Blog: September 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.

Redemption of the first-born

The torah, originally addressed to a more agriculturally-oriented community, has laws about livestock. First-born (male) animals of kosher species are to be given to the temple. First-born male donkeys, though not kosher, are specifically to be redeemed from the kohanim (priests). This reminds us of the killing of the first-born in Egypt.

(There is an analogue of this for first-born sons, called pidyon ha-ben, which observant families do.)

The obligation of pidyon petter chamor, redeeming the first-born donkey, still applies today, but is rarely done. A local rabbi wanted to perform this mitzvah, so he arranged to purchase some donkeys that were pregnant for the first time. (It only applies if a Jew owns the mother and thus the offspring at birth.) He did this through Kollel, who allowed people to buy shares in the donkeys and thus be able to participate. The last of the three donkeys produced an eligible foal.

I attended the ceremony today. (When am I likely to ever see this again?) The young donkey -- named Jacob -- was of course present, as was the sheep that would be used to redeem him. The basic idea is this: the donkey belongs to the kohanim by virtue of being a first-born male, but the owner of the donkey can pay a kohein to be allowed to keep his donkey. The torah-specified price of the donkey is a lamb or kid. The kohein can then do whatever he wants with the animal he receives.

(I have a video explaining the proceedings in more detail and another of the actual ceremony, but they're large enough to cut into my hosting quota, so I've taken them down.)

Some pictures: Read more…

User interfaces are hard, but this isn't even trying...

Wow, that was convoluted. Having solved the problem, I'm recording it here for future-me or anybody else out there who stumbles across this post when in need.

Like everybody else, I've been getting lots of spam calls on my cell phone, most of which use caller-ID to lie (no you are not local...) or mask their identities. I don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize, but it's still annoying.

Sometime in the last several weeks, my phone (ZTE Axon 7 running Android Nougat) offered me some settings for dealing with incoming spam, including a shiny checkbox for blocking calls from private numbers. I've never gotten a legitimate call from a private number on my cell phone, so I checked it.

Yesterday I was in a Google Hangout with somebody, which involved much audio fail that I will save for another time. Rather than continue to debug while the clock was ticking, I said "hey, how 'bout I join the hangout from my phone?" (so, using video and screen-sharing from my computer and phone for audio). I couldn't figure out how to join the hangout. No problem, someone on the other end said, I'll invite you by phone.

Except he blocks his phone number, so his calls were auto-rejected before I even had a chance to pick up. Bloody nuisance. Hey look -- my first legitimate private call!

We solved the hangout problem, but afterwards I wanted to turn off that setting. And could find nothing in my phone settings. That checkbox was nowhere to be found. I went to the rejected call in my call log, found a settings menu, and chose "unblock", but doing that has no effect. (Next time I looked, it was blocked again.)

Some googling told me that I was probably dealing with an app named Hiya, which ZTE apparently bundles with Android. The app doesn't show up in the usual place where you go to launch apps, though. Some more googling led me to Settings -> Apps -> System Apps, where I found it -- but my choices were force-stop and disable, but no "run" or "open".

Ok Hiya, you are -- somewhere! -- holding some configuration settings hostage. Out with it!

More googling led me to this comment explaining how to open the Hiya app: find a blocked-call notification in the log (an actual number, not "private") and open it, which brings up a "limited" part of the Hiya app. This limited app includes settings, so I was finally able to find my way to that checkbox and uncheck it.

Who thought that was a good idea? Un-freaking-believable. Is it so hard to include a hook for Hiya settings somewhere in the phone app (which it is obviously modifying already)?

It's possible I'll need this information again within the lifetime of this phone and I sure won't remember that. Hence this post.

Usability struggles

I spend a lot of time on, and am a volunteer moderator for, several Stack Exchange sites. (Mi Yodeya is one of them.) SE has a banner ("top bar") that is the same across all sites. It contains notifications, information about the logged-in user, and some key navigation links. For moderators it contains a few more things relevant to that job.

