Blog: June 2020

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 Shabbat story

My synagogue, like everyone else, shut down in mid-March. They've been holding Shabbat services over Zoom; most Reform Jews don't care about using computers on Shabbat but I do, so I haven't joined. But I miss my minyan, and also we've been preparing for my rabbi's retirement (all those celebrations went out the window too), so, um.

A couple weeks ago the Conservative movement put out a detailed analysis of the issue. Their conclusion (and yes I read the supporting documentation, all 35 pages of it) was that, basically, passive computer-based stuff you set in motion before Shabbat is ok under these specific exceptional circumstances (do not extrapolate beyond COVID). Starting two weeks ago I've used my tablet (intentional: battery, not wall current) to join the Zoom meeting before Shabbat. I left it sitting there with a headset plugged in, with my video turned off and mic muted. (Even remembered to disable my password lock so I could see the video feed.)

People tried to interact with me that first week, but I didn't want to interact with the software on Shabbat to unmute and apparently they couldn't do that remotely, so oh well. I had a conversation with my rabbi about this, saying I'd talk if I didn't have to do anything but I did so I couldn't.

This Shabbat was my rabbi's last as our senior rabbi, after 32 years with us. It was, as you'd expect, a very emotional service, and I'm glad I could attend even in this limited way. (Better, of course, would have been for us to all be together physically, but that is not within our power.) I knew that someone in the minyan was organizing a thing at the end where each of us would say just a few words (the request was to share something fun, not teary), but as usual I didn't expect to be able to join in. Only during the service did it occur to me that had I gone to the home of another willing participant, I might have been able to passively benefit from others' use of Zoom. But I don't know how kosher it would have been to set that up in advance even if I'd thought of it.

So there I was, sitting in my living room with my tablet on the chair next to me, listening to people share stories... when my cat walked across the tablet.

And unmuted me.

And somebody noticed and said "hey, Monica unmuted", so I explained about the cat, who they declared to be a "Shabbos cat" in the nature of the "Shabbos goy".

And then I ad-libbed a response (everyone else had had time to prepare), and I felt like I was part of the goodbye for a rabbi who has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks Orlando. I don't know how you did that, but I'll take it.

Codidact progress

We sent out a newsletter to our announcements mailing list a few days ago, and now that we've got the features to support it I created a blog on our site too. You can read the latest message there. I'm especially excited by four new communities (now six total, plus Meta), the "article" post type (not everything is Q&A) which is being used on the cooking site for recipes (which I did not anticipate, and it works), MathJax so we can support science/math sites, and smaller additions like suggested edits and better tools for building on-site help.

The four new communities are: Cooking, Electrical Engineering, Scientific Speculation (an offshoot of Worldbuilding on SE), and Photo & Video.

Since we sent the newsletter out we added Wilson scoring for answers, meaning we take controversy into account when deciding what order to show answers in. On SE a post with 10 upvotes and 5 downvotes (+10/-5) is treated the same as one with 5 upvotes and no downvotes (+5/-0), but if you're trying to figure out which one to use to fix your out-of-memory problem or the short circuit in your appliance or your bread that's still gooey on the inside when it's burnt on the outside, we don't think those two answers are equivalent. We're also showing the raw votes everywhere (still working on the presentation there; I spent an evening last week with our design lead collaborating in Figma).

We're still based in the UK (that's where the servers are, and the person who oversees them). We need to learn more about UK libel laws, which sounds like a problem for platforms hosting user-contributed content.

Modern threats

Wow, just wow.

I read this thread on Twitter, and I'm going to quote parts of it but you should go read the whole thing. This should not be such recent history, dammit.

I started Girl Scouts in first grade and was an active scout until I was 17 (12th grade)—did ALL the GS stuff and loved my scouting experience. I was a GS national delegate.

My troop, 1001, was in Detroit and almost all black.

Our leaders were Black women and they genuinely loved us. Because they loved us, we did ALL the GS things: we sold cookies, and earned badges, and did community service, and went camping.

We would drive a VERY LONG TIME (at least to a 9 year old) and end up at the campgrounds. And then we’d learn the camp rules and review the Girl Scout requirements: leave a space better than you found it, clean your trash, be kind, have fun. And we did all those things.

Last night I talked to my best friend, whose mom was one of our leaders and camp chaperones. We were talking about camp, and her mom mentioned staying up with two other moms all night, taking stations at each door and window of our cabin and having night watch.

Night watch? I asked, genuinely confused. What kind of bears did y’all think were going to open the door of our cabin and eat us? I asked, jokingly.

She got quiet. “Not bears,” she said, “the Klan.”

But, they wanted us to experience ALL the experiences Girl Scouts have. They just had night watch so we could. So they stood watch—all night. In the 90s. -- dst6n01

Abuses of the weak, and dominos

Our government is out of control; that's been true for some time but it's gotten worse. The murder of George Floyd is appalling. That he's one of many is appalling. That many police are trained to do such violence, and are supported in it, is appalling. That our government responds with more unprovoked violence and escalation is appalling. I keep using that word, and I feel like I should have better words and more coherent thoughts, and I don't.

But I have this talk that you should listen to -- under 20 minutes, and Trevor Noah has some insightful things to say about the many dominoes that have fallen to get us here and societal contracts and more.

What is society? Society is a contract that we sign as human beings. We agree on common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group. And the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it.

Watch on YouTube: George Floyd and the dominos of racial injustice, by Trevor Noah

I was asked in a comment if I think it's getting worse. I replied:

It's hard to determine with certainty the difference between "worse" and "more visible", but I think things have gotten a lot worse. We've always had bigots and abuses of power that went unchecked, but these people are more emboldened now by the vitriol coming from the White House that goes unchecked by others in power.

The Internet and ubiquitous cell phones also make records of abuses more available, but I don't think that alone explains it.