🗯️ Four Questions for Society Today

userpic=divided-nationAfter reading the news of late, a few questions have come to me. These are not of the “Why is this night different?” variety, but they do seem to tell something about what the real attitude is of the current leaders of this country:

  • If the country is full, why the concern about abortions? If there is no room for more people, wouldn’t you want to stop unwanted births? Rather, the agenda appears to be pushing your religious views on when life begins and murder can occur on those with differing religious views.
  • If we must close the borders, why only the southern one? If the country is full and we have to close the border, why is it full only for low-income brown people? This demonstrates that the issue is not the country being full, but a bias against brown and low-income immigrants.
  • Why is there so much money for Notre Dame, and little for the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Historically Black Churches in Louisiana? Could it be we are only in favor of supporting European White culture, and don’t care about black or Islamic culture.
  • If we are concerned about the sanctity of life, why do we not care about people after they are born? There is so much energy waged on the battle against abortion, ostensibly due to a concern for the life of the unborn. But once the child is born, where is the care? Where are the programs to lift people to better lives, to move them out of the cycle of poverty and despair? Where is the concern for the refugee, for whom to return to their country of origin would be certain death? Why are you seemingly only appreciated if you are white and wealthy and Christian?

How we behave, what we do and what we say reflects who are are as a society. On Friday night, we remind ourselves about the battle to escape those who would oppress us for being a minority. We remind ourselves that we once were strangers, and so we should welcome the stranger into our homes. That is central to who we are and what we believe, and we remind ourselves of these values every year. This country’s leadership is behaving in a way that goes against those values: they reject those who are not white… they reject those who are not rich… they reject those who do not hold with their beliefs. Their values go against what America stands for, and deserve repudiation.


✡ An Insult at my Doorstep

This morning, when I went to go out and get the paper, there was an insult on my doorstep. A white, thick envelope addressed “A Message of Hope and Gladness for Jewish People”. I was already nervous. When I opened it up, there was a letter, a set of “Frequently Asked Questions By Jewish People”, and a DVD. On the front of the FAQ was “How a Jew Came to Know and Put his Trust in The Jewish Messiah”.

Oh. Hell. No.

Irrespective of the fact that the author doesn’t know rules on how to capitalize, I don’t need to be preached to about “the Jewish Messiah”. It is an insult to find this on my doorstep. Not illegal, mind you, but an insult. I do not need to be preached to about how your religion can save me. My religion is my choice. Unsolicited evangelism is a violation of my space. In essence, a #metoo in the area of religion. If I consent for you to preach at me, that’s one thing. Shoving it on my doorstep or down my throat without my consent? Hell no.

I don’t believe in “The Jewish Messiah” because he does not meet the job qualifications, pure and simple. You’re giving me a FAQ, so I’ll give you one right back:

Question 17.3:
Countering the Question: Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus as the Messiah?

The question above is a typical one asked by Christian Missionaries. The answer is easy, if one understands Jewish beliefs.

Jews do not believe that the Messiah is a part of G-d, or Divine in any way, more than any other person. Jews look only to G-d for our salvation, and when the time comes for G-d to bring the anointed king, then it shall happen. Jews do not concern ourselves with the messiah’s identity, for the messiah is a person and the messiah’s coming does not change our relationship with G-d. Jews do not accept the notion that Scripture “foretells” that G-d would robe Himself in flesh; in fact, to Jews, this idea is idolatry, and we stand against it.

The reason why Jews do not accept Jesus as the messiah is straightforward: he did not meet the requirements in the job requisition! G-d outlined these requirements in the Bible. The key aspect of proof is in the state of the world.According to the Bible, amongst the most mission of the messiah includes returning the world to return to G-d and G-d’s teachings; restoring the royal dynasty to the descendants of David; overseeing the rebuilding of Jerusalem, including the Temple; gathering the Jewish people from all over the world and bringing them home to the Land of Israel; reestablishing the Sanhedrin; restoring the sacrificial system, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee. This simply has not happened. Judaism has no notion of the messiah not doing these things on the first visit, let along needing a second visit to do these things. Whenever these things are described in the Tanach, the description says that the messiah will come and do these things—once.

