Blog: Reflections

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.

Bo (the last plague)

I gave a d'var torah a couple weeks ago on shortish notice and forgot to post it then. This is for Bo, the parsha that contains the last three plagues and the actual exodus from Egypt.

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The pattern is familiar: Moshe goes to Paro to demand freedom, Paro refuses, Moshe announces the next plague, and God carries it out. Paro says he's sorry and asks for relief, God lifts the plague, and then Paro hardens his heart and we start all over again. There's no change; the oppression never seems to end.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky points out that for most of the plagues these negotiations are strained but civil. Moshe and Paro are on opposite sides of an argument, but nobody is throwing tantrums as far as we can tell. But their last meeting is different: after telling Paro what is to come, the torah tells us that Moshe went out from Paro in hot anger.

Was he angry about Paro's stubborn refusal to let the people go? That doesn't seem likely; they've had that well-worn exchange many times before. No, what is different this time is the cost of Paro's recalcitrance.

The first nine plagues caused extensive damage to Mitzrayim, to the point where even Paro's advisors are urging him to give up because Egypt is surely lost. The first nine plagues destroyed crops and livestock, caused injury and sickness, and massively inconvenienced people -- but they weren't fatal to anyone who heeded the warnings to come in out of the hailstorm.

The last plague is different: there is an unavoidable human cost. The last plague targets based on who you are, not on what wrongs you did, and it kills. It's not individual punishment; it's a tax on those living in Egypt. Surely not all of the dead deserved it, even in a society with many evildoers and oppressors.

God does not want the death of sinners, our prophets tell us, but that they should repent. God wouldn't be sending this last plague if there were an alternative. Moshe sees this, Rabbi Kamenetzky points out, and it fills him with anger at the Paro who causes widespread death. This could have been avoided. These deaths are Paro's fault.

But wait, one might say -- it is God who sends this plague, and thus God could avert this widespread loss of human life. It's God's fault, not Paro's, right?

My father, of blessed memory, taught me many things. One of them is that we solve problems with words, not with fists. Another of them is that giving bullies what they demand does not end the bullying. There was a kid in my grade who, starting in kindergarten, was physically abusive to me, and in the many parental conferences that followed, his parents told my parents that boys will be boys and if I didn't react he would probably stop. My father said that was unacceptable. This went on for years, until I was given permission to respond. The bullying ended the day I decked that kid with my large-print dictionary. We don't solve problems with violence, except that sometimes we have to.

I hit the kid; did that make it my fault he got hurt? Absolutely not, according to me, my parents, and the school principal. Lesser interventions had failed. Now my attack didn't do permanent damage, didn't even break his nose -- nothing like the last plague in that regard. But the principle is the same: the oppressor is culpable for the consequences of his behavior. The blood of the victims of collateral damage is on the hands of the evildoers who refuse to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer from Hadar points out a surprising passage near the end of the parsha, after the final plague, when Paro asks Moshe and Aharon to pray for him. Say what now? The Paro who has done so much damage asks his victims to pray for his welfare? Why would they do that?

Rabbi Kaunfer points out a rabbinic tradition that Paro did not die at the Sea of Reeds with his army. Through the midrashic principle of the conservation of biblical personalities (that's not Rabbi Kaunfer's label), Paro went on to become the king of Nineveh. When Yonah comes to Nineveh to announce their impending destruction, it is the king who asks for forgiveness and leads his nation in teshuva to avert the decree.

Perhaps Moshe and Aharon did pray for Paro like he asked. More specifically, perhaps they prayed that he repent and do teshuva, like we pray our enemies will do in the daily Amidah. That's a prayer I can get behind -- that oppressors big and small soften their hearts, stop doing harm, and turn toward the right path. Ken y'hi ratzono.

Shabbat Shuva (d'var torah)

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of returning, and it's customary for the d'var torah or sermon to focus on the themes of the season. This is the d'var torah I gave in our minyan yesterday.

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Early in the pandemic, when grocery-store shelves were sometimes empty, I started growing a few things to see if I could produce at least a little of my own food. I've always had kind of a brown thumb, but I'd managed to not kill a basil plant that had come in a farm-share box the previous year, so I was game to try.

