January 20, 2014

When Instagram is the (small) Sanctuary

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 10:07 am

It was just Tu B’Shvat. I really had good intentions to do something for Tu B’Shvat this year. We could have done a little seder with the dried fruit, or maybe even found something to go to in the community. I mean, we had just gotten back from a family trip to Israel and were supposed to be feeling all connected the land and all.

And then, after kids went to bed, I was looking at Twitter. And seeing tweets about the holiday from my more religious or environmental-activist “friends.” Tu B’Shvat was tonight?We had pasta and broccoli, nary a tree food in sight. (And we’re not even one of the those families that gets the kids to eat the broccoli by calling it “little trees.” Though I did put some olive oil on it….)

The next morning I was still fretting when I realized, what is the tree fruit that I consume even more religiously than I observe my actual religion? That is probably the most consumed tree food in the world? That you you have to brew first? Yes, coffee! I was certainly planning to start my day with coffee. It turned out I had Max with me when I stopped at Starbucks, and he wanted hot chocolate. Cocoa beans grow on trees too, right? The second most important tree food! So we stopped at Starbucks, and I Instagrammed and tweeted this picture.

To the casual observer, I was all that is wrong with parents today: ignoring my kid to look at my phone while plying him with sugar on weekday morning. But for me, I was making the experience sacred, holy, special, kadosh. I took a common stop at a chain restaurant and elevated it. By taking that picture and posting those words, it didn’t matter where I was. I was celebrating Tu B’Shvat, and doing it with my community: my virtual Jewish community of people, some of whom I don’t often get to see in real life, but who, through social media, let me be part of a Jewish community wherever I go. Of course, finding real-life community is great, but to those who say I would be better off if I put down my phone: I seriously doubt I was going to connect with another Jew about Tu B’Shvat that morning otherwise.

Judaism gives us the idea of mikdash me’at—the small sanctuary. The idea is that we can make things holy wherever we are, in our homes and communities. It’s a beautiful idea that I love about Judaism and that’s helped us survive as a people. This year, we sanctified Tu B’Shvat with Instagram at Starbucks. I still pray “next year in Jerusalem”–but more likely, next year will be on Pinterest.

November 26, 2013

Feeling Inadequate About Feeling Inadequate (as a man)

Filed under: Gender, Media, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 8:02 am

I’m always hearing it’s a problem how media portrayals of women set unrealistic expectations: how they should look, how they should eat, how they should work, how they should be as girlfriends and wives and mothers. Maybe it’s a more of an issue for women than men, but men have the same issue–at least this man does. It’s insidious because the messages are usually subtle. But sometimes they are so ridiculous they just make you laugh, and remind you that you shouldn’t be paying so much attention to what other people think at all.

Like the profile of Bryan Goldberg in the New Yorker with this picture of him surrounded by women, one of whom he’s using as a desk:

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I feel inadequate as a man because because I’m not Goldberg. Driven by money and sports. Doesn’t read books, but is president of his own company. Says he doesn’t care about beauty, but gets all the beautiful women. I bet he eats steak and drinks whiskey.

Ironically, 50 years ago, mid-century modern decor was considered progressive, while the media’s portrayal of a successful male would have been old-fashioned nobility, complete with smoking jackets, and certainly not in Brooklyn. Then, the way you would degrade a woman was by making her do your typing. In today’s image, the possibly Ivy-League-educated woman is positioned so she can’t use her hands while the alpha male does his own typing; he can communicate with the outside world via WiFi but she has to remain focused on him.