Want the details. Read the soc.cuture.jewish FAQ, Question 17.3.

So, I’m calling out the Israel Restoration Ministries and Tom Cantor. Your material is an insult, unwanted, and going straight into the trashcan. Attract people by how you live your life, not by proselytizing with unsolicited material on doorsteps.


🚉 A Train Breaks Down … But What About the System?

Yesterday, I had to take LA Metro from El Segundo (El Segundo Green Line Station) to the Pantages (Hollywood/Vine Red Line Station) for a rescheduled show. I’ve done this many times with no problems. I’m a long time Metro support, following all you do for my highway pages, as well as being a participant in the Metro Vanpool Program. But this time, there was a customer service problem. Below is the message I wrote to LA Metro this morning about it:

I had tickets at the Pantages theatre last night, so after taking the van to work, I planned to take Metro (Green to Blue Line Shuttle to Blue to Red) to the Pantages. All was good until we hit the Grand/LATTC stop… where we stopped. We were told to get off the train due to a mechanical problem ahead, and the train was going to go back the other direction. This left those of us completely unsure how to continue our journey.

I’m 59, out of shape, dealing with a poor back. I ended up having to walk to the 7th and Flower station to get the Red Line, where (due to the distance) I got to pay for the privilege as continuing on the red line wasn’t seen as a transfer. I made it, and got my walk for the day (unintended), but was exhausted all evening.

But what about all of those riding Metro who couldn’t walk that distance? Those who didn’t know the city or where to go? What about those that couldn’t afford to pay that extra $1.75?

Trains and stations have problems — I understand and recognize this. It is how we respond to those problems that matters, and this is poor customer service. When a train breaks down, there needs to be clear and repeated customer service and communication, a bus needs to be provided to get the passengers on the train speedily to their next destination, and the driver must take the lead on doing this (instead of walking off to take the train in the other direction). If we fail to do this, what does it say about Los Angeles? What does it say about Metro customer service?


✡ Symbols, Stories, and perhaps a little Politics with your Bitter Herbs

Sunday evening, I had the honor and privilege to organize, and essentially lead, the Men’s Seder for our synagogue brotherhood, using a liturgy that I cobbled together from the MRJ Mens Seder, my personal Seder, and materials from the Temple Beth Hillel Seder we used in 2018. I did not design the Seder to espouse a particular point of view, but to teach about the symbols of the holiday, explore how we use symbols in the Seder to teach lessons, and to explore what we are teaching about men and men’s issues. Still, during the service, one of our attendees got up, made a speech about how leftist the liturgy was, and stormed out (he has since apologized to me for the outburst, which I accepted). This has left me vaguely troubled and thinking … and sometimes the only response is a blog post.

For the most part, religions use holy days to do one of two things: mark the passage of time, and tell stories. The former are occasional (think Rosh Hashanah or Rosh Chodesh); the latter are prevalent. Sometimes the stories that are told are repeats of the religious fables, but sometimes the stories convey a different message and meaning. Often, that meaning is to remind people of themes central to the religion. For example, while Chanukah ostensibly celebrates a miracle, it more importantly reminds people of a military victory and the battle against assimilation. The story of the recent holiday of Purim is a continual reminder of the fight against antisemitism; the central notion is that Haman is a character that keeps showing up, and against whom we must continually fight.

