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This visualization helped me to understand Texas's rain problem in a way that goes beyond news reports of the devastation. Wow.
 
 
 
 
 
 
This week we start a new tractate, Nedarim. A neder is a type of vow (you may know the word from "Kol Nidrei", said right before Yom Kippur). Specifically (according to the Daf Yomi Advancement Forum), a neder is a vow of abstention -- you are vowing that something that was permitted to you is now forbidden to you. The formulation for this is to say "this shall be to me like [something forbidden]" -- e.g. "like a korban", an offering dedicated to the temple that becomes holy when it's declared (so you can no longer use it mundanely).

Against that backdrop we will attempt to study nedarim. This looks like it could be a complicated tractate; I'll do my best.

The first mishna begins by listing some different types of nedarim, one of which is the Nazarite vow. A Nazarite had to refrain from grape products, cutting his hair, and having contact with the dead for the period of the vow, which is usually not permanent. The g'mara tells us: the Master said that just as in other vows, for a Nazarite vow the father can annul the vow of his daughter and the husband can annul the vow of his wife. An objection is raised: this is obvious -- why are you telling us this? Why should these be special that we would think otherwise? The g'mara answers its objection: perhaps with other vows we might say that he can annul because the vow is permanent while, for a Nazarite vow, it goes away on its own soon enough so there is no need for him to have his privilege. To cut off that line of reasoning, the g'mara tells us outright that a woman's Nazarite vow can be annulled. (2a mishna, 4b g'mara)

The part of this that I found most surprising is that women might take Nazarite vows. I guess because at the end the Nazarite shaves his head, I didn't expect that.

I also am still pretty unclear on why people would do this.

 
 
 
 
 
 
When I started using computers it was via terminals -- text only, amber (if I had my preference; green was also out there), VT100s. Aside from the fact that I'd've preferred the text be just a bit bigger, I never had problems arising from that.

Technology moved on and terminals were replaced by (CRT) monitors. Those were harder on my eyes (I got headaches frequently), and eventually I connected it to the 60Hz flicker in the screen. Like fluorescent lights, the CRTs flickered visibly and that was a problem. With both lights and CRTs, it took me a while to learn that most people don't see the flicker; I thought it was just a thing we all had to cope with, but most people don't notice it at all and it doesn't hurt them. (The first time I mentioned being bothered by it to a coworker, he thought I was making it up.)

Once CRTs and display drivers got better, I could raise the flicker rate and make my problem go away. (75-80Hz fixed it for me.) Then CRTs got replaced by LCDs, a different technology, and my flicker-sensitivity problems were reduced to places with fluorescent tubes. While those have invaded some workplaces (forcing me to negotiate alternate lighting with people who sit near me), they were otherwise relegated largely to basements. It's not attractive lighting, so these fixtures don't show up in, say, stores and restaurants.

Then came the damned CFLs.

For the last couple years I've been noticing more and more problems with flickering lights in public places. It's frustrating to have to ask to be re-seated in a restaurant, sometimes more than once. Moving to the next table over rarely solves the problem; a flickering light anywhere in my field of vision (including reflections) is a problem. It's been getting worse.

And I finally figured out why -- it's because those lightbulbs are CFLs now. Proprietors of public establishments installed them a few years ago, when incandescent bulbs started to become harder to get, and those bulbs are now mid-life and flickering more. (I don't know why age should affect flickering, but it seems to.)

So the next several years are going to get more and more miserable for people like me. I sure hope that an alternate technology is affordable and seen as advantageous by the time proprietors are ready to replace their long-lasting lightbulbs again.

I suspect the answer is "no", but I need to ask my ophthalmologist if there's anything I can do to reduce the effects on me when I can't avoid them.

We do use CFLs in a few places in our house, like hallways, but not in places where I actually spend time. That's not just because of the flicker, but also because the light color from CFLs is wrong. We'll continue to use incandescents until some other technology (LEDs?) becomes practical.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The mishna records the following disagreement. If a man went to a country beyond the sea, leaving his wife behind, and another man came forward and maintained her in her husband's absence, does that man have a claim upon the husband? Chanan says no, he loses his money, while the sons of the high priests (I don't know who they are) say he can recover it if he takes an oath concerning the amount he spent. R. Dosa b. Harkinas (a name I don't know) agrees with them, while R. Yochanan b. Zakkai says: Chanan spoke well; the man has placed his money on a stag's horn and it is unrecoverable.

