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.

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.

"Click here" is usually weak, but not always

It's generally held among professional writers (and presumably some others) that constructs of the form "for more information click here", with "here" being a hyperlink, is not good style. It's far better, in general, to incorporate some clue about the content into the link -- "See the formatting help for more information", with "formatting help" being a link to documentation, provides more information at a glance and just reads less clunkily.

When answering questions on sites like Stack Exchange and Codidact, one sometimes wants to refer to another answer (for example to elaborate on it or disagree with a point made in it). I posted such an answer recently and used link text of "another answer" instead of "Joe's answer". If I had said "Joe's answer", somebody who's just read that answer would have context without having to go look. Someone who knows my general writing style asked me why I used the vaguer formation.

This is my general style on sites like these now, and I do actually have a reason. Two, actually, the more significant of which is caring about people's feelings.

On Stack Exchange, Codidact, TopAnswers, and presumably others with which I'm less familiar, users can change their display names. Using a name as text rather than an '@'-reference in a link can thus decay. I've seen too many posts that mention "Joe's answer" but there's no Joe evident on the page now, years after that text was written. So that's confusing and I try to be careful; some people change names frequently, leaving trails of dead references in their wakes.

But it's not just about avoiding confusion. For me this name-avoidant practice crystalized some years ago when a prominent SE user transitioned gender. I realized that old posts of mine (from before I was careful about this) now dead-named this person. Ouch! Also maybe dead-pronouned, though if you write posts in a gender-neutral way like I try to in such contexts, you can minimize that damage.

We don't know who's going to be someone different later. My desire to attribute properly is at odds with my desire to account for future changes that affect writing I might not actively maintain. For in-page references the post is right there; omitting the name in favor of a generic reference is not harmful and is more future-proof. For regular citations, I attribute by name because giving credit is important, and just do my best.

I know that people who transition -- even just names, let alone gender -- just have to deal with the fact that they had lives before and those references don't vanish. My friend Owen understands that sometimes we need to talk about Zoe. But sometimes we can do a small thing to alleviate a little bit of unnecessary frustration and not make people's lives more difficult. It seems worth doing in these cases where the cost of being mindful of these possibilities is small.

I don't do this everywhere. My blog, being more personal in nature, is more likely to refer to people by name, use gendered pronouns, and otherwise bake in current context. My blog isn't a public knowledge repository like Codidact is. We write differently for Wikipedia, Codidact, blogs, and email, and that's ok.

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.

Interesting judicial reasoning

Tonight I became aware, via a question on Mi Yodeya, of Yovino v. Rizo, a recent Supreme Court case. A federal court of 11 judges heard a case and ruled 6-5. One of the majority judges wrote the opinion and then died before it could be made official. The rest of the court said the verdict stood, arguing that the judge fully participated in the case like everybody else. The Supreme Court disagreed. From their conclusion:

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

"Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity." That, my friends, is reasoning worthy of the talmud. :-)

I skimmed through the ruling to see if they were, in fact, arguing purely on this principle. Not quite; they note that a judge can change his mind up to the moment the ruling is formalized. So it's possible that, had he lived, he might have done so, though I don't know how often that happens at all, let alone by someone who wrote the majority opinion. But it's still an edge case that ought be considered.

Tangentially, I wonder why they waited at least 11 days from when the opinion was written to when they made it formal in court. Were they on recess at the time? Does it usually take that long -- maybe this is "just paperwork that can be done any time"? If so, courts with elderly or ill justices might want to adjust their procedures, just in case. (You can't fully prevent the problem, but maybe you can reduce the likelihood.)

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…

Pittsburgh Jews and Muslims

When a white supremacist attacked our community in October, the local Muslim community was there for us immediately. They raised money, and they also offered their services for everything from security to errands. Our communities have worked well together for years (my rabbi has been instrumental in that).

When I heard about the attack on mosques in New Zealand I of course donated to help. Tree of Life has raised about $58,000 so far, and the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh also has a fund. (I don't see a total there for the latter, though I heard on Shabbat that it was around half a million.) And then I heard that our local Islamic center, the very people who offered to help guard our synagogues if needed, don't have the level of security they need either, so I also made a donation to them toward bolstering their security. (I got that idea, and news of the need, from my rabbi.)

I heard after the fact that on the Sunday after the attack, members of the Jewish community showed up there for their Sunday school, for solidarity and to add some extra protection layers around their kids. (I didn't get the memo.) This past Friday, their community joined ours for Shabbat dinner and services. Their director has spoken at our synagogue.

There's hate out there directed at both of our groups, and there is hate out there between Muslims and Jews in some places, but I'm glad that here in Pittsburgh our communities are friends who help each other, and I'm glad that, just as Muslims around the world helped Jews in Pittsburgh, Jews in Pittsburgh are helping Muslims in New Zealand.

May the day come when none of this is necessary, when we can spend our resources on building and strengthening instead of rebuilding and fortifying.

Protests today against firing Sessions

Yesterday Trump fired Jeff Sessions and appointed a replacement. That replacement is now in charge of Mueller's investigation into Trump's manipulation of the 2016 election. That person can interfere with Mueller at will; Sessions had recused himself.

Trump is, essentially, trying to appoint his own prosecutor and investigators for the high crimes he is accused of. There will be protests across the US at 5PM local time. (The original post had a link to find your local protest.)

Mueller is not dumb and presumably planned for this eventuality. That might make what Trump is doing less effective than the president intends. It does not make it any less corrupt.


(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…