This brings us to Passover, and the Passover Seder. Although one might like the Seder to be apolitical, it is an inherently political story. It is a story that reminds us to stand up to oppressors, to fight for our freedoms, and to welcome the stranger into our midst. All are Jewish values, at the core of our moral system. They are why we tell this story, and why — in home rituals — people augment the telling to highlight the fact that this wasn’t just in the past. The battle against those who want to oppress us continues to this day. The need to fight for freedom for ourselves and others who are oppressed continues to this very day. The need to welcome the stranger in our midst, because we were once strangers in a strange land, continues to this day. The need to remind ourselves that it wasn’t just God who brought us out of Egypt while we were passive, but God working through us to stand up and say, “No, Let our people go!”, and to get up and leave. These are battles we fight to this day.

People add symbols to their Seder plate to take this historical story and demonstrate that the battle to move from oppression to freedom continues to this day. Whether is it the battles of women for equality and a voice, of LGBTQ individuals to be seen, oppressed people in nations from Eastern Europe to Palestine to Africa to America to be free, to workers under oppression, to …. you name it. People use the home service and the Seder to draw parallels to the causes near and dear to them, and to show that the battles fought by Moses and Aaron and Miriam and the people in the desert were not just “one and done”, but continue everyday until oppression is gone.

In the service I developed, I did not intend to take a side. I did intend, however, to explore how the Seder is used in this way. I did intend to remind people that the battle was not done: that there still is ethnic violence, that there still is oppression of Jews, that there are still battles to be fought. I did intend to raise the question of how to bring back the men’s voices: with the increasing movement of women into leadership roles, men’s voices have been disappearing. Perhaps they consider the roles devalued, perhaps … something else. In any case, we need both voices, talking equally and not over each other. How do we recover that was a question I intended to raise.

But then I got accused of having an “agenda” that someone didn’t like. And that, for a people-pleaser like me, continues to gnaw at me and bother me. (On the other hand, the complaint that the liturgy was too long is a valid one — this was essentially a first run through, and we’ll trim and evolve for next year)

But what bothers me more is the notion that a Seder should be apolitical. We’re telling a story every year that is — at its heart — inherently political, inherently subversive, inherently agitating. There’s a reason that Early Christians were scared about the retelling of the story at the Seder. It wasn’t the antisemitic tropes you hear about — it was the message that in every generation we must rise up and fight oppressors, that in every generation we must remember that we were strangers. It is a message that is at the heart of Judaism: a religion that (unlike Christianity) lives for today, and making this world a better place for everyone.


📰 🔐 Complexity, Assurance, and Airplanes

Recent tweets from the President have brought the issue of complexity to the front of the news cycle. In response to the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 Jet, the President tweeted:

Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!

So is the President right or wrong. Before I answer that, let’s explore the question of complexity and the risk that it brings. Any cybersecurity security expert worth their salt can tell you the three characteristics of a reference monitor:

  1. Always Invoked / Non-Bypassable.
  2. Tamper-proof.
  3. Never eat at a place called “Moms” Small enough to be easily understood and evaluated.

Why is that last point there? Simply, because complexity is the enemy of assurance. We’ve all heard of “feeping creaturism” — the way that software vendors keep adding in features to sell a product while not fixing known problems and making the product more reliable. This is because adding features sells products, while adding assurance does not. But the more and more features and capabilities you put into the code, the less assurance you have in its correctness. Logically, this makes a lot of sense: each feature has multiple inputs and options, each creating a new path through the code, and very quickly it becomes impossible to test all code paths. Simpler code means fewer code paths, meaning more reliability. Complex code means code that wasn’t completely tested in every possible situation, and as Hoare pointed out, once you find the first bug, you have an infinite number.

We are adding more and more complexity to the software we use every day. Remember the Toyota unintended acceleration problem? That turned out to be a software bug (which they claimed was a carpet mat problem, but they updated the software at the same time) from a rare complex interaction. Cars today have even more complex software, what with all the sensors monitoring things for safety. Most of the time these work, but there have been cases where problems have been identified due to software errors. Subaru, in fact, just had a recall to fix the software on the head unit related to the rear camera.

