Blog: April 2017

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.

URLs can fool you; watch out

We've all seen text on the web that looks almost like ASCII, but it's really very-similar characters from other alphabets like Cyrillic, right? These can appear in domain names too, and your browser will helpfully display them in Unicode.

So, yeah, that can be exploited. It's called a homograph attack.

Browsers display a URL with some special characters in its uglier, non-translated form, so you can tell. But there's a bug or feature, depending on whom you ask, that if the domain consists entirely of special characters from a single language, it all gets translated. You can see how that would be helpful to Internet users in Russia or Israel or China, but for those who surf using the Roman alphabet, it's a risk that even careful security-minded people can miss.

Chrome version 58 reportedly fixes the problem. Firefox isn't going to fix it, but there's an about:config setting you can change (set network.IDN_show_punycode to true).

This post from Ars Technica explains the problem in more detail.

Beginner's steps to keeping Shabbat

Somebody asked on Mi Yodeya, on behalf of others: where does one begin when taking on Shabbat, when one doesn't yet know all the laws but wants to make progress?

I answered:

I don't have sources, but I can answer from personal experience. All of the mitzvot of Shabbat are important, but the ones they should start with are the ones that will make the biggest impact. Those are:

  1. Those that are easy for them to do, because early successes make the whole task seem less daunting.

  2. Those that involve a fundamental change that they can actually do now, because these changes give them something big to point to to say both (a) I accomplished something and (b) and if I could do that then surely I can do (whatever the next one is).

What exactly these are will vary from person to person. In my case, for example, it was not too difficult to change my work schedule so that I could be home before candle-lighting time on Friday -- an example of #2, really setting aside my employment for Shabbat. On the other hand, when I began to observe Shabbat I lived several miles from the nearest synagogue, so not driving wasn't going to happen at that time. (I needed my Shabbat community more than I needed to not kindle that particular flame.) Later -- much later -- I moved and solved that problem, but I couldn't have done it at the beginning. For others it could be the reverse -- maybe you already live near shuls but you're going to need to find a new job to fix the work schedule. Work was in category 1 for me and driving in category 2; for you it could be the reverse.

Further, don't neglect the "do"s and the "small" things. People new to Shabbat tend, in my experience, to think of it mostly as the "thou shalt nots". It can take a while to get into the head-space of Shabbat being a welcome separation from ordinary time instead of a day of restrictions. So make sure to take on the positive things! Festive meals with family/friends make a big difference. Join a torah-study group on Shabbat morning or an afternoon class on something that interests you. Do things that help you relax and enjoy the day (without introducing melachot -- e.g. some people relax by gardening, but instead try walks in the park where you can appreciate others' flowers instead).

Shabbat is a process. As soon as you're somewhat comfortable with what you're already doing, try to take on the next thing, whatever it is. When choosing, in addition to the two factors I mentioned, try to prefer d'oraita obligations -- the d'rabbanans are important too, but the divine punishment for violating d'oraita prohibitions is more severe, so start there. But if there's some d'rabbanan thing that makes you say "oh hey, I could do that easily enough" -- then do it. The more you can do and actually integrate into your weekly routine, the easier it will be to do the others.


As I have for a few years, I hosted a Pesach seder this year with the goal of lots of discussion. We had a great group of people this year and it was a big success.

We had eight people, several of whom brought other haggadot to share things from. People asked questions (for which we sometimes pulled reference books off the shelves) and we had lots of great conversation. We also sang lots, which makes me happy. We went for a bit over six hours (including the meal).

I heard some new-to-me melodies, which I haven't necessarily retained but I know whom to ask. Chad Gadya with sound effects -- I'm just sayin'. We sang most of Hallel and I taught a melody for part of the first psalm, which we normally read in English because we didn't have a melody. (So I wrote one, a few years ago. I have a melody for the whole psalm, but I didn't have transliteration available for this psalm and some people needed it, so I didn't want to impose.)

I chose the haggadah I did, despite some archaic language, because not only does it include transliterations of key phrases, but those transliterations are in Sefardi-style Hebrew instead of Ashkenazi. (Sefardi is what comes naturally to me and is used in my congregation.). But there's some stuff that's not transliterated that we sing as a group, so I made a supplementary page with those transliterations. But I need to update it with a couple things for next year, including Psalm 113 so we can sing it.