Until recently it looked like this (non-moderator view):

counters/controls all clearly visible

The red counter is the inbox (waiting messages) and the green one is reputation changes. If there aren't any, you just get the gray icons that those alerts are positioned over. If I were a moderator on that site, there'd be a diamond to the left of my user picture and a blue square with the flag count to the left of that.

They've just changed this design. (Well, the change is rolling out.) Here's what it looks like now (for a moderator):

counters/controls jumbled on right

The most important links for moderation are the last two things, the diamond and the blue box with the number (flags). They're on the far right, where they're less likely to be seen for various reasons. (Non-moderators don't get those indicators.)

In the old design, those moderator indicators -- which are important -- were toward the center where they're easier to see. Also, all the numbers were a little bigger and easier to see.

When this was announced there was a lot of immediate discussion in the moderators-only chat room, during which I got a little upset about the reduced usability, especially those moderator controls -- which had a good chance of being scrolled away in a not-huge browser window, because SE doesn't use responsive design. After I calmed down I wrote a post on Meta about how this was going to make it harder for me to do my volunteer job, particularly with vision challenges. I expected to get a few sympathy votes, some "get a bigger monitor" snark (which wouldn't help, by the way), and no results.

That post is now one of my highest-scoring posts on the network. And I have a meeting with the product manager and a designer at SE next week to demonstrate my difficulties in using this in more detail.

Meanwhile, I've gotten some help with userscripts from some other moderators. It's hacky and a little buggy and it slows down page loads and I have no idea how to adjust some things, but at least I can see my notifications and the moderator stuff is in a better place. It'll do for now.

counters/controls moved into center

I sure hope I can get them to bake some of this in, though. The page-load delay is a little disconcerting as stuff jumps around on the screen. (Also, userscripts do not work on my Android tablet.)

Beyond the immediate problem, though, what I really hope for is to find some way to raise a little awareness that usability is hard, designers are not the users, there are all kinds of people with all kinds of usage patterns and constraints, and you need to somehow, systematically, figure out how to design for the larger audience. That's going to be the hard part.

A conversation snippet

Tonight at our s'lichot service (something tied to the high holy days), a fellow congregant greeted me and said "I haven't seen you in hours!". (We'd both been there this morning.) I said "hours and hours!". He complained that I was getting carried away.

I responded by saying: "hours" means at least two; "hours and hours" therefore means at least four; it's been longer than that since this morning, so "hours and hours" is not inappropriate.

It was at this point that somebody standing nearby said "oh, that's where I know you from!". We'd both been in a talmud-heavy class a while back.

There are worse things to be remembered for. :-)

Hearing blasphemy (Sanhedrin 60)

Blasphemy is a capital offense. Conviction for a capital offense requires careful testimony of two direct witnesses. This poses a problem, as they must testify to what exactly the person said. To minimize the damage, the court sent everybody out except for the witnesses and then told the first witness: tell us literally what he said. The witness did, and the judges tore their garments. The second witness then said "I heard this too" without repeating the testimony. (The mishna then says the third witness does likewise. I'm not sure where the third witness came from, as only two are required.)

The g'mara discusses tearing one's garments when hearing blasphemy. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel that one tears only when hearing a curse of the tetragramaton, but not when hearing other divine names. Rabbi Chiyya says that one who hears God's name in a blasphemous context today doesn't tear his garments, because if he did the garment would be torn to shreds. But who is R' Chiyya talking about? If we say that he hears this blasphemy from Jews, are Jews so irreverent as to frequently demean the name of God? No, he must be talking about hearing it from gentiles. But do gentiles know this specific name? No, if we're talking about gentiles it must be in regard to any name, and there'd be enough of that to leave one's garments in shreds. The g'mara concludes that nowadays one is not obligated to tear his garments when hearing the curse of a gentile and a curse using another name, but originally one was obligated to tear for both, contrary to what Shmuel says. (mishna 56a, g'mara 60a)

In case you're wondering (I did!) why the second witness doesn't tear his garment on hearing the first witness repeat the blasphemy, the g'mara says it's because he already tore his garment when he heard the original blasphemer. The judges, however, are hearing it for the first time.

