Blog: Society

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.

Swiss-cheese security

Cory Doctorow's How I got scammed was a fascinating read. Phishing has gotten more sophisticated, but also, even people whose security practices are way above the norm can get hit when the stars (mis)align just so.

There's a name for this in security circles: "Swiss-cheese security." Imagine multiple slices of Swiss cheese all stacked up, the holes in one slice blocked by the slice below it. All the slices move around and every now and again, a hole opens up that goes all the way through the stack. Zap!

The fraudster who tricked me out of my credit card number had Swiss cheese security on his side. Yes, he spoofed my bank's caller ID, but that wouldn't have been enough to fool me if I hadn't been on vacation, having just used a pair of dodgy ATMs, in a hurry and distracted. If the 737 Max disaster hadn't happened that day and I'd had more time at the gate, I'd have called my bank back. If my bank didn't use a slightly crappy outsource/out-of-hours fraud center that I'd already had sub-par experiences with. If, if, if. [...]

The following Tuesday, I called my bank and spoke to their head of risk-management. I went through everything I'd figured out about the fraudsters, and she told me that credit unions across America were being hit by this scam, by fraudsters who somehow knew CU customers' phone numbers and names, and which CU they banked at. This was key: my phone number is a reasonably well-kept secret. You can get it by spending money with Equifax or another nonconsensual doxing giant, but you can't just google it or get it at any of the free services. The fact that the fraudsters knew where I banked, knew my name, and had my phone number had really caused me to let down my guard.

Years ago, I got a call on a weekend from someone claiming to be from my credit card and was just plausible enough for me to not hang up. (Also a claimed fraud alert.) But I got suspicious when the caller started asking me for private information and then claimed it was necessary to authenticate me (at my own phone number). So I said "I also need to authenticate you; what's my mother's maiden name?" Oh no, the caller said, we can't give you that information... but with all the data breaches we've seen, that technique is no longer safe. The phisher might have my mother's maiden name [1]. Doctorow's phisher had his unpublished phone number. Secrets aren't.

[1] Helpful tip: don't use the actual answers for security questions that people might be able to research or guess. As far as your bank is concerned, your mother's maiden name can be QjFVa6ufeqr_7.

PA primary election

An open letter to our governor (against a 1000-character limit on the state web site):

Dear Governor Shapiro,

As you are surely aware as a fellow Jew, the spring primary is April 23, the first day of Passover, a day on which observant Jews cannot participate in the election. The PA government has been talking for months about moving the date, but nothing has happened. Is there anything you can do to help? Disenfranchising Jewish voters is hurtful, especially in the presence of antisemitic candidates. It's also bad publicity for our state. Several other states have already corrected this problem, but we have not.

You might say "vote by mail instead", but the last time I attempted to do so, Allegheny County sent me a spoiled ballot and there was no provision for correcting it. I had to go to the poll on election day anyway and then vote provisionally. That made me feel very marginalized. My vote did not count because of a printing error and county offices that did not answer repeated phone calls. If it happens on Passover, I lose my vote.

Please fix this. Thank you.


I am aware that the legislature, not the governor, controls this, but navigating the PA legislature is a challenge and the governor should be able to push, if he hears from enough people that something matters. I thought this problem had been solved a month or two ago, but it turns out that the two houses of the legislature disagree over how to fix it. :-(

Thoughts from a former community manager at Stack Overflow

I came back from Shabbat to a link to this interesting blog post by Jon Ericson. Jon and I haven't discussed this.

The original post contains links that I haven't reproduced in this excerpt:

After contemplating the situation for many years, I've come to the conclusion that Monica ran into a wall of injustice veiled in the language of progressivism. Applying Bari Weiss' framing, Monica was powerful within the community so her behavior was suspect by default. The factors I thought were to her favor by the new ideology didn't seem to matter:

  1. She has vision problems which puts her at a disadvantage in the age of screens.
  2. She's a woman in technology which means she's in the minority.
  3. She's Jewish which puts her in a minority that's been discriminated against so often there is a common word for it in English.