I made this charoset recipe and it was very successful. It more closely resembled mortar than anything I've ever had based on apples and walnuts, and it was tasty enough that there were almost no leftovers. (I almost halved the recipe because, hey, we were only going to be 8-10 people, but I'm glad I didn't.) I left out the walnuts and increased the almonds and pistachios accordingly, by the way. (I like almonds and pistachios more than I like walnuts.)

I had a couple people coming who don't eat meat (but do eat fish), so rather than making "fake" chicken soup that contains no actual chicken broth, I went looking for interesting alternatives. A search for ginger soup (which I know is a thing and, mmm, ginger) led me to this recipe for green soup with ginger. This took a while to make, and you should definitely use a bigger pot than you think you need so there's room for the greens before they cook down, but wow, that was good! (The recipe says sweet potatoes but shows yams in the photos. I wasn't sure which to use but the decision was made for me: the store didn't have any sweet potatoes when I went shopping. Yams work fine.)

During the first part of the seder I put out snacks (so hunger and spending time on the haggadah wouldn't be in conflict). I put out raw vegetables, dates, and almonds, and a guest brought an eggplant dip. We began the meal with hard-boiled eggs as is traditional. Besides the soup, we also had gefilte fish (brought by a guest), baked herbed chicken, roasted small potatoes, and roasted vegatables. A guest brought fruit salad for dessert, another brought candy, and we had macaroons.

I had to quickly wash the plates we used for the ritual items during the reading of the haggadah so we could use them for dessert; I need to figure out a better solution next year. (Possibly nice disposable plates for one or the other.) We didn't just use the dinner plates because we weren't sitting at the dining-room table the entire time; I learned from my friend Lee Gold the custom of starting in the living room where you have comfortable chairs/couches, so people don't feel rushed by butt-numbing furniture. We gathered around the coffee table, which required small plates. (Obviously this only works if you don't have so many people that you're using all available space for dinner tables. I have the luxury of enough room to use two seating areas, at our current size.)

LiveJournal terms of service

I don't have time to do a close reading of the new LiveJournal terms of service right now, but there are a few things there that are deal-breakers for me:

  • I would be bound by a TOS document that I cannot read. They're very clear that the English translation is non-binding and the Russian original is the actual agreement. I am not equipped to review it.

  • I would be bound by Russian law, and they explicitly mention political "solicitation". It's unclear whether a post stating an opinion they don't like is enough to be on the wrong side of that rule (since, you know, I don't know much about Russian law). It seems likely that doing something like announcing an event would be. While I haven't done much of this, I'm not prepared to say that I've done zero. I certainly won't commit to doing zero in the future.

  • They disallow external retrieval, like Dreamwidth import. It seems that automated backup to one's own hard drive would be similarly disallowed. They of course can't stop a manual scrape, but that's tedious. They are actively impeding users getting their own content out of the system for no good reason.

  • I can be held liable for things that are not under my control. If you get a lot of views, they do...something; I can't tell what but it seems to involve government reporting. Now I don't anticipate writing something that would somehow become wildly popular, but ordinary people can have things go unexpectedly viral. I've seen it plenty of times. I'm not going to bet that it couldn't possibly happen to me.

I do not plan to accept the new LJ terms of service. This breaks crossposting from Dreamwidth, so I hope that my LJ-only friends will find their way here. If you are an LJ user and reading this then please, even if you don't plan to migrate, back up your content somewhere. It takes five minutes to create a DW account and start an import. If you never use the account again, you've still protected your content should LJ delete your account. (Which they do sometimes if someone with unacceptable politics comes to their attention.) I hope you'll start using DW (you can crosspost if you still want to publish on LJ).

I'm planning to reduce my LJ footprint, selectively deleting entries there. (Everything is here.) I might end up deleting everything, but there are some published links to individual posts that I need to fix somehow, so I'm not just dropping a nuke right now.

Also, I paid for a permanent LJ account and one of the promises of that was that they'd never place ads on my journal. Now they are. I suppose they'd argue that that was three owners ago and they don't have to honor it. Or they'd argue that it paid for itself more than a decade ago and I shouldn't really expect "permanent" to be, well, permanent. Either way, I'm not posting there any more and I will clean up what remains as I have time.