The g'mara analyzes the argument. Elsewhere we learn that a man can pay someone else's shekel (Temple tax), repay his debt, or restore to him an object he has lost, all without benefit to himself, meaning he is not repaid. The shekel and restoring lost objects are religious duties, and repaying debt (some say, but this is disputed) spares the man shame. The g'mara does not here close the loop by addressing whether maintaining the man's wife in his absence also spares him from shame. (107b-108)

The talmud here does not raise the question of agency; if the husband had asked somebody to take care of his wife while he was away, that would be a different case.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Today's daf presents an interesting mishna. If a man married a wife and she made an arrangement with him that he would maintain her daughter (from a previous marriage) for five years, he must maintain the daughter for five years no matter what. If he divorces his wife during the five years he still must maintain. If his ex-wife remarried and made the same arrangement with her new husband the first still must maintain to the full amount. He is not allowed to say "if she comes to live in my house I will maintain her"; rather, he must send the money to her care of his ex-wife. And if the daughter who is being maintained should marry during the five years, that doesn't end the obligation either. Should the husband die, the ex's daughter has a greater claim on his assets than his own daughters do (during the maintenance period); the daughter he promised to maintain has the legal status of a creditor. This mishna ends by noting: "prudent men used to write:1 '...on condition that I shall maintain your daughter for five years while you continue to live with me'". (101b)

1 The g'mara says that this applies to verbal promises, so for "write" read also "say".

 
 
 
 
 
 
(Today's daf is 94. This is from the end of 93b.)

The mishna teaches: if a man who was married to four wives died, his first wife takes precedence (for collecting the ketubah) over the second, who takes precedence over the third, who takes precedence over the fourth. However, to collect her ketubah each of the first three must swear that she has not already received any payment toward it, because if she is overpaid she may deprive the next one in line. (So #2 has a claim upon #1 and can make her swear, and so on down the line.) The last need not swear unless there are minor orphans (who would be next in line if they exist).

The mishna goes on to discuss the case of a man who married four wives on the same day, and notes that it was the custom in Jerusalem to add timestamps to the documents in that case. (93b)

 
 
 
 
 
 
The view last night:





It looked even prettier in the twilight sky, but I didn't have a chance to take a picture then.
 
 
 
 
 
 
If a woman is due her ketubah and says she has already received part of it (this is referred to as "impairing" her ketubah), she is not paid the balance unless she first takes an oath affirming her claim. If one witness testifies that she has been paid in full, she is not paid unless she takes an oath (but if she takes the oath she is paid, because there are not two witnesses). She cannot take payment from the property of orphans (that is, his children), from mortgaged property, or from an absent husband (one who has gone across the sea and not returned) unless she takes an oath. R. Shimon ruled that whenever she seeks to claim her ketubah the heirs may impose an oath on her. (87a)

Oaths are a serious matter because an oath carries the possibility of a false oath, which is effectively false testimony before God. So even if you're speaking truthfully, you don't do it if you don't have to and the halacha doesn't impose it lightly. (This is why, today, some Jews who have no intention of doing otherwise will still not agree to "swear to tell the truth" etc in courts. When I've been seated on juries I've "affirm"ed my service instead.)

That said, these kinds of requirements that people take oaths to settle claims come up in other cases of torts too; the ketubah case is not especially unusual.

 
 
 
 
 
 
I was in a post office recently for other reasons, so I asked for a book of stamps. (I do occasionally send physical letters still.) The clerk pointed to a display showing about 20 different custom stamps and asked me which ones I wanted.

Several were people I didn't recognize (which doesn't mean I don't know them; I'm bad with faces and stamps aren't large). Some looked like "logos" of a sort but it wasn't clear what causes they supported. One had Arabic text on it. One said "Harry Potter". One had a big heart (Valentine's Day leftovers, maybe?). Most or perhaps all had small text that would probably have clarified who the people were or what the others were for, but I couldn't read the text at that size in the amount of light that was there, and I didn't want to hold up the line with what should have been a simple operation. But I didn't want to buy something I might not want to be using on my mail, either. (I once ended up with some very-religious Christmas stamps because I didn't specify. I won't make that mistake again.)