The hard part is, while I feel inadequate because I’m not Goldberg, I also feel inadequate because I’m not the perfect liberal above the temptation either. I like shiny new MacBooks. And I’m still a cismale who’s attracted to 25-year-olds in short skirts and high heels (or boots…). And, while it’s not my thing, I know perfectly decent guys who actually do like football, or the stock market, or beer and steak. I could just be thankful that I have the freedom to sit at a Starbucks drinking good coffee, blogging on my MacBook, watching all the attractive people go by, plus I have a great wife and kids that love me. I mean, most men should be so lucky. (Well, except that you can’t really find a seat at Starbucks, they just give the illusion of a third place to attract customers and make their money in take out. But that’s another topic…)

But, no, the media has to remind us that a real man would get a woman use her bare legs as a desk for his laptop. (Which, as I sit with my Macbook in my own lap to write this, I realize would get hot enough to seriously burn her.)

Of course, really, the photographer probably posed them this way. I’d like to think he had all of this mind.

Thanks to “Blogging Like A Mother” by Kara Van Cleaf (who’s a graduate student at CUNY; I have a graduate degree from CUNY!) via @sarahkendzior (who’s from St. Louis, where I also went to school!). Photograph by Pari Dukovic; while I do not have his permission to use it here I believe it is legal according to the principle of fair use.

September 12, 2013

One of these EMRs is not like the others

Filed under: Health, Software Blog, Usability — marcstober @ 10:58 pm

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Above are three thumbnail screenshots of prototype medical applications.

One of them is the winner of a White House competition, winning thousands of dollars and influencing the EMR of the huge VA medical system.

One is a problem-oriented medical record and the runner up.

One is a prototype I designed as part of an Innovation Team project while working at Partners. (We didn’t win a White House award. I guess we were ahead of our time.)

June 28, 2013

Announcing the Release of My First Firefox Extension: More Bookmarks Toolbar

Filed under: Software Blog — marcstober @ 2:53 pm

Announcing the release of my first Firefox Extension: More Bookmarks Toolbar.

Add a second bookmarks toolbar to Firefox, with a separate set of bookmarks.

For example, use it at work for a separate set of bookmarks that only work on the corporate intranet. You can still use the regular bookmarks toolbar for personal sites, and hide and show either or both. (And with Firefox Sync, keep them consistent across my home and work computers.)

See its page or download from addons.mozilla.org.

The source code is on Github.

June 12, 2013

I Read This Article on Facebook and I’m Still Just As Alone

Filed under: Personal Blog, Relationships — marcstober @ 7:54 pm

Jonathan Safran Foer thinks the cure to loneliness is to turn off our devices. I think it’s more complicated than that. And I think it’s insensitive and preachy to those who may feel more alone than they want to to suggest such a trite solution.

Foer saw a girl crying on a bench in New York City. Leaving aside the fact that ignoring passerby is a pastime in New York City, he says that retreating into one’s smartphone is a morally inferior response than even choosing not to intervene anyway. What? So, choosing not to get involved by sticking my nose in the air and walking by is superior to choosing not to get involved by sticking my nose down into my phone? That’s just snobby.

People may be shy, introverted, or anxious about social situations; they may have physical or mental health issue or disabilities, or economic or family situations that make them isolated. Putting the weight of rolling back the last 50 years of technology on their shoulders is just mean. Not to mention that people have felt isolated and lonely (probably more so) long before telephones were invented.

Ironically, I only know about this op-ed because people posted it on Facebook. That’s like setting a booby trap: “If you are reading this on Facebook, then I’ve caught you!” If you really agree with this article, don’t share it online where it can come across as judgmental; follow its advice and go see a friend in person.

June 2, 2013

Lawyers vs. Engineers

Filed under: Information Politics, Politics — marcstober @ 11:41 am

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A reaction to: “Attorney General: Aaron Swartz Case Was a ‘Good Use of Prosecutorial Discretion’” at Wired.com.

As you see by the date of the article about the Aaron Swartz case I’ve linked to, I’ve been mulling this blog post over for a while. :)

I’ve known a fair number of software engineers/developers (including myself) and also a fair number of lawyers (including immediate family).

It’s tempting to think we all view the world in a similar way: we work in systems governed by complex sets of rules and try to understand how those rules can be applied. But this masks an important difference.