I didn't grow a lot – more herbs than vegetables – but the cherry tomatoes I planted were extremely bountiful. Encouraged by that success, I planted more. Last year I found myself fighting unknown critters -- I got a few of the tomatoes but I found more that were half-eaten on the ground. Netting didn't help. Tabasco sauce didn't help. So this year I tried a different variety and a different location.

I got to keep three tomatoes. On the day I was going to harvest six more -- they'd been almost ready the previous day -- I found that something had eaten all the tomatoes and most of the leaves besides. The plant looked dead. I left the dejected remains in the pot for the end-of-season cleanup and stopped watering it.

A couple weeks ago I was pruning some other plants and cut away all the dead stems on that plant while I was at it. Then an amazing thing happened: it put out new shoots, then new leaves, and this week, three small tomatoes. That plant stood up to attack followed by neglect and came back strong despite it all.

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During the high holy days we focus a lot on our own actions and the things we have done wrong. We focus on making amends for our mistakes, on doing teshuva and turning in a better direction for the coming year. We try to make things right with the people we've hurt. These are all critical things to focus on, and I don't have much to add that hasn't been said hundreds of times before.

Instead, today I want to talk about being on the other side -- about being the one who has been hurt. We know what to do when those who hurt us do teshuva, but what about when they don't? Teshuva is hard, and we know it won't always come.

Read more…

Today's news

The person who murdered my friends at Tree of Life has just been sentenced to death. There will presumably be years of appeals, but it still feels like there's some closure. I mean, as much as there can be when people we cared about are gone and obviously aren't coming back.

I have complicated feelings about the death penalty. In this case I found the defense's arguments wholly unconvincing. We're supposed to believe that someone who spent months planning an attack, who talked coherently about it on social media, who carried it out methodically, and who showed no remorse -- should get a pass because he had a difficult childhood? Lots of people have difficult childhoods but don't turn into bigoted murderers, y'know? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that he was clearly capable of forming intent, and did. I guess the defense made the best arguments they could; they just didn't have much to work with.

I've noticed that the local Jewish newspaper does not use his name, and neither shall I. We don't need to give him word-fame and help make him a martyr. He's a nobody, a murderous nobody -- Ploni.

The TOL murderer, capital punishment, and rabbinic law

Yesterday's torah portion, Emor, includes one of the "life for life" (death penalty for murder) passages. Locally, the trial for the murderer in the attack at Tree of Life in 2018 has just gotten started. We had a small discussion of the death penalty through that lens.

Many of the victims' families wanted the state to accept the murderer's offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. Some family members pressed for the death penalty. I don't know how prosecutors decide these things, but they decided to have a capital trial instead of accepting the plea.

The systems around the death penalty in the US are badly broken in many ways ranging from injustice to impracticality. Through the lens of civil law and current judicial practice, I personally would prefer that they do the closest legal thing to dropping the guy into an oubliette, keeping him out of circulation while denying the opportunity for grandstanding and martyrdom. Through the lens of Jewish law, however, something struck me yesterday.

The rabbis of the mishna and talmud (in tractate Sanhedrin) were uncomfortable with the death penalty the torah calls for, so they nerfed it. It's very hard to qualify for the death penalty under rabbinic law. In addition to the requirements for eyewitnesses (who themselves face the death penalty for perjury), people must have warned the person beforehand that he was about to commit a capital offense, and he needs to acknowledge that warning. How likely is that? I used to wonder if anybody ever actually did that.

"Screw your optics, I'm going in". That's what the murderer posted on a site where he and others had been discussing the "problem" with Jews.

I don't know what else is in the transcript from that site; I haven't seen it. It sounds like people tried to stop him. Along with everything else -- his social-media activity, the obvious premeditation, the eyewitnesses to the murders, the lack of regret afterward -- it kind of sounds like the talmud's requirements might have been met. It's not a slam-dunk under rabbinic law, but if Jewish law rather than US law were governing this case, it strikes me that this could actually be the rare case that would qualify for the death penalty. And I'd be fine with that.

That's not vengeance talking, though this case is also personal to me (friends, not family). I can support the rabbinic rules for capital cases, theoretical as they seem, because of their many protections and focus on being careful. Example: did you know that a unanimous vote for capital conviction is overturned? Because if nobody had doubts, maybe the judges didn't look hard enough for factors in the accused's favor.