So I asked: don't you have something generic, like Liberty Bells (that's what my last set of generic stamps had) or flags? She dug around in the drawer and turned up some flags. I'm not especially patriotic, but they're unobjectionable so I took them.

As with quarters and license plates, I sometimes wonder if the desire to offer more and more customization options is starting to impede the primary purpose. I understand the desire to make special-purpose runs of stamps -- they're probably thinking that anything that helps make postal mail, or at least postage stamps, relevant is a good thing -- but in this case it hindered usability. Really, I just want something that conveys "mailing fee paid".
 
 
 
 
 
 
If a man dies without children his brother is supposed to marry his widow but can decline. During the time that she is waiting for his decision -- that is, between the time her husband died and the time the brother either does or does not marry her -- she might come into the possession of property. Who owns it? If she were married it might belong to her husband, but she's in marital limbo. According to the mishna Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that she may sell it or give it away and this is legal. This property is in the category called melog, property for which the wife retains the principal but her husband can reap proceeds (such as rents) during the marriage. Because the principal is hers she can dispose of it. (80b)

 
 
 
 
 
 
(Today's daf is 73.)

Normally in the event of a divorce the husband must pay the wife her ketubah. The mishna teaches: these are divorced without making this payment: a wife who transgresses the law of Moses or Jewish practice. What are transgressions against the law of Moses? Feeding him untithed food, having relations during the time of month when this is forbidden, not setting aside the dough offering, and making vows and not fulfilling them. What are transgressions against Jewish practice? Going out with uncovered hair, revealing parts of herself that ought to remain covered in the street (the talmud's phrase is "spinning in the street"), or conversing (jesting) with other men (flirting, maybe?). Abba Saul adds: one who curses her husband's parents in his presence. (72a-b)

 
 
 
 
 
 
It used to be that if you put out a software product, and particularly as you produced new versions of it, people might complain about things that were hard or different (change bad!) or broke their workflow, and you'd decide whether to add some configuration parameters or redesign it again or just tell them to suck it up. There wasn't much they could do within the scope of your software if you didn't give them hooks. (They could, of course, take their business elsewhere if your breaking change was important.)

Then, if what you were developing was a web site, you had to cope with some variations ("IE did what to our site?"), but you still had a lot of control. Well, until browser add-ons became a thing, and people could block your ads and trackers and make you use HTTPS and your site had better still work if you didn't want people to surf away.

Now, quite aside from the multitude of browser add-ons that might be relevant, we have tools like Greasemonkey and Stylish that empower users to rewrite your site to their heart's content. For some of us this lets us turn unusable sites into usable ones ("you chose what font? and assumed I had a 1500px-wide browser? feh!"). But it goes beyond that; Greasemonkey, by allowing JavaScript injection, lets us add, remove, and redefine functionality. I have several Greasemonkey scripts for Stack Exchange that make those sites easier for me to use and moderate, scripts that let me add shortcuts and override assumptions the designers made that don't quite fit my circumstances. I like SE's designers and, mostly, the designs of the sites I use, but some things just don't work so well for me out of the box. I'm not picking on SE; I think this happens with lots of sites.

All of this got me wondering: how do you develop web UIs in that kind of world? Are there some best practices that designers use to say "ok, if you're going to hook into the site and change things, we'll make it easy for you to hook in here and here to try to guide and contain you"? Is there some way of doing defensive design, so that if people do add scripting they can reduce the chances that that'll break something important? Or do they mostly just not worry about this, figuring that the Greasemonkey heads know how to use the browser console and will reverse-engineer their pages and, anyway, if you're going to mess with our site it's ok to say you're on your own? (I don't actually know enough to write those Greasemonkey scripts myself; I use scripts that others have written. So I don't have a good perspective coming from the developer-user side here.)

I'm curious about how the expansion of user-driven variation, on top of the browser-driven variation we already had, is affecting the field.
 
 
 
 
 
 
My employer provides free drinks, including soft drinks, but because ours is a small office we have to do our own buying. When supplies get low somebody goes to the store, which requires carrying cases of pop a couple blocks. Particularly during the winter this sometimes broke down, so that got us to look at options.

