October 31, 2012

A Response About Ephemera From a Software Developer

Filed under: Software Blog — marcstober @ 5:36 am

The cover story of the Ideas section in this past Sunday’s Boston Globe talks about how academics use ephemera—for example, handwritten notes in the margins of books—and whether anything like it will survive from the digital age.

Those of us who create digital information technology, software engineers, understand the problem well and have our own solutions. Most software code is still written in simple text files, or encoded in open formats like XML. Every computer language has a way to insert comments, so its author can explain what they were thinking. We use version control so there’s a record of earlier drafts of our work. And we often publish our work as open source on sites like GitHub so that those who come after us will be able to use our work.

Why don’t other fields do the same?

August 30, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on Way to Tot Shabbat

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

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

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.

July 8, 2012

Seeking Upside: Why I Care About Intellectual Property (and a Recent Court Decision)

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Economics, Information Politics, Politics, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:54 am

I’ve long been a fan of open-source software. First of all, because you don’t have to pay for it, and who isn’t a fan of free? Second, even compared to closed-source free software, I prefer open, because I can rely on it. I might never look at the source code, but knowing that one can gives me some assurance that there isn’t anything bad (spyware, viruses) hiding and that I can continue using the software even if the original author stops providing upgrades or takes his business in a different direction.

Like a lot of other people in the technology industry, I aslo tend to see free software as something more than that, as a moral good, and intellectual property (IP) rights like a dangerous weapon that needs to be controlled. (With apologies to the NRA: “Patents and copyrights don’t kill innovation, patent and copyright holders do.”)

And after a lot of reflection on the matter, I’ve figured out why I feel this way: I have no personal upside. I don’t make money from IP rights. And on the downside, and I can lose money when others decide to exercise their IP rights. That doesn’t seem fair.

Here’s a thought experiment: If, like a songwriter represented by ASCAP, I got regular royalty checks for each line of code still in production that I’d written at some job years ago, would I feel differently? Or if I was guaranteed an on-screen credit and chance at an Oscar like a union technician in a Hollywood movie?

But I’m not complaining. I have a good job and make a decent living. If I stop working for my current employer, they own that work I’ve done, and that seems fair; I was reasonably paid for providing a service. But, while I’m not making money from licensing IP, I still have the downside of costs and risk of licensing it from others.

And writing software is, in my opinion, providing a service. Software has a pretty short half-life, and whether you hire developers to write software to use or to sell, you need to keep developers on the payroll to be valued as a software shop. No one is making money selling two-year-old software, at least not without ongoing investment in upgrades and support.

Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago came to basically the same conclusion recently:

Advances in software and other industries cost much less, he said, and the companies benefit tremendously from being first in the market with gadgets — a benefit they would still get if there were no software patents. “It’s not clear that we really need patents in most industries,” he said. “Also, devices like smartphones have thousands of component features, and they all receive legal protection. You just have this proliferation of patents,” Posner said. “It’s a problem.”

via Judge Posner: U.S. patent system out of sync – chicagotribune.com.

It was wonderful to see our legal system take this view, which I’d usually associate with underdog advocates who can’t actually afford a day in court.

I’m not against all forms of intellectual property or its strict enforcement. I don’t support piracy or counterfeiting; that’s legally and morally wrong and I think it’s unfortunate that the cause of online freedom sometimes gets mixed up in defending it. Nevertheless, I see IP as a modern policy construct, not in the same category as the biblical “thou shalt not steal.” A purpose of IP is to encourage investment in innovation by providing investors with a better return, and laws should be calibrated so they’re fair to all.

Perhaps I need to find a way to own some IP that can generate some returns. Then again, perhaps creating IP, not owning it, is more fun.

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June 5, 2012

More on Community and the Cloud

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 10:04 am

Is it ironic that I decided to go in person a “conference” about the “cloud”?

First, a personal bit: I like going to in-person, out of town conferences or meetings from time to time, and would like to do so far more than I actually do. While the cost of travel to learn some specific things are hard to justify either to myself or an employer, there is some hard-to-quantify change in perspective. I inevitably come home, not so much with new facts about the core subject, but with a new outlook that ends up proving very valuable. While I end up missing home by time I get back, I also find myself envying the people who get to do this stuff all the time (usually as evidenced by their live tweets about it).