Airplane software is equally complex. When the Airbus Jets first came out, they were revolutionary in that they were “fly-by-wire”. In other words, instead of multiple physical hydraulic lines to control the rudders and wing surfaces, there was an electrical signal that went to the other end of the plane. Many people didn’t trust fly-by-wire and only flew the Boeing. It took multiple flights to convince the public of the safety of the systems, and now all modern jets use fly-by-wire.

So, are airplanes too complex to fly? Airplanes are controlled by software, and that software is very complex. But statistically, airplanes are safer than they were in the days when there were only simple physical controls. Similarly, cars are more complex, but they are statistically safer than vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s.

But that doesn’t mean the complexity doesn’t cause problems. In fact, it looks like Boeing is already adjusting the systems in the Max series: instead of just using one sensor to control nose down, they are using multiple sensors.

Now, let’s go to the second part of Trump’s statement: do you need a computer scientist from MIT to fly a plane? Flying a jet — even an older one like a Boeing 707 — is very different than flying a private two-seater Cessna. The number of systems that must be monitored are immense, and you need a strong understanding of the physics of flight. You don’t need to be a computer scientist — after all, you’re not programming the systems — but you do need to be comfortable with technology and have a strong understanding of physics. Given the choice, you want a pilot with lots of experience (and no mental problems) flying the plane; not a rookie MIT computer scientist. However, you might want that scientist writing the software.

Lastly, there is one other assertion in Trump’s tweet we need to address: “old and simpler is far better.” No, it isn’t. Old and simpler — both in technology and people — cannot grasp the complexity of today’s split second world. You want someone nimble, who truly has a deep understanding of the system. You want someone with years of experience with that technology at the helm.

Yes, those last two sentences were an allusion. As was the point that you need a pilot with no mental problems.


🗯️ We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

userpic=divided-nationThe recent discussions of Ilhan Omar and antisemitism have reignited the debates of racism and divides in this country.  On the Democratic side there is the push to condemn antisemitism while not offending those who either disagree with the behavior of the Israeli government, or to include other racist attacks. On the Republican side, there is the push to condemn antisemitism while ignoring similar behavior within the Republican party. But the truth is, despicable behavior and intolerance — racial, political, and other — exists on both sides.

The Atlantic had an interesting article recently exploring this. The Atlantic asked PredictWise, a polling and analytics firm, to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice (or what researchers call “affective polarization”). The result was surprising in several ways. First, while virtually all Americans have been exposed to hyper-partisan politicians, social-media echo chambers, and clickbait headlines, we found significant variations in Americans’ political ill will from place to place, regardless of party. The maps show that affective polarization occurs on both sides of the aisle: there is intense political hatred and bias occurring in both Red and Blue areas. A NY Times opinion piece refers to this as the culture of contempt:

Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

I know I’ve fallen into this. I’ve begun to block memes from the side I disagree with: I find them annoying, but it is pointless to comment on them and point out the errors because the other side won’t listen anyway. Why won’t they listen? Another article I found explores this quite well, detailing 24 cognative biases that shape our thinking. These are flaws in human reasoning that political machines can exploit to make our biases stronger. You can combat them to some extent if you know what they are (just as you can filter out the bias from news sources if you know it), but you will never succeed completely.

These biases and prejudices and hatred and contempt are playing out in many discussions we see in the news today. But it isn’t just the news. Racism and hatred can be anywhere, including your local knitting store. Online bots can take racism and hatred, and amplify it. The best way to combat it? First, educate yourself to recognize it. Second, speak out and don’t let it go unchallenged. Third, engage as much as you can. There is a balance between those who cannot be redeemed, and those whom you can educate about their bias. Don’t expect to change minds immediately; but do work to plant the seeds.


