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.

Hiding from yourself

Been thinking about Ben Franklin on giving up essential liberty for temporary safety, and how there's a broader meme of giving up doing the right thing for the safety of holding onto one's illusions. Confronting your mistakes can challenge your self-perception, and that scares some to inaction.

I know someone who's so afraid of facing his sin that he's willing to let hurt and injustice he caused continue unabated and walk away. He feels fragile and at risk, and for him that feeling trumps the damage he did to others. I hope I'm strong enough to avoid his mistake when I need to do teshuva (as we all do).

This person isn't evil. He is, as far as I can tell, paralyzed by his own fears, to the point where he can no longer function as a responsible human who does the hard-but-ethical thing. I pity him. I thank God that I retain my mental and moral function, and I hope I continue to merit that strength and faculty. If we give up ethical behavior for comfort, then what are we?

I am far from perfect. I mess up sometimes. When I become aware, I try to repair the damage I did to the extent I can. Isn't this what we should all aim for?

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.

Done with Stack Exchange

I can't do this any more.

I posted the following on Mi Yodeya, with very similar posts on Worldbuilding, Writing, and Meta. (Do check out the question that that Meta post is an answer to, too.)


I write this post with tears literally in my eyes.

Though it pains me deeply to leave my communities, especially Mi Yodeya which I cherish and have helped build for close to nine years, I have decided I must leave the Stack Exchange network.

I became an SE user when Mi Yodeya launched in 2011. For most of the time since then I've been an enthusiastic participant and power user on the SE network. I evangelized SE to friends and colleagues. I almost became an employee. The SE platform did, right, things that other sites did wrong. It was a great place to be, and I built strong community connections and learned a lot. Over time SE the company paid less and less attention to us, which was sometimes frustrating, but we got by even with benign neglect.

Then things began to change. In spring 2018, a single blog post scared someone at SE enough to kick off a new "welcoming" initiative. I was concerned by how they approached it but wanted to believe in the goal nonetheless. A few months later, in October 2018, a single angry tweet prompted hasty changes and public criticism in tweets from employees, which led me to write Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk.

I remember somebody at the time saying something like "she's too invested in that relationship; he's just not into her". I wasn't listening. I was too into SE, even as others began to leave.

I really wanted to believe that SE wasn't that bad, just a little misguided. SE whispered sweet nothings in our ears, made promises to us that I desperately wanted to believe. I stayed, blind to the warning signs.

Things did not, in fact, get better. Already an employee had admitted that the company was no longer paying attention to feedback from core users, and in July 2019 another advised employees to avoid meta because it upset them. We users were in a relationship with someone who had checked out, stopped listening, seemingly stopped caring about us.

I stayed anyway, because I really love my communities (and maybe I'm too susceptible to the sunk-costs fallacy). When I saw that post in July, a part of me thought we could nonetheless still effect change, could help get things onto a better, collaborative path. I thought we users could mend the rifts in our collective relationship with SE despite evidence that SE wasn't interested. I didn't see the warning signs because I didn't want to see them.

As a dedicated user, I stayed in an abusive relationship for the sake of the kids. I told myself that it would be ok in the end, that it didn't hurt that much, that it was only a bruise.

Sometimes it takes a powerful blow to finally wake up. For me that blow came two weeks ago today.

On January 13, SE abruptly fired Shog9 and Robert Cartaino. Shog9 and Robert, along with Jon Ericson who left a few days later, were long-serving community managers who really get the communities. They were our champions. What we didn't know until recently is that they were being hobbled, forbidden to do what they do so well, forbidden to help us. They, too, were helpless, and Shog and Robert paid a dear price.

We can only expect the rate of damage to accelerate. As a long-time user, I remember what was and know what could have been. Today, our communities are being deeply harmed instead of being helped and supported. It's worse than just being abandoned; we are not allowed to govern ourselves and not allowed to be helped by the dwindling community team.

The company has chosen to go down a very different path from the one I thought we were on. I have lost any hope that this will change. I've passed through denial, hurt, anger, and bargaining, and have now arrived at tearful acceptance. I can't change this. It's painful to keep trying. I give up.