Can Jews participate in Christian prayers?

A question on Mi Yodeya was motivated by the asker hearing a Jew decline to participate in a Christian "grace" before a meal. This person asked: since Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the god of Abraham, wouldn't it be permitted for a Jew to participate in a Christian prayer so long as it's to God and not to Jesus?

I answered:

Christianity and Islam say they worship the same god that we do, but that does not make it so.

Christianity is the bigger problem. They say that a human being was part of God, which is shituf (think of it as heresy). That means it is forbidden for a Jew to participate in their prayers. On top of that, the trinity concept adds confusion. I am aware that different Christian denominations give the trinity greater or lesser importance. Distinguishing all the nuances calls for more expertise in Christianity than most of us have. It's hard for us, as outsiders, to navigate their theological variations, especially in real time.

Islam is less problematic, in that they don't say that God took human form, but they do sanctify the Christian gospels, counting Jesus as a prophet. Like Christianity, they say that the torah was deprecated or superseded, so they are at least wrong about God, who gave us an eternal torah, as far as we're concerned. Whether that is enough for halacha I do not know, but it is enough for (dis)comfort for many, including the author of the comment you quoted. Some are also concerned about giving the appearance of endorsing another religion.

Even if you think the text of any particular prayer is unobjectionable, carefully reviewing the text (if you can even get it in advance) imposes a burden of both effort and knowledge that many aren't willing to take on. Especially in a social setting where it's relatively easy to extract oneself, like words before a meal, it makes a great deal of sense to do so instead of trying to navigate what is or isn't acceptable.

Besides, in my experience Christians tend to extemporize their prayers, and it's very, very difficult for them to leave Jesus out of it. So your qualifier of "as long as they pray to God and not Jesus", even aside from the other issues I raised, might not stick in the moment. Rarely-needed care almost never wins out against deeply-ingrained reflex, and the phrase "through so-and-so our Lord (sic)" is a standard phrase in Christian prayer.

Why have a Jewish marriage and risk being an agunah?

In Jewish law, a husband can divorce the wife but the wife cannot divorce the husband. In other words, for them to be divorced, religiously speaking, requires his consent. Some husbands are spiteful and withhold this consent to extort other concessions from the wife. Sometimes the husband disappears and it's not known if he's alive -- this is less common now than when people might be lost at sea, but it's an issue even today when there is a disaster from which not all remains are found or identified. So, there's a risk that the woman can become an agunah, a "chained woman", who cannot remarry because she is still legally married.

Against this backdrop, somebody on Mi Yodeya asked: so why get married Jewishly instead of just getting a civil marriage? It sounds risky.

My answer:

Let's take your question a step farther: why get married at all? Why not just live with, and have relations with, whomever you like? No marriage means no difficulties in ending it.

If you're hesitating at that -- if you think that the concept of "marriage" has some meaning and you're just questioning which type (civil or religious) -- then the first part of the answer is: because a civil "marriage" isn't a marriage according to Judaism at all.

Here are some reasons for couples to want a Jewish marriage: Read more…

[SCA] kitchen trailer

My Pennsic camp, Polyhymnia, is working on a new kitchen trailer. Today we got almost all of the exterior sheathing in place. (We did about half of it today; the other half was done on Saturday, though not by me.)


inside, with roof over ribs

exterior front, two people on scaffolding working on roof edge

In case you're wondering about access: we'll have a little porch over the trailer hitch to get to the door you can see, and there's another door on the other side. The side with the two arched windows faces the road; the side with one window and a door faces the camp interior.