So, attending the Jewish Futures Conference was as much as anything else about giving myself permission to go. I’m past thinking in terms of “maybe when I grow up I’ll get to…” because I’m already grown up. No one was going to “send” to me this so I just had to be entrepreneurial, get past my anxieties and go myself. And, it was manageable; it basically meant paying for a night in a hotel and an Amtrak ticket, and taking a couple days off work. Not cheap, but a lot cheaper than starting over in a second career (or technically, a return to my first career) in Jewish education just in the hope that somebody would spend $500 to “send” me to a conference!

The interesting thing was that not only did I not learn a lot of hard facts, but the conference was in and of itself pretty shallow. No one was going home equipped to fully cloudify (?) their organizations the next day. This is an important data point, though: there are a lot of people and leading organizations who think they need to start learning about the “cloud,” but they don’t quite know what they are going to do with it yet, and how it will affect their existing organization. It’s easy to be discouraged, working on your computer, thinking that “establishment” is ignoring you. On the other hand, these organizations were clearly looking for something from us, even if they aren’t ready to starting building it out, Silicon Valley style, like a “cloud” startup that’s just got it’s first big round of VC money. I literally found myself sitting beside the executive director of a 100+ year old organization trying to reinvent itself, who said she had recently been looking at the Open Siddur Project in her efforts to develop an online curriculum!

I had some other interesting conversations. In the first half, during Rabbi Laura Baum’s talk, I tweeted my table’s “idols” that they wanted to smash. The ideas of getting rid of hierarchy, membership, affliation was common them. I also met some folks who had been involved in online Jewish community even before me, in the early days of Shamash–we’re all waking in their footsteps.

I think everyone is worried about money. Before what my friends in finance call the “global financial crisis,” there were at least some organizations in the community that seemed permanent. Now nothing really seems solid. I’m not sure money to fund cloud projects is going to come from organizations just trying to survive, unless it will help their survival.

After dinner, I was sitting a table with two men who were second career Jewish professionals; one a rabbi and one a cantor. Sometimes I wonder if I am on that path, spending my free time going to events like this! 🙂 But for the foreseeable future, I like the independence that comes from being able to work on these issues without affecting my livelihood.

I also had discussion about “enhancing” rather than replacing existing community. This is exactly why I am drawn to projects like working with Jewish texts, which seems a natural fit for a digital cloud, and to communities that surround such projects; or to online communities that surround real-life communities as the “oneg all week.” Discussion of this would have actually made the conference deeper. While Rabbi Laura Baum and Patrick Aleph’s online synagogues are certainly interesting, the most profound changes will come from how people mix their on- and off-line community, and the extent to which those communities do and don’t inform each other–“bricks and clicks.”

After the event, I was fortunate (since NYC is a pretty lonely place when you have nothing else to do!) to be invited to a reunion over drinks of JESNA Lainer Interns alumni (or as I knew 17 years ago it, “Israel Interns”). It was some more interesting discussion with some people who care about these issues. Which ultimately is what they day was all about.

Finally, I’m glad I left New York City for Boston. Multiple mentions of Boston-area institutions like Brandeis, Harvard, and even a strangely interjected picture of Barry Schrage showed me that even if the Yankees, UJA-Federation, or JTS win in terms of numbers, the Red Sox, CJP, and Hebrew College have something special all their own!

June 3, 2012

Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:12 pm

Some of you might know I started another blog for my “Jewish tech” stuff. I wanted to share the latest post with you:

They say the Talmud is like a discussion among rabbis of different generations who could never have met. Well, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and venture capitalist Fred Wilson are both living, but I doubt they’ve met. But after reading a review of Steinsaltz’s new Hebrew/English Talmud, and then seeing this interview with Wilson about online content and the future of that business and copyright (20 minutes, worth watching), I’m imagining it in my head.

Keep reading: “Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?” on the JHacker blog..

March 23, 2012

Recent Home (and Car!) Improvements

Filed under: Cars, Design, House Blog — marcstober @ 7:56 am

The say a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a few thousand of things I’ve been improving at home.

And yeah, there’s stuff I bought at Anthropologie and Etsy, and I probably should be posting this on Pinterest, and I’m a guy. Want to make something of it? 🙂

Direct link

March 9, 2012

Ki Tisa: Individual health insurance mandate and patient registration?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:29 am

For the past five years of my career I’ve worked on a patient registration system. It keeps track of millions of people for both clinical care and insurance reimbursement. So, when I started to practice my Torah reading for this week’s Ruach Shabbat Family Service (please come!), I couldn’t help thinking it sounded familiar:

When you take a headcount of the Israelites, to register them, for each man give a soul-payment to God to register them, that they will not get a plague by being registered. Those on the registry will give a half-shekel… (Exodus 30:12-13, my translation)

As Jews, we believe that every word in the Torah has meaning. (It better, since I have to basically memorize the cantillation of the reading! :)) I found a few things interesting.