Software systems, however complex they get, are fundamentally deterministic. Computers don’t make judgement calls, and they don’t make mistakes. If you get the wrong result, it’s a bug to be crushed. (Something that distinguishes professional developers from others is that for us, letting an issue go as an insignificant outlier is often more difficult than digging until you find a solution.)

For lawyers, laws aren’t processed by silicon CPU’s, they’re processed by human judges, juries, and prosecutors. For them, individual discretion is not a bug, it’s a feature. Furthermore, there’s a difference between litigators and corporate lawyers. Much as things like EULA’s are the bane of everyone’s existence, we can find common ground with the corporate lawyers who write them, because we get the idea that inputting a certain formula into “the system”–like a magical incantion–should lead us to desired results. Whereas litigators and prosecutors (and sometimes politicians) are much more comfortable in that risky space where one’s fortune can be changed, not simply by whether you followed the letter of the law, but by human judgement in applying it.

The point of the blog post isn’t to say that one worldview is right and the other is wrong, but that it might help everyone to understand that they are different, and that either way of thinking can be used for good or evil. Both sticking to the rules and never making an exception, and fighting to win by bending the rules, can lead to inhumane results. We need to strike a balance.

Learn more from EFF about the CFAA, the law used to prosecute Aaron Swartz, which gives prosecutors the discretion to pursue almost any modern computer usage as “hacking.”

May 13, 2013

Spying on the AP! What’s Wrong With America?

Filed under: Information Politics, Politics — marcstober @ 9:09 pm

When I was in fifth grade, one of my teachers went to visit Russia. I remember her telling us how there were fairly obvious wires going from their hotels rooms to the end of hall where government monitors could spy on guests.

Around the same time, I heard a Soviet joke: An American says, “American is a great country, I can say I hate President Reagan out loud on the street and I won’t get in trouble.” The Russian replies, “So? I can say that I hate that American President Reagan, too.”

The Cold War was in full effect, and spying on citizens, or controlling the press, was supposed to be something they did, our Soviet nemesis that Reagan called an “evil empire,” and what separated us from them, was that we were free, our rights protected.

Perhaps I was naive, but as a child of the ’80′s, this is what I learned as right and wrong. These days, when I hear about something that sounds like the government abusing civil liberties, I’m concerned, but I like to at least consider that maybe there’s another side of the story. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding. Perhaps, from the government’s perspective, they were doing the right thing.

But it’s hard to see how spying on the AP could be seen as doing the right thing. It’s not just a violation of someone’s privacy, it’s a violation of freedom of the press stated in the Constituion. And it’s not just a violation of a website that wants to see itself as “the press,” it’s spying on an institution that is literally the backbone of the free press.

Gov’t obtains wide AP phone records in probe.

April 23, 2013

The Boston Lockdown; or, Don’t Judge a Cop by His Tactical Gear

Filed under: Greater Boston, Newton, Politics — marcstober @ 9:39 pm

I got upset on Twitter at a couple points during the great “Boston Lockdown,” mostly because I was just anxious about everything going on and and easy to upset. But, specifically, I got upset at posts I thought were implying that the scale of the police operation was some sort of misuse of police power.

Here are some things I observed on Friday:

Traffic continued all day on Route 9, a major but not limited-access highway at the end of my street.

I heard on the police scanner feeds that I found on the Internet officers escorting someone back to their home in Watertown to get medicine, and trying to figure out how close they could get a bus to pick up a disabled resident. I heard a request for less-than-lethal shotguns, which was interesting both because they weren’t just using lethal weapons, but also because they’ve gotten rid of the term “non-lethal” since that’s not always the case (as Boston police know from an incident a few years ago). At the end of the day (and I was probably listening to State Police channel separate from the FBI who actually made the arrest) I heard the caution they were taking to get the suspect in custody without anyone else getting hurt.