The analysis I should have understood was:

  1. It's possible the people deciding her fate didn't know about her vision. In any case, vision is a problem that can be corrected with technology and money.
  2. In the calculus of intersectionality transgender people are more marginalized than straight women.
  3. What I thought were strong arguments that removing a Jewish moderator on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah was a bad look, turned out to not matter. I can't prove it, but I suspect it's the result of subtle antisemitism that comes from observing that Jews tend to be successful in certain fields. Jew might be a minority, but they aren't under-represented so paradoxically that must mean they are among the powerful.

I'm not an expert on these things and so I operated under the naive assumption that progressive ideology was working toward the goal of treating people as if we were all created equal. But the standard tools of the new morality are ineffective. Instead, the logical conclusion of the new ideology appears to require mistreating people who don't conform to its evolving standards.

Bari Weiss: you are the last line of defense

I just came across a speech that Bari Weiss recently gave for the Federalist Society, specifically for their lawyers' convention. She starts by talking about how surprising a choice she was for that; she's not exactly their type.

I found this worth my time to read. Choosing concise excerpts (to stay within the bounds of fair use) is hard, but here are some bits to give the flavor. I read the transcript; there's also a video if you prefer to listen.

By the time Americans woke up on October 7, 2023, it was clear that what had unfolded while we slept was not like previous wars or battles Israel has fought in its 75-year history. This was a genocidal pogrom. It was a scene out of the many places Jews had fled—a scene from the history of the Nazi Holocaust and of the European pogroms before that and of the Farhud, the 1941 massacre of Jews in Baghdad, a city that, it’s hard to believe now, was 40 percent Jewish at the beginning of the twentieth century—all of which remind us of Israel’s necessity. [...]

These Cossacks had smartphones. [...] Others filmed the slaughter with GoPros. [...] In all of this, the terrorists are euphoric. No one who has watched the unedited footage fails to note the glee of the butchers. [...]

The difference between 9/11 and 10/7—two massacres of innocent people, symbols to their killers of Western civilization—was the reaction to the horror. The difference between 9/11 and 10/7 was that the catastrophe of 10/7 was followed, on October 8, by a different kind of catastrophe. A moral and spiritual catastrophe that was on full display throughout the West before the bodies of those men and women and children had even been identified. [...]

What could possibly explain this? The easy answer is that the human beings who were slaughtered on October 7 were Jews. [...] But that is not the whole answer. Because the proliferation of antisemitism, as always, is a symptom. When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that the society itself is breaking down. That it is dying. [...]

[This new ideology] seeks to upend the very ideas of right and wrong. It replaces basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric: the powerless (good) and the powerful (bad). It replaced lots of things. Color blindness with race obsession. Ideas with identity. Debate with denunciation. Persuasion with public shaming. The rule of law with the fury of the mob. [...] This is the ideology of vandalism in the true sense of the word—the Vandals sacked Rome. It is the ideology of nihilism. It knows nothing of how to build. It knows only how to tear down and to destroy.

So what do we do? First: look. We must recover our ability to look and to discern accordingly. We must look past the sloganeering and the propaganda and take a hard look at what’s in front of our eyes. [...] I do not need “context” to know that tying children to their parents and burning them alive is pure evil, just as I do not need a history lesson on the Arab-Israeli conflict to know that the Arab Israelis who saved scores of Jewish Israelis that day are righteous.

Look at your enemies and your allies. [...] For many people, friends and enemies are likely not who they thought they were before October 7. [...] The other thing to look for is the good. Look hard for the good and don’t lose sight of it. [...]

But nothing is guaranteed. The right ideas don’t win on their own. They need a voice. They need prosecutors. [...] We have let far too much go unchallenged.

Five years later

Earlier today I stood at the Tree of Life building quietly saying kaddish for my friends. A few others were there: someone reading Tehillim (psalms), someone sitting and writing in a paper notebook, a couple others standing quietly, a police officer overseeing it all. And one drive-by antisemitic troll, just to remind us that we're still targets of hate.