It feels wrong that it is cost-effective to buy our drinks from Amazon. That really shouldn't work. It can be less expensive to buy locally if there's a sale, but otherwise it's a wash -- and an Amazon box comes to our door.

Huh, weird.
 
 
 
 
 
 
(Today's daf is 66.)

The mishna teaches: a wife's find -- that is, the benefit from a lost item that she finds (that can't be returned to its owner) -- and the proceeds from her handiwork belong to her husband. Her inheritance belongs to her but he has use of it during her lifetime. But any compensation for an indignity or blemish done to her belongs to her. The g'mara brings an opinion that Rabbi Akiva disagrees on the first part, saying that according to him her find belongs to her, but others disagree with that disagreement. (65b-66a)

 
 
 
 
 
 
The Stack Exchange network has many great Q&A sites, several of which I'm pretty heavily involved with. (I just passed 100k reputation network-wide.) My first and favorite site is Mi Yodeya, the site for Jewish questions and answers. The quality level is very high; I've learned a lot.

SE started with Stack Overflow, for expert programmers, and then added sites for other technical subjects -- programming, system administration, database administration, and the like. Over the years the scope has broadened to include all sorts of topics -- religions, languages, math, cooking, writing, and many more (over 130 of them at the moment). One of these sites is Biblical Hermeneutics (BH).

When BH first showed up I asked why this topic wasn't already covered by the site for Christianity, and I was assured that, in contrast to the religion sites (Mi Yodeya and Christianity, at the time), BH didn't have a doctrinal basis -- the goal was something more akin to the religious-studies department at a secular university. In other words, this was a site for bible geeks, not zealots. I'm a bible (well, torah) geek, so I jumped in.

It didn't work, despite the best efforts of some excellent users -- shining examples of how people should behave there, some of whom I count as friends. Over the three and a half years that it has existed BH has moved from respectful discourse to quite a bit of Christian evangelism and presumption. When nearly every question about the Hebrew bible is answered with the claim that it's talking about Jesus, no matter how inappropriate, it can get pretty frustrating.

BH is a Christian site. Its users refuse to bracket their bias, to write descriptively rather than prescriptively, and to rein in the preaching and truth claims. Opinions masquerade as answers, supported by those who share the opinions and don't stop to ask if an answer actually supported its claims. When that happens you don't have an academic site; you have a church bible-study group. Most people there seem to be fine with that; it's not likely to change.

The site actively recruited Jews. Originally they welcomed us, but the evangelists and those who support them have driven nearly all of us out now by creating a hostile environment. (Last I checked, there was one known Jew there.) It kind of feels like we've been invited to a medieval disputation, except that we, unlike our ancestors, can actually opt out.

In explaining why I no longer felt comfortable there, I wrote:

I don't have a problem with Christians. I have a problem with Christian axioms -- or any other religion's axioms -- being treated as givens on a site that claims to welcome all. I thought we could keep that in check, but now I wonder. [...]

I came to teach and learn in a classroom. But people brought in an altar, crucifix, and communion wafers, and the caretakers gave them directions.

That was in 2013. Not only did those words fall on deaf ears, but things got worse. I (belatedly) sought rabbinic advice, and it became clear that BH.SE is no place for Jews. I left the site, made (and later updated) this post on Mi Yodeya's discussion (meta) site, and ultimately deleted an account with over 10k reputation.

Other Jews from Mi Yodeya were smart enough to not get very involved there in the first place. But for the sake of other Jews who might come across that site (and this post) I leave this warning: participating there comes with hazards. Please consult your rabbi first.

I'll stay in touch with friends from there in other ways. I wish them the best of luck in trying to bring the site back on track, Herculean task though that may be. I hope it doesn't hurt them. But I'm done.