Re: deja vu, all over again

New_public published a post, Déjà Vu, All Over Again, about the evolution of the web and the early days when people made stuff for fun instead of companies making stuff for brand impact and algorithms, and it struck a chord. The author invited comments, so here's what I posted:

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I've been feeling that deja vu too. I was on Usenet before the great renaming, and much later when I joined LiveJournal and this "blogging" thing (pulled in by friends), I remember thinking that a blog or LJ was basically alt.fan.me and would people really care about what I, a nobody, wrote? I expected to read and be read by about a dozen people who were already friends, but things have a way of spreading. And I knew that from Usenet, where I built friendships with people I've never met and sometimes didn't know "real" names for, and it was all very cool and friendly and broadening.

The net, when freed from algorithms and branding and bubbles so that ordinary people can interact with other ordinary people without barriers, is a remarkable way to learn about people and places and subcultures very different from my own. I've formed friendships from people halfway around the world walking very different paths in life from mine. There's a whole big world out there, and the last thing I want is to be trapped in a bubble of people just like me, or as close as Twitter et al think they can come to that.

The revival -- I hope it's a revival and not just a blip on the way to the next corporate thing -- of decentralized, direct, person-to-person online interaction excites me. Coincidentally, I've been working my way through my older posts on LiveJournal and then Dreamwidth, pulling together stuff on my own domain now that I have one, and I'm realizing how much more I used to write and share. I don't know how much of the change in my behavior has been due to people moving from blogs to social media and the vibe changing, how much has been due to modern social censors who retcon what's acceptable and what's offensive, and how much is me being more lazy or distracted or busy or whatever. But, facing the stark contrast to "online me 15 years ago" and "today", I'm motivated to try to get more of the old, personal, human writing back, somehow.

SCA evolution: from re-creation to SIG?

I was at an event this weekend, my first since Pennsic. Pennsic, in turn, was my first event since before the pandemic. I think this infrequency of exposure has made me really notice some things that have been gradually changing for decades. Herewith a long ramble that could definitely use more thought (and probably editing), but this is where I am now. Read more…

The trust thermocline

John Bull wrote a post (in tweet-sized pieces, naturally) that rings true for me, and he gave a name for the phenomenon we're seeing with Twitter, saw with LiveJournal, and partially saw with Stack Overflow. The thread starts here on Twitter and here on Mastodon (the Fediverse). Selected quotes:

One of the things I occasionally get paid to do by companies/execs is to tell them why everything seemed to SUDDENLY go wrong, and subs/readers dropped like a stone. So, with everything going on at Twitter rn, time for a thread about the Trust Thermocline.

So: what's a thermocline?

Well large bodies of water are made of layers of differing temperatures. Like a layer cake. The top bit is where all the the waves happen and has a gradually decreasing temperature. Then SUDDENLY there's a point where it gets super-cold.

The Trust Thermocline is something that, over (many) years of digital, I have seen both digital and regular content publishers hit time and time again. Despite warnings (at least when I've worked there). And it has a similar effect. You have lots of users then suddenly... nope. [...]

But with a lot of CONTENT products (inc social media) that's not actually how it works. Because it doesn't account for sunk-cost lock-in.

Users and readers will stick to what they know, and use, well beyond the point where they START to lose trust in it. And you won't see that.

But they'll only MOVE when they hit the Trust Thermocline. The point where their lack of trust in the product to meet their needs, and the emotional investment they'd made in it, have finally been outweighed by the physical and emotional effort required to abandon it. [...]

Virtually the only way to avoid catastrophic drop-off from breaching the Trust Thermocline is NOT TO BREACH IT.

I can count on one hand the times I've witnessed a company come back from it. And even they never reached previous heights.

Social media and moderation

I've participated in a lot of online communities, and a lot of types of online communities, over the decades -- mailing lists, Usenet, blogging platforms like Dreamwidth, web-based forums, Q&A communities... and social media. With the exception of blogging platforms, where readers opt in to specific people/blogs/journals and the platform doesn't push other stuff at us, online communities tend to end up with some level of moderation.