🗯️ ✡ Musings on Antisemitism, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and the Response Thereto

All the news today about the resolution in the House in response to Rep. Omar has gotten me thinking, and that can be dangerous:

  • First and foremost, it is “antisemitism” (one word), not “Anti-Semitism”. The latter is a construct that plays on the word Semite, which could be used to refer to anyone from the mideast. The former is a term specifically referring to the hatred of Jews.
  • Here is a good explanation of the controversy, from Vox. It makes clear that the incident in question made use of a well-known antisemitic trope — that Jews have specific loyalty to the State of Israel, and are not truly loyal Americans. Similar tropes were used against Catholics when Kennedy ran for President — that they had more loyalty to the Pope than America. That same trope is what led to our putting Japanese Americans in Concentration Camps (yes, that’s what they were), claiming they had more loyalty to Japan than to America. And, by the way, the same trope is what leads Trump to mistreat Muslims, believing them to be more loyal to ISIS than America. It is all the same, vile, trope.
  • I do not believe that Rep. Omar was being intentionally antisemitic (or at least I choose not to believe that, for now). I believe that, in the environment she was raised, these tropes were present and internalized. There are many others that make similar statements. That doesn’t make it right — it means we need to do a better job about teaching about antisemitism and racism — and how to identify it.
  • I have a big problem with those who claim it wasn’t an antisemitic statement. Why is it that people believe women when they call a behavior sexist, and why they believe minorities when they call a behavior racist .. but they do not believe Jews when we call out a particular trope as antisemitic? What does that say about those people who are denying the ability of Jews to recognize an attack on their religion?
  • What should be the response? It should be a blanket condemnation of the use of any racist tropes (as it appears the House is about to do), and (ideally) a session — just as we have sessions on recognizing sexual harassment —  to educate people what common tropes are so that they don’t use them. That should include any sexist, racist, and broad anti-religion (e.g., antisemitism, anti-catholicism, etc.) tropes. It should also include anti-Muslim attacks.
  • But what about … in the past? We can’t change the past, and the fact that miscreants who used such language in the past weren’t called out doesn’t make such behavior acceptable today. It is wrong no matter who is doing it, no matter what party is doing it. Yes, Mr. President, that includes you: you can’t call out a Rep. for retweeting an antisemitic tweet when you’ve done the same thing. Both are wrong.
  • Do I think Rep. Omar should be removed from Foreign Affairs? No, because even if I don’t agree with her, she has the right to express her view on the committee. She is one voice among many. I don’t agree with the views of many in our government. She does, however, have to answer to her district. If they disagree with what she is saying, it is their prerogative to recall her, or to not reelect her. How she behaves reflects on her district. By the way, the same is true for any Congresscritter, Senator, or even the President — the racist and hateful views they express reflect on the people they represent, and their constituents should take that into consideration come 2020.
  • You can criticize Israel and the behavior of her government without using antisemitic tropes. You can also criticize AIPAC, but be aware that there are many organizations that lobby more or have larger lobbying budgets.  Everyone should do their research and find out the facts, draw their own conclusions, and speak out where there is wrong doing — just as you should always speak out against governments that do wrong, and the lobbying groups that support them. Here’s a good guide on how to do so without falling into the tropes.

💸 Follow the Money

In today’s NY Times, there was an article titled “Health Care and Insurance Industries Mobilize to Kill ‘Medicare for All’“, addressing how “Doctors, hospitals, drug companies and insurers are intent on strangling Medicare for all before it advances from an aspirational slogan to a legislative agenda item.”

I see articles like this, and that old mantra “follow the money” comes back to me. Remember: It was pressure from insurers that gave us the Affordable Care Act, as a compromise to protect their interests. They are doing so again, and ask yourself why: is it in the interests of you, the patient, or in the interests of the businesses and their stockholders? “Follow the money” (and its corallary, “If you get something for free, they you are the product, not the customer”) are so true, whether we are talking this, the pro-gun lobby, election advertising, and other lobbying efforts.

When you see things like this, ask yourself: Why doth they protest so much? In whose interest are they working, and remember that they wouldn’t be spending what they are spending unless they had an expecting of exponential gain in return.