The reason for donation is to avoid a plague. Today, spirituality complements modern medicine, but ancients really believed religious acts could cure physical illness–pre-modern religious leaders were sometimes even keepers of herbal remedies, etc. This sounds a lot like health insurance.

They are only asked for a half shekel. “Half” here has always meant to me that people are not asked to pay their share. There are other campaigns (such as to build the Temple, that we read a few weeks ago) where some give less and some give more, but the half shekel is the same for everyone. Thus, there is value to being a taxpayer even if you take more than you pay in. In modern terms, yes, liberals, some people need public assistance, and yes, conservatives, everyone should be responsible for paying something.

A more subtle point I notice from my IT experience is the focus on individual registrations rather than a count, which are not the same. In a small group, you know each person as an individual and you can count them. In a simple business, you can ignore people’s uniqueness–treat them “as a number,” as we say–because you only care about the totals. Treating each person as a valuable, unique individual and scaling that up to a population of thousands or millions is hard. Often, the techniques for counting totals are at odds with the techniques for counting individuals. In a database, it’s technically easy to retrieve one record or count all records if your data set is small. But, when you have millions of records, you need specialized, separate techniques for “transactional” and “analytic” processing.

Taking this to a higher level, I think perhaps the core Judeo-Christian value (not that Jews and Christians have exactly the sample values) is the value of the individual. It’s interesting that in English we can say that each person “counts,” and yet means, davka, that we are not simply counting them, but recognizing individuality. In healthcare, although we could probably do more with population-based measures, we tend to treat each case as individual. In the synagogue, although we worry about membership numbers, each person gets a chance to go the bimah as a bar mitzvah because we treat each person as an individual.

January 11, 2012

Can Knowing How To Program Make You a Better Person?

Filed under: Education, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:24 pm

Codecademy has gotten some press about their Code Year project to teach you to write code, i.e., software. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at people on the typical computer science and engineering track but rather as a a basic literacy skill for anyone.

I forget sometimes I didn’t set out to be a programmer. I’d written some web pages that were simple documents, and knew they were lacking compared to “real” web sites where you could search, order a book, or buy an airline ticket. So I bought a programming book, found a small project to use it on at work, and the rest of my career fell in to place (eventually).

As a programmer, I have a different (better?) idea of the value of the technology we deal with daily in modern life.

Here are some examples. You can probably think of ways to dispute the particulars, but that’s why they’re examples, not proofs. (There’s my programmer-mind searching for discrete logical results again, forgetting that my blog audience has analog brains and doesn’t think in one’s and zero’s….)

Example #1: Twitter

Twitter is tremendously popular. I use it and it’s a lot of fun. I think a lot of people think it’s some amazing technology. It’s actually kind of tricky in that way: character limits, coded abbreviations, URL shorteners and hashtags all seem very technical. In fact, this originally turned me off to Twitter; I’ve lost count of the number of times in my career I’ve made a field longer or modified an app to take advantage of a higher-bandwidth connection, and Twitter was doing completely the opposite! Now I think people are attracted to the game (just like some programmers try to write the shortest program possible,) even if it’s cryptic to the point of being a novelty. Twitter isn’t some great technical advance; it’s really pretty simple: a couple web pages and a couple tables that any professional developer could implement, at least in its basic structure. What makes Twitter one of the leading social media platforms is not technology, but that millions of people use it. This may even make it more valuable as a business: lot of valuable users, without having to invest a lot in technology. (Admittedly scaling up to its current size is, as programmers like to say, non-trivial.)

Example #2: Netflix

On the other hand, Netflix seems simple. What could be simpler than watching TV? But parts of Netflix rely on some very sophisticated technology. Computer scientists competed for a million dollars over the best algorithm to recommend movies. Video compression and reliable streaming are hard. If you can invent a better video compression algorithm, you can probably get rich. We take it for granted that we can watch Netflix on almost any device (and we get angry if we can’t), but building native streaming players that enforce DRM (whether or not you want to) on multiple platforms and making them work well enough to compete with cable is very hard. Of course, Netflix does other difficult things like negotiating with movie studios. But I think a least part of the reason I pay for Netflix every month (and use Twitter for free) is that they have a lot more value in their technology.