I dearly love my communities here, but, sadly, I can't bear to stay on Stack Exchange any longer.

Our communities are much more than the platform that hosts them. The people are what matters. I hope I can stay connected to the fine people of my communities even if I don't do it here any longer. SE wasn't the first Q&A platform and it won't be the last. Just as Stack Overflow was created out of dissatisfaction with another platform, other platforms will be created out of dissatisfaction with SE. I hope to see y'all in a better place, one we'll build together putting communities and people first. I'll refrain from specific links here after seeing an employee spam-delete a post on Writing Meta about another site, but -- look around.

I've added contact information to my profile, and I've posted some information about my future plans. I won't be deleting my accounts.

I'll almost certainly look in on Mi Yodeya from time to time, maybe even visit chat. Goodbyes are hard and I would dearly love to stay in touch with the people here, somehow. I hope we'll reunite elsewhere.

Be kind to each other. Protect yourselves. Remember Shog and Robert, maybe even me. Let's stay in touch.

Looking back at Usenet

Steven Bellovin, one of the creators of Usenet 40 years ago, has written a retrospective and history of the project. I've actually had this open in a tab for a while; when I first came across it about half the articles had been posted and there were placeholders for the rest. He's now finished it.

This is a mix of technical and political history. At the time I was using it (I gained access around 1983, I think), I didn't know any of the background; to me as a student, ARPANet and Usenet were just two different networks that moved stuff around. (My experience of ARPANet at the time was limited to mailing lists.) I knew that Usenet was decentralized (unlike ARPANet, a government network), but I didn't at the time know the extent to which it was put together by a scrappy band of grad students with limited resources and an attitude of "it's easier to ask forgiveness than get permission". Or so it seems to me in reading this series of posts, anyway.

I learned a lot about the behavior of networked communities on Usenet. I made lots of mistakes, of course; I mean, not only was it a new concept to me, but I was an undergrad without a lot of broad, cultural experience outside my own. And even though I was a bumbling student learning the ropes, I could participate alongside everyone else there -- what you wrote and how well you communicated mattered a lot more than who you were. I -- a lowly undergrad and relative newcomer -- was taken seriously by the architects in planning the Great Renaming. Later the New Yorker would publish that famous cartoon about how on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; even before that, I had already learned that on Usenet nobody knows (or cares) that you're an undergrad, or insert-demographic-here, or whatever. In retrospect, this might have been somewhat formative for me online.

Technologies change and communities change. Spammers got more aggressive, some of the communities I participated on either scattered or moved elsewhere, and the web emerged as a new way of interacting online. I preferred mailing lists to web forums (because email is push and web sites are pull; this was before syndication was a thing), and then I discovered blogs and LiveJournal. I gradually drifted away from Usenet. And over time I drifted away from some of those other things in favor of yet other things; online communities aren't done evolving by a longshot. (And then there's social media, which feels...different from intentional communities to me. Less cohesive, more episodic and sound-bite-ish.) I imagine that looking back to today in 40 more years will seem just as foreign and quaint as looking back to the beginnings of Usenet must seem to those who weren't around at the time.

One year ago

Today there are large community gatherings to remember -- social-action drives, torah study with a variety of visiting rabbis, and a big memorial service.

And I can't even... I just can't do this with huge crowds. It's too painful, and also there's the irrational nagging voice in the back of my head that says "target" (guess I haven't banished it yet after all), and...

I spent that day hiding at home, and so I will spend today as well.

Healing is hard.

But I went to Shabbat services yesterday as I always do. I will not be driven out from there.

Network access while traveling

I remember, when traveling in the 90s and into the 00s, looking for hotels with business centers, where I could use their computer to check my email. Technical and geek conventions that set up actual terminal rooms for this purpose were golden. (This happened even in the 80s for sufficiently-geeky contexts.) But mostly, the connected traveler was responsible for figuring it out or just doing without.

