Blog: February 2016

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.

Ki Tisa: Moshe's lesson in inclusion

And it was that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the law in his hand, when he descended, Moshe did not know that the skin of his face sent forth rays of light when he talked with Him. When Aharon and all Israel saw that his face sent forth rays of light, they were afraid to come near. Moshe called to them, and Aharon and the chiefs of the people returned to him and he spoke to them, and after that, all Israel came and Moshe commanded to them all that God had spoken on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe was done speaking with them he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29-33)

Moshe had a problem. Ok, he had several problems -- the people who had encountered God built themselves the golden calf only forty days later, lots of them died, God wanted to destroy the rest and start over, and Moshe persuaded Him to relent. But Moshe also had another problem, covered in just a few sentences at the end of the parsha.

Moshe was different, different in a way that bothered other people. He had come down from the mountain the second time literally aglow with God's splendor. The bright light shining from his face was painful to look at. His abnormal condition frightened the people and prevented them from working with him.

This condition -- this disability -- was not under his control and it wasn't his fault. It's just the way God made him.

So what did Moshe do? He could have said to the community "this is from God; suck it up" and expect them to deal with it. It wasn't his fault, after all; there was nothing wrong with him. He could have placed the burden and the guilt on them. If they were sensitive, caring, and inclusive people they would just ignore his disability no matter what effect it had on them, right?

But that's not what he did. Instead, Moshe put on a veil. He took on some extra work and inconvenience to mitigate what he could mitigate. This allowed him to meet the community part-way -- he adjusted what he could adjust and they adjusted what they could adjust.

Moshe and Yisrael are a model for how communities can function and be inclusive. Everybody does what he can and we all meet in the middle. Nobody places the burden entirely on the other.

I have some vision problems. To mitigate this, I have to sit in the front row if a presenter is using slides -- even though I would otherwise sit farther back, even though it can be ostracizing to sit alone up front. (C'mon, we all know nobody likes the front row.) I carry a magnifying glass to read smaller print. The community, in turn, provides large-print copies of the siddur and paper copies of the Visual T'filah slides, and is understanding if my torah reading is a little bumpy sometimes. And I, in turn, understand that if things get too bad, if my torah-reading moves from "occasional problem" to "near-certain failure", it's not fair for me to insist, to impose. Not all people can do all things, and that's ok. So we work together. It's not my burden alone and it's not the community's burden alone.

A friend tried for years to have a child and finally succeeded -- but her daughter has cerebral palsy. She has good days and bad days and sometimes has uncontrollable outbursts. My friend and her daughter go to Shabbat services -- and are ready to step out of the room if need be. This is a burden for my friend, but it's what decent people do. The community, in turn, understands that there will be some noise sometimes.

My friend doesn't demand that the community smile and nod and say nothing if her child has a prolonged crying burst; she takes her daughter out into the hall. I don't demand that presenters avoid using visual materials if I can get my own copy and follow along. Moshe didn't demand that the people just shut up and avert their eyes until sunglasses could be invented; he put on a veil. All of us also make some demands on the community, expecting the community to make accommodations, but we have to do our part first.

Inclusive communities do not place the whole burden of dealing with disabilities on the disabled. But well-functioning inclusive communities also don't place the whole burden on their other members. The whole point of being in a community is that we work together, each contributing what we can and striving to be flexible.

A veil is inconvenient and probably uncomfortable, but because Moshe wore it the people were able to stay together and ultimately enter the promised land. It is my hope and prayer that, when we're the ones who are unintentionally and unavoidably placing some challenge before others, we too can take the steps we're able to take instead of expecting others to take on the whole task.

Inclusion: doing it wrong

People in the Reform movement have been talking a lot lately about ninclusion, with a particular focus right now on disabilities. It's not enough to accommodate disabilities (not that we even get that right some of the time1) and to remember that everybody is a person deserving of human decency and behave accordingly. No, what I'm hearing (most recently at a synagogue board meeting this past week) is that we have to embrace all differences, no matter what -- that it's Wrong to ask somebody throwing a fit to step out of the sanctuary for a few minutes to compose himself, for example. We're all supposed to celebrate the person's difference and sing Kumbaya or something, because anything less is an invalidation of the person.

I call bullshit.

It is not only ok but, sometimes, obligatory to contain a behavior. This must not be a judgement on the person, but we must not be afraid to act. A child in the midst of a loud and prolonged outburst should not be able to disrupt a Shabbat service whether the reason is Tourette's, ADD, or negligent parents -- the community has a right to expect the behavior to be dealt with (ideally a quick trip out to the hall to calm down and then return). To play the disability card and say that we must grin and bear it and must never ever even think of shushing the kid or glancing parent-ward sacrifices the community on the altar of individual entitlement fantasies.

I say this as somebody with a mild disability, and realizing that some will say that if I don't have a severe disability then I can't understand. But: I know there are situations in which I'm more challenged than others. I have every right to expect accommodations, but I also need to do my part. For example, my congregation has recently started something called "visual t'filah" for some services, where instead of using the prayerbook they project slides so they can vary the content and make it artistic and stuff. There is no seat in the sanctuary from which I can see those slides and I know I'm not the only one; after some pushing from me, they are making paper copies available at those services.

I have a right to demand the paper copies. I do not have a right to demand that they never use slides because some of us can't see them. If it were possible to see them from the front row I might have an obligation to sit there instead. And let me tell you, sitting front and center at every class, conference presentation, or other setting where visual materials are being used, when most people are sitting a few rows back, is awkward and ostracizing and I'd really rather not. But I do my part to mitigate the problem.