It's so dangerous to say anything online these days, and it feels wrong to say nothing and continue posting the ordinary stuff of my life. I expect this will be my only post on the subject.

Targeting civilians is barbaric. Full stop. There can be no justification for such acts.

Gaza also has a border with Egypt. Maybe the neighbor that wasn't brutally attacked could help Gazan civilians get out?

Gaza elected Hamas. I would normally assume a rigged election or ballots at gunpoint, but to my surprise, I haven't heard anyone make that argument in all this time.

I weep for all innocent bystanders who are harmed or killed in war. One side targets them; the other takes extraordinary steps to protect them even to its own detriment. I wish everyone understood that all human beings are made in the divine image and life is precious.

Peace requires two parties who want it. I pray that day comes soon. Until then, I pray that Israel has the strength to defend itself from barbaric assaults, effectively and with as little collateral damage as possible.

Ken y'hi r'tzono.

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.

Section 230

The Supreme Court will soon hear a case that -- according to most articles I've read -- could upend "Section 230", the law that protects Internet platforms from consequences of user-contributed content. For example, if you post something on Facebook and there's some legal problem with you, that falls on you, as the author, and not on Facebook, who merely hosted it. This law was written in the days of CompuServe and AOL, when message boards and the like were the dominant Internet discourse. While there's a significant difference between these platforms and the phone company -- that is, platforms can alter or delete content -- this still feels like basically the "common carrier" argument. This makes sense to me: you're responsible for your words; the place you happened to post it in public isn't.

Osewalrus has written a lot about Section 230 over the years -- he explains this stuff better and way more authoritatively than I do. (Errors are mine, credit is his, opinions are mine.)

When platforms moderate content things get more complicated, and I'm seeing a lot of framing of the current case that's rooted in this difference. From what I understand, that aspect is irrelevant, and unless the Supreme Court is going to be an activist court that legislates, hosting user-contributed content shouldn't be in danger. But we live in the highly-polarized US of 2023 with politically-motivated judges, so this isn't at all a safe bet.

The reason none of that should matter is that the case the court is hearing, Gonzales vs. Google, isn't about content per se. It's about the recommendation algorithm, Google's choice to promote objectionable content. This is not passive hosting. That should matter.

The key part of Section 230 says:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)).

The court can rule against Google without affecting this clause at all. The decision shouldn't be about whether Google is the "publisher" or "speaker". Rather, in this case Google is the advertiser, and Section 230 doesn't appear to cover promotion at all.

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not especially knowledgeable about Section 230. I'm a regular person on the Internet with concerns about the proper placement of accountability. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others choose to promote user-contributed content, while platforms like Dreamwidth, Mastodon, and many forums merely present content in the order in which it arrives. That should matter. Will it? No idea.

Moderation is orthogonal. Platform owners should be able to remove content they do not want to host, just like the owner of a physical bulletin board can. In a just world, they would share culpability only if objectionable content was brought to their attention and they did not act. At that point they've said it's ok, as opposed to saying nothing at all because nobody can read everything on a platform of even moderate size. This is how I understand the "safe harbor" provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to work, and the same principle should apply. In a just world, as I said, which isn't the world we live in. (I, or rather my job title, am a registered agent for DMCA claims, and I have to respond to claims I receive.)

I really hope that the court, even a US court in 2023, focuses on the key points and doesn't use this case to muck with things not related to the case at hand.

B'reishit: generations

D'var torah given in the minyan yesterday morning.

Ten generations.

At the beginning of this parsha, God created humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and declared it tov meod -- very good. Before even the first Shabbat, Adam had transgressed the divine will and been expelled from the garden, but that didn't merit further destruction. Adam and Chava produced children and their descendants began to fill the earth, as commanded. It might not have been tov meodany more, but it was apparently still ok with God.

Ten generations later, at the end of this same parsha, things have descended to the point where God is ready to blot it all out. The world had become corrupt and lawless, filled with wickedness and violence.