We received a reverse 911 call advising us to “shelter in place.” It seemed like the prudent thing to do. But it was not a threat, and I don’t think anyone who really needed to get any place couldn’t, except for a specific neighborhood in Watertown.

And, the bottom line is that no one else was hurt after the initial shoot-outs. And no one was arrested (that I’ve heard of).

As far as the enormous deployment of assets including SWAT and military response, well, that’s just how they do things. On a smaller scale, if you call to report a fire, you can’t ask them to only send one guy with a fire extinguisher; they’re going to send the engine and the ladder truck and probably police and EMS, and send them back when they’re not needed. And I’ve noticed that’s generally how emergency response agencies respond: deploy whatever assets you can just in case you need them. The alternative, I think, is to expect Andy Griffith backed up by Opie as all Mayberry needs to stay safe. But I don’t think that if this situation was, say, left to only actual Watertown officers to respond in their cruisers with old fashioned six shooters it would have had as good an outcome.

I’m not an anarchist. One of the great things about living in a democracy is that the police are here to protect us. And, it is a bit scary that to do so, they need to be able to respond with enough force that, if they misuse it, could take away our rights. I can think of cases, like the pepper spray incident during Occupy Oakland, or the NYPD’s treatment of protesters during the RNC, where, as a citizen of a democracy, I have some concern. But this was not one of those cases, and we should judge the police by their actions, not by what gear they come prepared with. This was exactly the situation we need strong law enforcement for and they deserve credit for a job well done.

April 16, 2013

Israel is 65! Does it get to retire?

Filed under: Israel — marcstober @ 8:10 am

KKL tin

It’s Israel’s 65th birthday. Here in the States that’s retirement age. So, does Israel get to retire? Well, not exactly…

But it does make me realize it’s perfectly appropriate and OK that my relationship to Israel is different than it was when I visited it on its 44th birthday in 1992 or than the relationship that an older generation of Jews remembers from even longer ago.

My synagogue recently ran a program featuring JNF blue boxes, and I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t participate. But I realize now that those boxes were for taking care of baby Israel, not AARP-age Israel. I mean, you joyfully change a baby’s diaper in your close family because you know it’s totally dependent on you. But, while you would change your grandparent’s diaper if you had to, you’re really happier if you don’t have to. It’s not a perfect comparison: the blue boxes are still valuable for teaching the value of charity and a hands-on lesson in modern Jewish history. But 65-year-old Israel’s survival is not hanging on the micro-donations of diaspora Jews. And that’s OK and as it should be. That kids today don’t relate to Israel as their grandparents is not a question of “what’s the matter with kids today?”; it’s perfectly appropriate.

And if I want to donate my small change to free Jewish culture or if I’m more concerned about the Women of the Wall or the plight of civilians on both sides than I am about a militant attack, it’s not because I don’t think Israel has a “right to exist,” it’s because I see Israel as an established country with a capable enough military that its friends don’t always need to spend all their time merely asserting it’s right to exist. (I mean, we don’t all run around arguing that the United States has a right to exist any more, but that was a matter of debate, too, a couple hundred years ago.)

An earlier generation of Jews actually succeeded in building a state, and if today we seem to take that for granted, it’s not because we care less than they did, it’s an appropriate testament to their success.

April 15, 2013

April 15, 2013

Filed under: Personal Blog — marcstober @ 8:44 pm

So the big thing today for me was supposed to be Take Your Kids To Work Day. My company was running a really nice program for employees’ children and I had been really excited about.

I never imagined it would end with explaining to my daughter, in the elevator, that we had to leave early because Mommy was having trouble getting home from work because the trains were shut down because of a bombing at the same marathon that her teacher was running in.

It’s also Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts; tax day in every state but Massachusetts; and, starting tonight, Israel Independence Day. A planetary alignment of conspiracy fodder.

Thankfully, my wife and my daughter’s teacher both made it home safely. Although I’m honestly not thinking as much about the people who made it home (who had always expected to make it home) as I am thinking about the ones who didn’t.

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