practices that designers use to say "ok, if you're going to hook into the site and change things, we'll make it easy for you to hook in here and here to try to guide and contain you"? Is there some way of doing defensive design, so that if people do add scripting they can reduce the chances that that'll break something important? Or do they mostly just not worry about this, figuring that the Greasemonkey heads know how to use the browser console and will reverse-engineer their pages and, anyway, if you're going to mess with our site it's ok to say you're on your own? (I don't actually know enough to write those Greasemonkey scripts myself; I use scripts that others have written. So I don't have a good perspective coming from the developer-user side here.)

I'm curious about how the expansion of user-driven variation, on top of the browser-driven variation we already had, is affecting the field.

Biblical Hermeneutics site: mostly harmful

The Stack Exchange network has many great Q&A sites, several of which I'm pretty heavily involved with. (I just passed 100k reputation network-wide.) My first and favorite site is Mi Yodeya, the site for Jewish questions and answers. The quality level is very high; I've learned a lot.

SE started with Stack Overflow, for expert programmers, and then added sites for other technical subjects -- programming, system administration, database administration, and the like. Over the years the scope has broadened to include all sorts of topics -- religions, languages, math, cooking, writing, and many more (over 130 of them at the moment). One of these sites is Biblical Hermeneutics (BH).

When BH first showed up I asked why this topic wasn't already covered by the site for Christianity, and I was assured that, in contrast to the religion sites (Mi Yodeya and Christianity, at the time), BH didn't have a doctrinal basis -- the goal was something more akin to the religious-studies department at a secular university. In other words, this was a site for bible geeks, not zealots. I'm a bible (well, torah) geek, so I jumped in.

It didn't work, despite the best efforts of some excellent users -- shining examples of how people should behave there, some of whom I count as friends. Over the three and a half years that it has existed BH has moved from respectful discourse to quite a bit of Christian evangelism and presumption. When nearly every question about the Hebrew bible is answered with the claim that it's talking about Jesus, no matter how inappropriate, it can get pretty frustrating.

BH is a Christian site. Its users refuse to bracket their bias, to write descriptively rather than prescriptively, and to rein in the preaching and truth claims. Opinions masquerade as answers, supported by those who share the opinions and don't stop to ask if an answer actually supported its claims. When that happens you don't have an academic site; you have a church bible-study group. Most people there seem to be fine with that; it's not likely to change.

The site actively recruited Jews. Originally they welcomed us, but the evangelists and those who support them have driven nearly all of us out now by creating a hostile environment. (Last I checked, there was one known Jew there.) It kind of feels like we've been invited to a medieval disputation, except that we, unlike our ancestors, can actually opt out. Read moreā€¦

Culinary note: effort << results

One of the dishes I made for my seder got compliments from everybody (and requests for how I did it), and it was incredibly easy. I wasn't expecting it to be one of the stars of the night. So, to share this discovery with others:

Vegetable-stuffed peppers

Dice a large sweet onion (next time I'll use more) and cube about a pound of butternut squash (~half-inch cubes), mix in enough olive oil to coat, spread in a pan, and roast at 400 for about half an hour (stirring a couple times in there). Meanwhile, cut four red peppers1 in half, removing the stems, seeds, and white vein-like stuff. Ideally you will have selected peppers that are square-ish in shape, such that when you set the halves in a pan they'll stay put rather than tipping over. Fill the peppers with the cooked onion-squash mixture, add a bit of water to the pan (I find this helps prevent the peppers from burning), and put back in the oven until done (maybe another 20 minutes, though definitions of "done" vary). The onions on top should be caramelized and everything should be tender.

That's it. I didn't even season it before cooking, and it turns out I didn't need to.

I cooked this the day before and it went onto a hot plate during the early part of the seder.

At other times of year I might add rice to the mixture, particularly of the multi-colored-mixture variety. There were going to be other starches, so I didn't add farfel.

1 Yellow or orange peppers would work taste-wise, but the colors are prettier with red ones (with the orange squash and the light-yellow onion). Green peppers are never an option in my kitchen, but I also think they'd be too bitter in this combination even for people who like them otherwise.