Example #3: Verizon vs. Vonage and MagicJack

Vonage and MagicJack want you to think that they have some innovative new technology that can save you money. Maybe they could save me money, but from an engineering standpoint, I find them odd. When I pay my phone bill (well, FiOS bill) to Verizon, I can (barely) justify the expense knowing they maintain a huge physical infrastructure requiring real estate, trucks, union salaries, miles of expensive copper wire and glass fiber. I could plug a Vonage or MagicJack device into my Verizon Internet connection, but I’d still be relying on Verizon’s real estate, trucks, union salaries, miles of wire, etc. and my voice would get turned into the same bits on fiber either way. Any difference is a result of politics and commercial issues; there’s no fundamental technical reason these services should save you money.

So, have I convinced you to make learning to program your New Year’s resolution?

January 1, 2012

Honesty about Modesty

Filed under: Israel, Judaism — marcstober @ 12:14 pm

Many of you have probably seen the Israeli news story about eight year old Na’ama Margolese being called a “whore” and spat on walking past a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue on her way to school. In case you haven’t, it’s on YouTube with subtitles. (I’d also recommend reading how “they messed with the wrong crowd” for some interesting background.)

Two images are stuck in my mind from the video. The first is of a woman covered up almost Taliban style.

And the second is of Na’ama’s mother, Hadassah, dressed attractively in a sweater, boots, and skirt that meet her own standards of tzniut (modesty). She looks like she could fit in among the women I pass walking home from their Modern Orthodox synagogue down the street from my Conservative one. And here’s the honesty part: I can see how she would be a little bit distracting.

But what I think is totally messed up is to think there is anything at all wrong with that. Certainly that doesn’t make her deserve to be called a “whore.”

Caring about how one looks and noticing how other people look is a hard-wired part of being human. The value of Judaism is that it provides a way to sanctify the human experience. The rabbis long ago recognized that the yetzer ha-ra–the temptation to do bad–was not something that can be just covered up but a part of life that we can try to turn to good.

In secular culture the message sometimes seems that only a woman who can look like a supermodel is attractive, and only a guy who sleeps with a lot of supermodels in accomplished. But Jews believe every individual deserves respect: “If you have saved one life, you have saved the world.” And so, in my community, as in many other non-Haredi communities, we have norms where every woman gets to be beautiful, every bar mitzvah boy funny, every grandfather wise, and every child give his parents something to kvell over (be proud of). For example, Mayim Bialik, who is both an Orthodox Jew and TV star, recently blogged about finding a dress for an important Hollywood party that looked good and was still respectful. Doing Jewish stuff means there are ways for men and women to interact that don’t require cheating or hurting anyone or acting irresponsibly. Not that every Jewish community is perfect (we’re still only human after all!) but on the whole, I think Judaism has survived because it has a lot of wisdom about how to cope with human nature.

Maybe some men really can’t deal with seeing a woman on the street. But then it’s them who should be staying off the sidewalk.

December 6, 2011

Introducing Siddur Ruach Shabbat: Temple Emanuel’s New Family Service Prayerbook

Filed under: Judaism, Newton, Prayer — marcstober @ 9:23 pm

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

This Saturday morning at Temple Emanuel’s lay-led Ruach Shabbat family service we’ll be unveiling our new prayer book, Siddur Ruach Shabbat. The product of over a year of collaboration between the synagogue’s volunteers and professional staff, the book aims to be “just right” by capturing the spirituality of a traditional Shabbat morning service and making it accessible to all. It also features 40 full color illustrations by the children of Temple Emanuel.

The book features a number of innovations to make it easy to understand and use:

  • Only the prayers needed for a regular Shabbat morning service are included, so there is no getting lost flipping pages.
  • Every prayer begins on a new page with English, Hebrew, and transliterated titles.
  • All prayers (except the silent Amidah) have transliterations.
  • Key phrases are bold.
  • And more…

As editor-in-chief my goal was to share with my fellow TE families and the Jewish world what I found so meaningful about Shabbat morning prayer. The book was a truly collaborative effort, from the first draft produced by committee Vice Chair David Goldstone, to the extensive editorial work by committee Chair Pamela Weinfeld, to substantive input from Religious School Director Ilene Beckman, Hazzan Sheini Daniel Nesson, Rabbi Michelle Robinson, and others. It may have taken longer than we thought but the result was far better than expected.

For now the only place to see the whole finished book is at Ruach Shabbat Family Services this Saturday at 10:45 a.m. in Temple Emanuel’s lower level activity room, and monthly thereafter. Please join us! For more information contact me at marcstober@gmail.com, Pam Weinfeld at drpamw@dermandskincare.com, or Wayne Goldstein at wgoldstein@templeemanuel.com.

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