(I was not planning to make a public post in this journal about this, but some discussions with other SE folks after the deletion of my account persuaded me that I should make one post here.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
One of the dishes I made for my seder got compliments from everybody (and requests for how I did it), and it was incredibly easy. I wasn't expecting it to be one of the stars of the night. So, to share this discovery with others:

Vegetable-stuffed peppers

Dice a large sweet onion (next time I'll use more) and cube about a pound of butternut squash (~half-inch cubes), mix in enough olive oil to coat, spread in a pan, and roast at 400 for about half an hour (stirring a couple times in there). Meanwhile, cut four red peppers1 in half, removing the stems, seeds, and white vein-like stuff. Ideally you will have selected peppers that are square-ish in shape, such that when you set the halves in a pan they'll stay put rather than tipping over. Fill the peppers with the cooked onion-squash mixture, add a bit of water to the pan (I find this helps prevent the peppers from burning), and put back in the oven until done (maybe another 20 minutes, though definitions of "done" vary). The onions on top should be caramelized and everything should be tender.

That's it. I didn't even season it before cooking, and it turns out I didn't need to.

I cooked this the day before and it went onto a hot plate during the early part of the seder.

At other times of year I might add rice to the mixture, particularly of the multi-colored-mixture variety. There were going to be other starches, so I didn't add farfel.

1 Yellow or orange peppers would work taste-wise, but the colors are prettier with red ones (with the orange squash and the light-yellow onion). Green peppers are never an option in my kitchen, but I also think they'd be too bitter in this combination even for people who like them otherwise.

stuffed peppers
 
 
 
 
 
 
The mishna teaches that, just as a man owes maintenance to his wife, she owes certain work to him. The following are the kinds of work which a wife must do for her husband: grinding corn, baking bread, washing clothes, cooking, suckling her child, making ready his bed, and working in wool. But if she brings bondwomen into the household these tasks are reduced: with one bondwoman she doesn't have to grind corn, bake bread, or wash clothes; with a second she also need not cook or suckle her child; with a third she also need not make ready his bed or work in wool; with four she may lounge in an easy chair. But R. Eliezer said that even if she brings a hundred bondwomen he may still require her to work in wool, because idleness leads to unchastity. (59b)

The question arose this morning of whether he is required to support the bondwomen, or if that is somehow her responsibility. I don't yet know the answer to that.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Here are some more pictures of the visiting Stack Exchange unicorn. In this batch she picks up a little local memento, visits an SCA event, and finally (finally!) sees signs of spring in the 'burgh.

Read more...Collapse )

 
 
 
 
 
 
Today's daf teaches some laws about a husband's obligations that apply even if he did not write them in the ketubah for his wife: their sons inherit the amount of her ketubah in addition to their other inheritance; he must maintain their daughters in his house until they are married; and should he die first, his wife may stay in his house and be maintained out of his estate for as long as she remains a widow. (I take it that this means that, should she remarry, this arrangement ends -- which makes sense.) That is all in the mishna; in the g'mara we learn that he is required to provide a dowry for his daughters so that men will be anxious to woo them. How much? Up to a tenth of his wealth. (52b)

(I don't know what the "up to" depends on or if there's a minimum.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
These are some pictures from the Roaming Unicorn. Some silliness here, and more to come later in the week I suspect.

Stack Exchange Roaming UnicornCollapse )

Finally (for now), the Ladycorn joined me at choir practice, where our director, desperate to get us to pay more attention to our hypothetical audience, began conducting with her -- and I was laughing too hard to think about taking a picture. Oh well; some things will just have to be left to memory and imagination.

 
 
 
 
 
 
The Stack Exchange mascot, a plush unicorn, is currently making a world tour of moderators who wanted to participate. (I, um, kind of had something to do with hatching that plan.) She arrived yesterday, along with her memory book (looking forward to reading that) and assorted mementos from places she's been. I really need to figure out something that says "Pittsburgh" to add to the collection. At scale is best; she's about 8" tall, so, for example, a regular-sized Terrible Towel would be overkill.

Suggestions welcome! Must be something I can obtain in the next week or so, and must not be an imposition to ship.

She'll be going to the local SCA event next week, so I've already located a baronial token for her (one of the cast comets). But that's a little...specialized.

