Blog: May 2022

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.

"What's your contribution on the Internet?"

Somebody on Dreamwidth asked (as part of a research project):

How do you make yourself useful to other people on the internet? What's your contribution to the internet?

That's not how I generally think about my activity online, but I said a few things in the moment:

Since the early days of Usenet I've been using the net to learn (self-enrichment), teach or share my knowledge and experience (I hope this helps others), and get to know people who are not like me and who I would never have met otherwise. I like to think that I have similarly contributed to others meeting diverse people from different cultures and contexts. The reasons were originally self-focused, but that's changed over time and with experience.

More actively, after close to a decade contributing to another Q&A network (asking, answering, curating, helping newcomers, moderating), I'm now working on an open-source, transparent, community-driven platform for knowledge-sharing. We're small and trying to grow and only time will tell if we truly helped others, but it's where I invest my community-building and platform-building efforts now.

I guess I served as a canary when that other place turned evil. No one ever signs up to be a canary.

I have used email, and restricted email lists, to both give and get counsel on personal matters. I think I've helped a bunch of people who were considering conversion to Judaism. I consider it a success that some of them did and some of them decided not to; it's not about recruiting but about helping people evaluate the fit.

One of those people was a seeker in Iran, where it was very dangerous to be out about that sort of thing. I think we (one other person and I, in a private chat room with this person) might have saved some lives that day, but I'll never know.

I had a remote intern a few years ago (pre-pandemic); I met her once, about halfway through the internship when I traveled to her location, but otherwise it was all done remotely. I've had in-person interns and junior hires before and I enjoy mentoring them; this was my first time doing it remotely. (I've since done it a couple more times.) Kind of relatedly, I received email last night from an SCA contact who's looking for a mentor for a student for a Girl Scout project. I don't know where this student lives.

I was contacted by a schoolteacher in Myanmar several years ago; her students were building a yurt based on an article I had allowed someone to publish online (it was originally in a paper SCA newsletter), and she had a question. Myanmar. My jaw dropped. Another time, I got email from somebody in Scotland asking me if it would stand up to force-12 winds (which I had to look up). This article was kind of a one-off; it's just a thing I wrote up, after learning from someone else (credited of course) and building one, because I needed something to live in at Pennsic. It wasn't a focus area for me; I've never been part of online yurt communities and stuff; I never promoted it anywhere. I don't even have direct access to edit it. A chance "sure, go ahead and put it on your site if you want" was pretty much my entire contribution to it being online. It makes me wonder how much the stuff that I've intentionally published and maintained has helped people that I'll never know about.

I'll never know most of the impact I have on others. I do the best I can to help it be positive impact.

Always read the reviews

I needed a new thumb drive, so I figured I'd just get one from Amazon along with some other stuff I needed. I found a reasonable-looking candidate but looked at the reviews, the first few of which were bad. How can a thumb drive be bad? The first review said it was unreliable (not described further); the second said it came with malware. I looked at a couple other options, and -- same sort of complaints.

Hmm, I said. These are all third-party sellers (different ones, in the few product pages I looked at). Amazon isn't vetting them and never gets its own hands on the products. They're just an aggregator. I would buy a thumb drive from Amazon, but their credibility does not extend to other sellers they happen to host -- I shouldn't trust a thumb drive being sold by "Joe's Anonymous Store" any more than I should trust one I find lying around waiting to spread the malware within. Even if Amazon eventually boots sellers with lots of complaints, that doesn't help me, now.

I had an errand to run today anyway and figured I'd pick one up in person at Best Buy. That's how I found out my local Best Buy isn't there any more. Oops.

I've bought electronics online from NewEgg before and that's always been fine, so I headed there next -- where I saw that the products I was looking at were listed as third-party sellers. I didn't know NewEgg did third-party sellers. I wouldn't have thought to look if not for those Amazon reviews.

I finally ordered from Best Buy online; I figure it's probably really them, and if there's a problem I can, if necessary, go to a (less-local) brick-and-mortar store to deal with it.

Spells of War (Gary McGath)

It's the middle of the 16th century in Europe. Magic exists, but is regulated and restricted to Christian men. Then Thomas Lorenz, a curious nerd trying to solve an interesting magical-scientific problem, figured out how to store magic. He had in mind practical applications like lights without fire; others had...other applications in mind. Nobody understands where magical power comes from, why some have it and some don't -- it comes from the World Behind, they know, but what that is is a mystery.