Similarly, the person with a disability that potentially disrupts others, whatever it is, has a right to demand a seat on the aisle so he can step out easily if he needs to. If there are known, avoidable triggers for a problem, whether disability or allergy, it's reasonable to expect the community to work to avoid tripping them. These are reasonable accommodations, and I hope that members of religious communities can accept this upon ourselves without needing the big stick of the law. We should all try to offer a helping hand when we can do something to make things easier for another person, and strive to be perceptive enough to not need to be asked for help. And we should be understanding of each other's behavior; we all do things that bother others, some more so and some less so, some from disabilities and some from inattentiveness. This is what communities of decent, civilized people do. But that's very different from what I'm hearing in my congregation lately.

A disability is not a "get out of bad behavior free" card. And anybody who tries to play one is doing a disservice to all people with disabilities. People, you're making us all look bad. Stop the entitled nonsense; we all need to work together in our communities.

And no, I don't want people to "embrace" my differences. How patronizing! That's not sensitivity; that's insulting. It is enough -- and in some cases still a tall order, so let's not over-reach just yet -- if people try to not screw me from the start with important materials I can't see, and if needed, to ask about my needs so we can work together to address them.

I've been trying to figure out how to respond to this in my congregation. It's a small thing, but I realized while preparing next week's torah portion that it gives me an excellent opportunity to talk about some of this, about the need to mitigate. I'm reading the passage at the end of Ki Tisa, when Moshe comes down from the mountain with the tablets (try #2) and his face is glowing. The people can't bear to look at him because of the bright light, so he wears a veil. This is his idea, not theirs. That glow is a direct act from God, something that happened up on the mountain, and yet Moshe mitigates its undesirable effects instead of telling the people "suck it up; this is from God". If he can take steps to contain the negative effects of something clearly not his fault, clearly of divine intention, then surely we can too. So I'm going to try to write a d'var torah around that, and then I'm going to try to get it published on our blog, and then I hope I can get some time to talk at the next board meeting. We'll see.

1 The disabilities task force has now failed, three times, to present material that is visually accessible. They do not seem to recognize the irony. And yet they preach at the rest of us. The emperor should kindly go put on some pants.

Worldbuilding as you go: a case study

Posted on the blog for the Worldbuilding community on Stack Exchange.

In the board game Eurorails, players build and use a railroad network. In the beginning you don’t have much money to pay for track, and the way you get money is to use your track to deliver goods from place to place. As a result, you end up building your track as you go, balancing short-term needs (I need to go to Berlin) and long-term needs (I need to cross the Alps eventually). Some of your needs might evolve and change over the course of the game, requiring you to adapt your building plans. (I just got a high-value order for oranges to Oslo and I can just barely build that line to Barcelona to get them…) Until the end of the game, your track is constantly under development.

I’ve found that playing Eurorails has a lot in common with building worlds for fiction or role-playing games.

Eurorails board, from Board Game Geek, used with permission

There are lots of approaches to worldbuilding. All of them are right for somebody. This article isn’t about telling you what to do. It’s about showing you what works for me, in hopes that it might work for you too.

I’m going to illustrate using the world for The Sisters’ War, the story I’ve been writing for this blog. (You don’t need to have read the story to follow this article.) Read more…

STV + multiple seats can get weird

Worldbuilding moderator election: four positions, 19 candidates (ten proceeding to final election), single transferable vote (AKA "Australian ballot", like the Hugos). With the Hugos you're choosing one winner; applying the scheme to a race with multiple winners can get a little odd.

I don't understand all the math, but with multiple seats the algorithm sets a "threshold", a number of votes a candidate needs to win a seat, and excess votes are then transferred away to other candidates to try to determine the next round. ("Meek STV", for those to whom that means something.) If that doesn't advance things then the candidate with the fewest votes drops out and those are transferred to other candidates. Iterate until done.

The first three winners were determined in the first two rounds of vote processing. It took another twenty rounds to determine the fourth. Some of those vote transfers are tiny, as in "I'll take your word for it that there are changes there".

Each voter got three picks but there were four seats. We all expected a lot of jockeying for spot #4 because of that. I wonder how the dynamics would have been different if voters had as many picks as open seats.

The (anonymized) ballot data is available for download. I'm curious about patterns but not quite sure how to look for them.

Left hand, let me introduce you to the right hand

As I gather is increasingly common in larger US companies, my employer tries to entice people to actually get annual bloodwork by offering a discount on insurance to people who cough up some basic stats -- cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and a couple other things. (Assurances of confidentiality are made; cost-benefit analysis is left to the employee.) I had a physical recently, so I collected the data in case I want to use it later.

I noticed, after the call from my doctor's office, that he hadn't given me one of the required numbers, so I called back to get it. Oh no, he said, we don't routinely test blood sugar any more, because insurance companies don't cover it as part of preventative care. So he'd have had to charge me for that, and since I didn't present any relevant symptoms he didn't pursue it. I hadn't specifically asked about it up front, so I'm not faulting him for this.

But let me see if I understand this: my employer's health insurance will not pay for a test that my employer's benefits department wants me to obtain. Er, right.

I pointed out this gap to a coworker, who said that as these things go, this is one of the easiest problems to solve on your own: find a diabetic friend and ask to borrow a glucose meter. Yeah, I guess that could work. I can also (since I don't work at the main office) order a do-it-yourself test kit at no charge, but I begrudge the extra hassle (and needle-stick) when my physical was supposed to take care of this already.

But that's all assuming I'm willing to share this data. I haven't decided about that yet; it's a little creepy, and I might be willing to pay a slightly-higher price to retain that bit of privacy. Really, why do they need to know? Wouldn't a receipt from my doctor saying "yeah, saw her this year" be enough?