Ten generations isn't a lot. Many of us are blessed to have known three or four generations of our families, maybe more. As a child I met a great-grandparent and my niece now has a child -- that's six. It's hard to imagine that the distance from my grandparents to my grand-niece spans half the distance from tov meod to unredeemable evil.

And yet... it's been roughly ten generations since the founding of the United States. The US didn't start out as tov meod -- slavery was normal, native peoples were badly mistreated, and sexism and racism were the way of the world. But the people of that generation also pursued values we would call at least tov: basic freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and personal autonomy, protections from government abuses, and fostering a society where people could live securely and pursue happiness.

Ten generations later, how are we doing? We've made progress in some areas, but we've also done a lot of harm. We've pursued the destruction of the planet we were given to care for, there is widespread corruption and injustice from local jurisdictions all the way up to the international level, crusaders on both the left and the right seek to blot out perspectives they disagree with, and we've become a polarized, combative, and intolerant society. I'm going to focus on this last one, both because it's the one we can do the most about at an individual level and because I want to avoid the appearance of political advocacy in a tax-exempt synagogue right before an election.

Within just a single generation, we've become more polarized, more isolated in our bubbles, and more certain that we are right and anybody who doesn't agree with us completely is evil. We could blame social media for filtering what we see, but aren't we complicit? There was Internet before Twitter and there was mass media before the Internet, and we've always tended to gravitate toward people like us, haven't we? And yet, we used to more easily have civil conversations with people we disagreed with; we used to be better at respectful discourse and its give-and-take. Going farther back, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed with each other on almost everything, yet they found common ground in the study hall, maintained friendships, and intermarried. They taught each other's positions, not just their own, to their students. They disagreed, vehemently, without being disagreeable.

Very few issues in our society are cut-and-dried. We can't stay in echo chambers, only hearing perspectives we already agree with, and expect to get anywhere. We need to be open to diversity. Diversity means people and ideas that aren't exactly like us. Diversity means complexity. It means setting aside the goal of "winning" in favor of the goal of understanding the human beings we're interacting with. It means having civil conversations that are nuanced and complex. It means being open to new ideas. It means asking questions rather than jumping to the conclusions that would be most convenient for us, like "he's a bigot" or "she hates America" or "you're not capable of understanding". The results won't align completely with any side's talking points, but they just might help us move forward together constructively.

Try it. Try having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you on something. It doesn't have to be something extreme and emotional.
Try asking the person to explain the reasoning.
Try asking questions.
Try to understand, and resist the urge to prepare your counter-arguments while half-listening for keywords to pounce on.
Assume your conversational partner is as principled, ethical, and thoughtful as you are.
Assume good intentions.
See how long you can keep it up. Then ask yourself: based on what I've learned, do I need to re-evaluate anything in my own thinking?

It's hard, isn't it? But what's the alternative? Can we afford to continue our descent? What comes after "uncivil"? How many generations do we have before our society is unredeemable?

Ten generations of social decay, hatred, and violence led from Adam to Noach. But that wasn't the end. After the flood, another ten generations led from Noach to Avraham. After sinking to the depths of evil, society climbed back toward tov.

Our society hasn't sunk as far as Noach's generation -- yet. We do not need to reach bottom, when only the divine promise prevents the heavens and the depths opening up again, in order to start climbing back up. At Yom Kippur we confessed to many sins including sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and we also said that we can return from our errors. We can turn from ways that are uncivil or worse – individually, one interaction at a time. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free from trying. Let's see how far we can get together.

A review of the first American civil war

It should not be a surprise that people who thought that the buying and selling of human beings and that profiting from a racialized caste system are legitimate enterprises also believed that attempting to subjugate the entire nation is a natural entitlement.

The Southern states weren't fighting for their right to have slavery. They already had slavery. The North was respecting their right to make that determination for themselves. The North was respecting the Southern states' rights.

It should not be a surprise should it turn out that people who think that subjugating half their populations and criminalizing bodily autonomy also feel they have the right to put the rest of the country to the sword.

The people who do not think it's wrong to reach into other people's bodies do not think it's wrong to reach into other people's states.

Go read this thought-provoking essay: