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.

March 22, 2013

Google Reader Takeout Reader

Filed under: Consumer, Information Politics, Software Blog — marcstober @ 7:24 am

Enough inkelectrons have been spilled over the Google Reader sunset. I simply offer a simple tool to take your Google Reader data from Google Takeout and convert it into a nicely formatted list of links to browse and re-bookmark/subscribe in your new favorite service (or save as a backup, even if you’ve found a new feed reading service).

Using it is as simple as unzipping your takeout file and dropping a file into the same folder.

  1. Unzip your takeout file.
  2. Download the file (right-click and “Save Link As…”) below and drop it in the Reader directory you just created (the one that has the JSON and XML files from Google).
  3. Double-click on the reader.html file in that directory.

This only displays part of your Google Reader Takeout data. Do not delete any other files!!!

No warranties, express or implied. None of the data in your takeout file is uploaded to me (although I may track usage of this tool).

March 17, 2013

Autonomous, Jewish, and OK

Filed under: Elsewhere, Halakhah, Judaism — marcstober @ 3:39 pm

I really like Jordana Horn’s response in the Forward to David Brooks’ New York Times piece about Orthodox Jews. And I’d like to take it a step further.

The way I’d summarize Brooks is that Orthodox Jews are “countercultural” because, well, they don’t think for themselves. They just follow the law.

I go to a Conservative synagogue, although I grew up mostly in a Reform synagogue. My father converted to Judaism, which is sometimes euphemistically called a “Jew-by-choice,” but I’d like to reclaim that term: my ideal Judaism is a religion that can stand on its own merits as a path worth choosing.

Religious law, for me, is not about following blindly, but trusting in good advice handed down from earlier generations. The Law of Gravity isn’t a something you go to jail for violating, it’s something that makes you fall down. Halakhah is a path through life that, ideally, will keep you from getting tripped up along the way.

Sometimes this means I don’t quite fit in in either the Reform or Conservative worlds. The Reform folks reject traditions that I autonomously choose. And some vocal Conservative folks believe the problem is that we don’t all keep to their ideal of Orthodox-lite: egalitarian, eating non-hechshered cheese, but still focused on obligation. (I worry that those viewpoints, while keeping a few devoted to the Conservative movement, cause a lot more to leave.)

The really successful Conservative and other non-Orthodox communities that I’ve seen understand the power in a nuanced balance between tradition and autonomy. For me, religious life includes independent thinking and shopping for Kosher food.

February 4, 2013

A confession about that GoDaddy ad

Filed under: Consumer — marcstober @ 9:44 am

I’m coming out of the closet. I’m straight. I like women.

I say this because the reaction to the GoDaddy Super Bowl ad makes it seem like this is something to be ashamed of.

The same parts of blogo-twitter-space that would gush about Anne Hathaway’s latest movie, Project Runway, or the dresses on the red carpet suddenly declare that the idea that hot female celebrities would actually appeal to certain proclivities of the straight male is somehow shameful.

It’s like the emperor has no clothes; the only thing I find really explicit about GoDaddy’s ad is that they’re the only ones who actually say that sexy sells.

Ordinarily I’d be offended by sexism in a professional technology context, like a trade magazine or conference. I’ll retract this article if you show me that GoDaddy actually expects its male and female network engineers to look and act like the characters in the ad! But this is the Super Bowl, with cheerleaders and Beyonce, and they’re selling a commodity product to a mass market. Come on.

In fact, the thing about the ad that attracts me as a customer means they’re a financially secure enough company to run a Super Bowl ad. I’ve been burned by going with a darling of social media when they went out of business, taking my website down with them.

January 29, 2013

Anne Frank and Amanda Todd

Filed under: Judaism, Social Justice — marcstober @ 12:15 am

Like a lot of teenagers, I read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager, and what stuck with me was this idealistic quote:

in spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart

Recently, I was thinking about that, and that maybe it’s not true. But, you know, I didn’t want to disrespect the memory of Anne Frank, or of all the teachers who influenced me and held that diary up as an important work to teach values to their students.

Then I heard about Amanda Todd (via Jeff Jarvis). A teenage girl who died because people were basically awful. So, I don’t think Anne Frank has the last word on this any more.

Most of the time, people are basically good, and you can expect them to be. But sometimes, they’re not. And it’s important to remember that.

November 7, 2012

The Right to Tinker and Make Stuff

Filed under: Consumer, Politics, Software Blog, Uncategorized — marcstober @ 9:16 am

I’m amazed by the overwhelming 85% support for Question 1, “Right to Repair,” in Massachusetts.

Here’s a summary of the question (from

Should auto makers be required to give owners access to the same diagnostic and repair information that dealers and authorized repair facilities have?

I suppose people will vote yes on this because they expect it will hit them in the pocketbook when they get their car serviced. But it’s also a vindication that people don’t think it’s wrong, and shouldn’t be illegal, to do what you want with stuff you’ve bought. I thought maybe I was crazy or at least living in a tech bubble from hearing that our elected leaders favor things like SOPA or TPP. Years ago I wrote to Barney Frank on the issue, and he strongly disagreed with me. And what to make of Chris Dodd’s new job?

Now, here are some more referendums I’d like to see pass:

  • People should have the right to jailbreak their devices. (This is now legal for iPhones–but not iPads nor other devices–because of a bureaucratic exception, not by right in the law.)
  • People should have the right to copy DVD’s to their iPad (without paying extra for a “digital copy,” like I did with the last DVD I bought).
  • People should have the right to keep, permanently, a book they’ve bought on their Kindle; it’s not a rental.
  • People should have the right to bring a book home with them from an overseas trip. It should be clear in the law this isn’t the same as a mass counterfeiting operation.
  • People should have the right to put their dancing baby video on the Internet without licensing the music on the radio in the background.
  • Girl Scouts should have the right to sing Happy Birthday at camp, without relying on the forebearance of those who could sue them.
  • People should have the right to create their own prayerbook with their church/synagogue’s liturgy, and not be told not to share it.

By the way, I don’t jailbreak my iPhone, and I take my car to the dealer for service. But I like to have that choice.

August 30, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on Way to Tot Shabbat

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 9:02 am

Cross-posted to

People tend to use religion at certain points in life: baby namings, bar mitzvahs, funerals. When Cheryl and I got married, we wanted a Jewish wedding. Having a toddler, however, wasn’t a life stage we thought we’d associate with religion—diapers, sippies and tantrums aren’t exactly compatible with deep spiritual reflection. But it turned out that it was the toddler years that established us as a religious—maybe not Shulchan Aruch religious, but still nominally religious—family.

When Cheryl and I met, I was the more religious one. Being Jewish was important to both of us in theory, but I was the one going to synagogue on Saturday mornings and scanning restaurant menus for the most kosher option. After we got married, I kept going to Shabbat morning services usually by myself, as I’d been doing since college. At first, having a baby didn’t change much: we were a little more likely to go to synagogue (or not) as a family, but little Hannah just slept in her car seat and we participated as adults. But once our daughter started being awake, making noise, and needing to move around, it seemed like none of us were going to be going to services much.

I’d been aware that somewhere, down the hall in the religious school wing I’d never been in, there were programs during services for children, but I didn’t know exactly what. So, one Saturday morning, when Hannah was about one-and-a-half, we nervously wandered down there. A guitar-playing woman named Dale welcomed us, who told us that Hannah was exactly the right age for Tot Shabbat. Actually, she was a little too young to really participate, but she’d grow, and with that welcome, we became regulars.

Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time. Soon, there was a new religious school director excited to improve things, and a new service leader, Julia, who ran a business teaching toddler music-and-movement classes. Together they came up with a routine that infused Jewish content into a toddler music class as good as any, and attendance grew. Sure, we could sign our kid up for some sort of secular class on Saturday mornings, but now we had an activity for the children, lunch at kiddush, a small but growing community of like-minded families to socialize with, and still got to, in a way, go to services. The maintenance staff even began setting up a preschool-sized table at kiddush. If nothing else, we were getting our money’s worth out of our synagogue dues!

And that’s how the funny thing happened: we’d established the rhythm of observing Shabbat, of going to synagogue as being the default thing to do on Saturday morning, and so became a Shabbat-observant family. We knew we succeeded when Hannah once told us that God is candy, because at the end of services every week the children were called up to the bimah of the main sanctuary to get a piece of candy—hopefully not the end of her spiritual development, but a successful early start! We aren’t shomer shabbat by strict standards in terms of all the negative rules of not driving, cooking, or watching TV; but, at least for us, focusing on the positive commandments of celebrating Shabbat with a family dinner and participating in a synagogue community is a more compelling path. And we’ve cemented this as a foundation of our family life.

Of course, children get older. Hannah is starting third grade, well into the school-age years, and she spent part of this past summer at pluralistic but religious Jewish camp. Our son is four, and in another year we’ll have moved fully out of the Tot Shabbat cohort. I’m not sure what comes next. Will I really want to go to the main sanctuary service in the same synagogue, now that I get to? Can Shabbat at synagogue ever seem as special to older children with more sophisticated interests, not to mention already going to Hebrew school during the week? How do we maintain a sense of community as the ranks of synagogue members with children the same age as ours swells to include many who weren’t interested in Jewish observance until a bar or bat mitzvah came on the horizon? Nevertheless, I’m sure that in celebrating Shabbat from our children’s earliest years, it will always seem like a way of life that is normal to them and be something we can come back to.

So, a two part message: First, if you’re a family with a toddler, don’t be afraid to check out what’s going on down the hall in that religious school wing. And even if you happen to show up on a week when nothing is going on because you’re not yet familiar with the mysterious machinations of the school year calendar, and even if you have to leave early because your kid had a tantrum and spilled the juice: persevere, try and find a community, and Shabbat may become one of the best parts of having young children. Secondly, if you’re a synagogue, offer these programs, publicize them well, and don’t forget the little details like a good place to change diapers or refill a sippy cup that make all the different to a frazzled parent—compared to engaging, say, pre-teens, it doesn’t take much to make a lasting impact.

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