Yes I'll post some pictures later of her visits around town.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The torah (in D'varim 22) talks about the case of a man who marries a maiden, hates her, and goes the next morning to her father and says she was not a virgin, and the father objects. They bring out "the signs" (the bedding), and if his words are found to be not true, he is fined 100 pieces of silver for bringing an evil name upon her. Today's g'mara talks about this case, saying that he is always flogged as a penalty for tale-bearing (bringing an evil name upon her). However, the payment of the fine depends on them having actually had relations; if they did and he's lying then he is flogged and pays the fine, but if they didn't -- if his claim is based instead on witnesses -- then he doesn't pay the fine but he is still flogged. (45b)

We learned previously of a case where a fine isn't owed on top of a death penalty (the latter punishment suffices), but that doesn't seem to apply here -- execution precludes a fine but flogging doesn't, at least in some cases. I don't know these laws very well, sorry.

 
 
 
 
 
 
The ketubah (marriage document) is in large part a financial contract, and the tractate discussing ketubot naturally leads to other financial aspects of marriage -- and non-marriage. A mishna on today's daf teaches: if a man sleeps with a girl who was betrothed and then divorced (before the marriage was completed), there is a dispute about whether he pays a fine. If she were married that would be adultery; if she were never married he would have to marry her unless she objected; this case is in between. (The text does specifically say "girl", not "woman", though the role her age plays isn't elaborated here.)

R. Yose says he does not pay a fine, but R. Akiva says that not only does he pay a fine but it belongs to her, not to her father. Why is her divorced status important? Because if she were betrothed and not divorced there would be no fine for a different reason -- that's a death-penalty offense for him (adultery starts from betrothal not marriage), and a man who is liable for death by the court does not also pay fines. (38a) This last point is based on Exodus 21:22-23. (36b)

It appears that the purpose of a fine is punishment, not compensation, and the rule is that there is one punishment per transgression. In other cases (like theft, and I think property damage) there are compensatory payments, like paying back the value plus some extra, but this appears to be different. I don't understand this yet.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Today is Purim, so I'm interrupting the cycle to share something from Tractate Megillah.

At the beginning of the book of Esther we're told of the rather-excessive party that King Achashverosh threw for his court. We're told that the wine was abundant and drunk from gold vessels. What does abundant mean? That each man was given wine older than himself. The drinking was according to the law -- what does that mean? According to torah -- there was more food than drink. None did compel -- what does that mean? That each man was given wine from his own country. It's good to be the king (or at least a rich king), and perhaps even better to be one of his friends. Cheers! :-)

On the seventh day when the king's heart grew merry with wine -- wait, what? Was he not merry with wine before then? He's been drinking for seven days, after all! The seventh day was Shabbat; on Shabbat Israel begins with discourse about torah and proceeds to give thanks, but the idolatrous nations of the world begin with frivolity and proceed with lewdness. This is how it came to be that they were discussing which nation's women are the most beautiful -- one would say the Medians, and another would say the Persians, and another the Chaldeans, and it was getting right rowdy. The king said that Vashti was the hottest babe and said "would you like to see her?" and they said "yes, but she has to be naked!", and so he summoned her but she refused. And because of that we get the rest of the book of Esther. (Megillah 12a-b)

I took some liberties in the retelling -- it's Purim, after all. Happy Purim! Be sure to check out this small collection of Purim-related Q&A, serious and silly.

(Today's daf is Ketubot 31.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
Yesterday we got word that one of my fellow Stack Exchange moderators (not on a site I moderate, but a different one) had died. I didn't know him well, but we had talked in our moderator-only chat room intermittently, we'd read each others' posts, and I felt like I'd gotten to know him some. It seems like that was mutual. The last conversation we had started with him telling me he respects me "a heck of a lot" (that's mutual) and ended with plans for him to come to Mi Yodeya with a question he was forming. And now he's gone. We found out because somebody -- we don't know who -- updated his profile, and investigation showed it not to be a cruel prank.

I've been on the net a long time, and I still manage to be surprised by how much I grieve people who I may have only known as names and gravatars. But they are still people, people who shared their thoughts and knowledge and aspirations, people I got to know, and online communities -- the ones that are really communities, not drive-bys and transient places to post comments and stuff like that -- cause us to form connections that are every bit as real as those we form with the people we see, speak with, hug. It blows my mind.

And as we grow more and more connected, and frankly as I get older and have online friendships that stretch from years to decades, I know there's going to be more and more of this. Affable Geek wasn't the first in my digital life by far, he won't be the last, and we knew each other only casually, and yet his passing still touches me deeply. I still expect to see his digital face pop up on the network, but it won't any more.