We had (some) content moderation even in the early days of mailing lists and Usenet. Mostly1 this was gatekeeping -- reviewing content before it was released, because sometimes people post ill-advised things like personal attacks. Mailing lists and Usenet were inherently slow to begin with -- turnaround times were measured in hours if you were lucky and more typically days -- so adding a step where a human reviewed a post before letting it go out into the wild didn't cost much. Communities were small and moderation was mostly to stop the rare egregiously bad stuff, not to curate everything. So far as I recall, nobody then was vetting content that way, like declaring posts to be misinformation.

On the modern Internet with its speed and scale, moderation is usually after the fact. A human moderator sees (or is alerted to) content that doesn't fit the site's rules and handles it. Walking the moderation line can be tough. On Codidact2 and (previously) Stack Exchange, I and my fellow moderators have sometimes had deep discussions of borderline cases. Is that post offensive to a reasonable person, or is it civilly expressing an unpopular idea? Is that link to the poster's book or blog spam, or is the problem that the affiliation isn't disclosed? How do we handle a case where a very small number of people say something is offensive and most people say it's not -- does it fail the reasonable-person principle, or is it a new trend that a lot of people don't yet know about? We human moderators would examine these issues, sometimes seek outside help, and take the smallest action that corrects an actual problem (often an edit, maybe a word with the user, sometimes a timed suspension).

Three things are really, really important here: (1) human decision-makers, (2) who can explain how they applied the public guidelines, with (3) a way to review and reverse decisions.

Automation isn't always bad. Most of us use automated spam filtering. Some sites have automation that flags content for moderator review. As a user I sometimes want to have automation available to me -- to inform me, but not to make irreversible decisions for me. I want my email system to route spam to a spam folder -- but I don't want it to delete it outright, like Gmail sometimes does. I want my browser to alert me that the certificate for the site I'm trying to visit isn't valid -- but I don't want it to bar me from proceeding anyway. I want a product listing for an electronic product to disclose that it is not UL-certified -- but I don't want a bot to block the sale or quietly remove that product from the seller's catalogue.

These are some of the ways that Twitter has been failing for a while. (Twitter isn't alone, of course, but it's the one everyone's paying attention to right now.) Twitter is pretty bad, Musk's Twitter is likely to be differently bad, and making it good is a hard problem.3

Twitter uses bots to moderate content, and those bots sometimes get it badly wrong. If the bots merely flagged content for human review, that would be ok -- but to do that at scale, Twitter would need to make fundamental changes to its model. No, the bots block the tweets and auto-suspend the users. To get unsuspended, a user has to delete the tweets, admit to wrongdoing, and promise not to do it "again" -- even if there's nothing wrong with the tweet. The people I've seen be hit by this were not able to find an appeal path. Combine this with opaque and arbitrary rules, and it's a nightmare.

Musk might shut down some of the sketchier moderation bots (it's always hard to know what's going on in Musk's head), but he's already promised his advertisers that Twitter won't be a free-for-all, so that means he's keeping some bot-based moderation, probably using different rules than last week's. He's also planning to fire most of the employees, meaning there'll be even fewer people to review issues and adjust the algorithms. And it's still a "shoot first, ask questions later" model. It's not assistive automation.

A bot that annotates content with "contrary to CDC guidelines" or "not UL-certified" or "Google sentiment score: mildly negative" or "Consumer Reports rating: 74" or "failed NPR fact-check" or "Fox News says fake"? Sure, go for it -- we've had metadata like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and FDA nutrition information and kashrut certifications for a long time. Want to hide violent videos or porn behind a "view sensitive content" control? Also ok, at least if it's mostly not wrong. As a practical matter a platform should limit the number or let users say which assistance they want, but in principle, fine.

But that's not what Twitter does. Its bots don't inform; they judge and punish. Twitter has secret rules about what speech is allowed and what speech is not, uses bots to root out what they don't like today, takes action against the authors, and causes damage when they get it wrong. There are no humans in the loop to check their work, and there's no transparency.

It's not just Twitter, of course. Other platforms, either overwhelmed by scale or just trying to save some money, use bots to prune out content. Even with the best of intentions that can go wrong; when intentions are less pure, it's even worse.