After reliance on quasi-public computers came the rise of laptop computers. I was late to this phase, only getting a laptop of my own in (I think) 2006. For the next while, I looked for hotel rooms that had ethernet ports. I took that laptop when traveling not for any work purpose but so I could access my email (and, on big vacations, upload photos somewhere so I didn't risk a single point of failure). I carried an ethernet cable for years. (I have a story from this time about having to fall back to a public computer, or rather a public computer's network connection that I probably wasn't supposed to touch, so public computers were still an occasional thing.)

A few years after the rise of hotel ethernet ports, places (hotels, restaurants, etc) started to advertise free WiFi. I still carried that ethernet cable because you could never be sure, and if there was an ethernet port I still preferred it. I only started to pay attention to public WiFi when I got a smartphone and later a tablet (which can't use ethernet). The smartphone's data plan had limits, so public WiFi seemed useful if I wasn't doing anything that required extra care. (Surfing yes, online banking no -- that kind of thing.)

I used a hotel's WiFi as recently as January, when I found evidence of some unwelcome probes that I couldn't explain any other way. After that I realized that for practical purposes I have unlimited data (it gets slower after 2GB/month but I rarely exceed that). At Origins a couple weeks ago, I dutifully took the piece of paper the hotel desk gave us with the WiFi access information, dropped it on a table in the room, and never touched it again, preferring to use my phone to create a hotspot so I could use my tablet. Much safer.

I'm back to arranging my own access and not looking for public accommodations. I feel like I've gone in a circle.

Words that exclude

At work, one of my teams uses a web page, a "dashboard", to coordinate activities for each release. When we start to work on a new release, a (specific) member of the group creates a new dashboard for that release. This dashboard is mostly populated by tables of features, bugs, and other tasks. Each table has several relevant columns, like title, priority, who it's assigned to, and status.

We've been doing this for a while and the dashboards keep growing, so before doing the current one we had a conversation about what we do and don't want. We identified some sections we could get rid of, and I also brought up that the two-column format we were using does not play well with font zoom (which is also obvious in meetings) and could we make it one column? No one objected to that, and the dashboard person published the new one.

A week later he quietly switched it to two columns. Not only that, but the tables were wider and in both columns now so it even more did not fit for me. I said words to the effect of "hey, what happened to the single column we had?", and he said he didn't agree to that and he prefers two columns. When I reminded him that this is an accessibility issue and not a mere preference for me, he said something that's far too common: "oh, you can just..." -- in this case, "oh, you can just make your own copy with one column". He dismissed my need with a "solution" that let him keep his preference without having to make any changes himself.

Yeah. That is not a solution. Read more…

I don't think that's how consciousness works

I recently read Corey Doctorow's novel Walkaway. It's set in a post-scarcity world where the super-rich (zota rich, or just zotas) hold their power by stomping everyone else down. There's enough to go around, but people have to work (at crap jobs for crap wages) anyway, while the zotas sit back. Some people hate this and decide to opt out by walking away and forming their own communities off the grid. The book follows some of these walkaways, as they're called. (And no, the zotas are not cool with this.)

Another theme of the book is conquering death -- that's how the characters view it. More specifically, their goal is to be able to back up a human's essence, at which point if you get killed you can be restored from backup (initially as a digital simulation, eventually into a new body). This is an attractive idea in SF and this book is hardly the first to explore it, but I always get tripped up by the same issue, including in this book.

That issue is: sure, it'd be nice if I could back up my brain so that "Monica" would never have to cease to exist, but that doesn't mean that backup is me. It would think so, of course; it would have all my memories. But from my perspective, my body dies -- I die. If I'm dead, do I really care if there's a simulation of me running out there somewhere?

This is not conquering death. At best it's mitigating it. Which makes it hard for me to relate to stories where people say "great, ditch the meat body and come back digitally or in a robot or a perfect body or whatever". Would people really do that? I find that hard to swallow.