Martin Luther's reformation has upended Christendom from within, and the expanding Ottoman empire threatens it from without. Thomas is summoned from his university by the emperor -- one of Thomas's students is now making magical weapons for the other side, and he'd better get to work on countering that. Not only that, but they seem to have developed a weapon that can strip mages of their power, an existential threat to mages beyond the broader threat.

Spells of War by Gary McGath tells this story from several points of view. We follow Thomas and his associates as they try to understand the threat and develop counter-measures. We follow Petros, the student, and his associates who are pressed into service to the sultan. We follow soldiers who are plunged into new ways of waging war. And we follow Thomas's wife, Frieda, who pursues her curiosity about the World Behind while Thomas is away, while also caring for their two young children.

Spells of War is the sequel to The Magic Battery but stands alone. The Magic Battery starts with Thomas's apprenticeship and follows his explorations into stored magic and the ire of the church it attracts. I read and enjoyed both.

Spells of War tells an interesting story with characters I cared about. In both books, the author made me care about, and understand the inner struggles of, people who are on the "other side" -- the inquisitor in the first book and Petros and his peers in the second. Spells of War shows the devastation that war causes on all involved. I don't want to say too much about the Frieda arc for fear of spoilers, but it's engaging and gives us a very different perspective.

The world of The Magic Battery and Spells of War holds together logically. There's magic but it's not "oh, we have magic so we can do anything!"; magic has limitations, both technical and societal, and 16th-century Europe is plausibly altered to make room for magic but is still 16th-century Europe. But you can't just add magic and expect nothing else to change, either; adding magic changes society, and these two books show that well.

The Magic Battery has a satisfying ending that raises broader questions. Spells of War has a satisfying ending that raises more questions. I don't think a third book is coming (or not soon, anyway), but there's room for side stories, and one is linked from the author's web site.


I was a beta reader for both books in exchange for free copies with no expectations of reviews.

Upcoming class on principles of Jewish civil law

I've taken classes from Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) before and even written about some of them. The session on self-driving cars and priorities in saving lives still sticks with me (and was relevant in the Hadar class on medical triage). I've just signed up for Beyond Right: The Values that Shape Judaism's Civil Code, which has the following description (stashing here for my future reference in case that link stops working):

Talmudic analysis and mind-bending logic have long been a hallmark of Jewish scholarship. But buried beneath much of the discussion and legalese are core Jewish values that fuel so much of the debate. This course examines a number of key legal issues that disclose fundamental ethical considerations that serve as the engine of Jewish civil law.

  1. Beyond Good Neighbors: Most laws are designed to protect the rights of people and their property. But Judaism’s civil code is driven by a different goal. Explore how laws of damages and disputes support a uniquely Jewish view of the human mission.

  2. Beyond Restitution: In seeking to restore the rights of plaintiffs, Jewish courts actively assist offenders in achieving full repentance too. Why? Discover the advantage of properly undoing damage over mere compensation.

  3. Beyond Taking Offense: You may feel a moral urge to speak up against an offensive action. But might you have a legal responsibility to deter someone from certain behaviors? Judaism says: Yes. In this lesson, we discuss why and when.

  4. Beyond Personal Freedom: With 613 commandments in the Torah and myriad rules expounded in the Talmud, can Judaism ever be called “liberating”? Let’s delve into the Exodus, the covenant, and the ways in which laws can lead to the purest human freedom.

  5. Beyond Lawful Ownership: Is the claim of ownership anything more than a subjective social agreement? A foundation of Chassidic thought is that material possessions contain spiritual energy that is specific to their owners. Let’s consider the owner’s rights and responsibilities through this lens.

  6. Beyond Presumption of Innocence: While a presumption of innocence can protect defendants from liability, it is not quite a declaration of uprightness. Jewish law goes so far as to presume every person’s core goodness. See how this view can lead us to a truly upright world.

Lesson 5 seems a little out of place, just from that description, but we'll see how it plays out.

JLI produces classes but doesn't conduct them directly. I'll be attending a locally-taught class using their materials and syllabus (same teacher as the previous classes I've taken). Past classes have been discussion-heavy and this class offers a Zoom option, so I'm not sure how that'll be managed. We'll see. (My understanding is that people can attend our session via Zoom, not that there will be a separate Zoom-only session.)