Actual communities, and smaller platforms, can take advantage of human moderators if they want them. For large firehose-style platforms like Twitter, it seems to me, the solutions to the moderation problem lies in metadata and user preferences, not heavy-handed centralized automated deletions and suspensions. Give users information and the tools to filter -- and the responsibility to do so, or not. Take the decision away, and we're stuck with whatever the owner likes.

The alternative would be to use the Dreamwidth model: Dreamwidth performs no moderation that I'm aware of, I'm free to read (or stop reading) any author I want, and the platform won't push other content in front of me. This works for Dreamwidth, which doesn't need to push ads in front of millions of people to make money for its non-existent stockholders, but such slow growth is anathema to the big for-profit social networks.


  1. It was possible to delete posts on Usenet, but it was spotty and delayed. ↩︎

  2. The opinions in this post are mine and I'm not speaking for Codidact, where I am the community lead. ↩︎

  3. I'd say it's more socially hard than technically hard. ↩︎

Welcome to Elul

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashana. It started about a week ago. The season of repentance and introspection that characterizes the high holy days doesn't begin on Rosh Hashana; it begins earlier, in Elul. (The actual work of making amends and improving ourselves is year-round, of course.)

Even better than making amends is acting in a way to reduce the amount needed. In that nanosecond between seeing or hearing something and jumping to the "obvious" conclusion and acting on it, we can sometimes stop to consider other explanations. There's a lot of hair-trigger absolutist judging happening in our world today, and a small anecdote I saw on Twitter during this season struck me so I'm sharing it.

I almost yelled at a woman looking at an iPhone during Kol Nidre, but I just said "This is one of the most beautiful prayers you'll ever hear." She saw me looking, and explained she was checking her blood sugar. I wished her a healthier New Year. I finally conquered my snark! - @LibbyCone

Even when we think we know all the context, we might not know all the context.

Ice Dragon pentathlon

There is (in non-pandemic times) a major event in my kingdom (AEthelmearc), Ice Dragon. A feature of this event is the arts & sciences pentathlon, which used to be the premier A&S competition in the region. It was the premier A&S competition in the East Kingdom before AEthelmearc split off into its own kingdom.

The competition is divided into several major categories, like clothing and cooking and performance. Each major category has sub-categories like pre-1400 women's clothing and bread and storytelling. You can enter things in individual categories, and if you enter at least five different major categories, you can compete for the overall pentathlon prize. An important feature of the competition, in my opinion, is the cross-entry: if an item qualifies for more than one category, you didn't have to choose only one. Embroidered gown? Clothing and needlework. Belt woven from wool you spun, with a buckle you made? Spinning, weaving, and metalwork. And so on.

I haven't been tracking the event lately (I stopped traveling for SCA events even before the pandemic, due to both changing interests and the inherent Shabbat complications). I was reminded of the event by a post I saw tonight on the kingdom blog, which referred in passing to the limit of two categories for cross-entries. I'm not sure when that was introduced, but it was not always there.

With that rule change one small but fun challenge went away: the single-item pent entry. Can you come up with one work that legitimately fits five major categories? I did this one year and had great fun trying it, and learning some new crafts in the process (which should be one of the goals, encouraging growth). I'm disappointed to learn that this small bit of the event's history is no longer accessible.

It was a book. A book of music that I composed, illuminated (like books of hours), with an embroidered cover. I performed one of the pieces. The book was a gift for my then-baroness (of blessed memory); she had appointed me as her bard and I made the book to honor and thank her. But I embroidered the cover because of the Ice Dragon pent. And I might well have bought a blank bound book, focusing on the music and the illumination (my actual skills), but for the pent.

And I'm glad I did make the book. I learned about bookbinding. I asked a curator nicely and got a private tour of a collection of actual renaissance volumes so that I could inspect their bindings (which are usually not very visible when books are displayed open behind glass). My embroidery was not very good but was full of spirit, as they say.

The single-item pent entry is not the optimal path to winning the pent (if winning the pent is your goal). You can probably make five stronger entries by focusing and avoiding the constraints of other parts of the project. I did not win the pent the year I entered the book. But I had loads of fun with the project (and apparently made an impression). And my baroness really liked the book. So, win all around.