Despite this point, I mostly enjoyed the book. There's one place where there's a jump in time that I found rather abrupt, and the story is far more dialogue-heavy than I'm used to, with a lot of philosophy in that dialogue. (In other words, large blocks of philosophy-dialogue or exposition-dialogue, as opposed to short, interactive dialogue.) But many of the characters are engaging and walkaway-land sounds like a cool place to live, when the zotas aren't trying to quash it.

Added in a comment:

And then there are the problems of forking (this comes up in Walkaway) and restoring to older versions to erase part of your life (which comes up in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which Walkaway is a prequel for and which I have now read). I'm me, but is each of the dozen independent sims of me also me? And how much of a "restore" is me if there's been selective editing? Can you cherry-pick commits too?


(A week after the synagogue attack, I wrote the following privately and later decided I could share it.)

Something happened during Shabbat services yesterday, and I'm not sure whether I should be trying to suppress it or letting it run its course or what.

The surrounding community has been really supportive and there was a (national?) drive to "show up for Shabbat" to show bigots that they can't intimidate us. So I knew to expect a larger turnout than usual. Our morning minyan usually has about 30 people, fitting comfortably in our chapel; yesterday we had 200 and had to move into our sanctuary. I thought nothing of it when I entered and sat down, but then over the next hour or so I found myself frequently looking at the doors, thinking about exit paths, looking to see where Tom the army vet was sitting 'cause I knew he'd have good instincts, wondering how much noise the staff member at the building door could make, and stuff like that. Rationally I knew that I should be more worried about lightning strikes out of the clear blue sky than somebody bursting into our sanctuary exactly a week later to try again, but the rational part of the brain doesn't always get to drive.

If that happens again, how can I handle it better? Is there something I can do to help rational-brain take control from reactive-brain, or should I try to soothe reactive-brain by actually being careful about where I sit and planning exit paths so it'll stop worrying and let me pray, or what?

When we got to the Kedusha (this is the "God is great and in charge" part, and is something over an hour into our service), I found myself thinking "whatever happens, happens; I'm not in charge". Things were better after that.

I don't consider "don't go" to be an option; in addition to the fact that this is my community, this is what I do on Shabbat, and I don't want to be pushed out, I also suspect this is like getting right back onto the bicycle -- if you put the bike away to save yourself another fall today, it's just gonna be harder to get on tomorrow.

I had some active-shooter training at a previous employer, five or six years ago, but that was mostly about what to do in the moment, and did not help me plan for being, or feeling, safer in advance.

I learned that the term for what I was experiencing is "hypervigilance", and a friend helped me learn some techniques for calming it.

Attack on Pittsburgh Jews

Yesterday at my synagogue we had just finished the torah reading and held a baby naming for a young family when the first cell phone rang. Some people carry cell phones on Shabbat and sometimes forget to silence them; you shrug and move on. Then the second one went off. Then the first one went off again. Then more. People started checking to see what was going on. And we learned that a nearby congregation, the one I attend for weekday services, was currently under attack and the killer had not yet been caught. Not only were we scared, but we all know people there -- one of the members of my weekday morning minyan was there with me yesterday (for the baby-naming), and we exchanged horrified looks. We locked the doors, hastily finished the morning service, packed up the nice kiddush spread that the family had prepared to celebrate their daughter's naming, and waited for news. (All of the staff and some others have had active-shooter training -- that we should need such things is terrible in itself -- so we looked to our rabbi for guidance.)

We couldn't get any police guidance (they were understandably busy). We heard that he'd been caught and waited long enough for that report to be disputed, which it wasn't. Eventually we had to decide whether to stay put or disperse. Most of us concluded that hey, we're in a synagogue so maybe we should get the hell out of here, and left. I asked somebody for a ride home to minimize my time on the streets. We made sure nobody walked home.

Later I heard more details (answering the phone seemed prudent that day), that the killer was a white-supremicist monster on a "Jews must die" rampage, and most horribly, that he'd succeeded in killing eleven people and wounding half a dozen more. Almost certainly that list included friends -- it seems plausible that the people who show up to a weekday morning minyan regularly would also be the ones who show up on Shabbat on time, and the murders were early during the service. Nobody knew who, though, and that was very tense. Read more…