January 20, 2017

Being the change you want to see in the world

Filed under: Politics, Social Justice — marcstober @ 9:48 am

If you pardon a little software engineering humor, I once had a colleague who had a sign, “be the diff you want to see in the code.” It was, of course, a nod “be the change you want to see in the world,” attributed (probably wrongly) to Ghandi and which I seemed to hear a lot of during the early Obama years (Obama did say, “You must create the change that you want to see“).

But you know what? I think we—democrats, liberals, centrists, people who voted for him—mostly just expected Obama to be the change we wanted to see in the world. We could go about our business knowing there was someone in charge who would, more or less, make the choices we wanted.

Today there’s going to be a new president. I’m not as alarmed as parts of my social media network. People have lived under all sorts of governments, often with leaders they didn’t chose and don’t like. For us Jews, especially, we’re pretty much defined by a history of surviving under less-than-ideal regimes. Yes, there was one that killed six million, but most didn’t, and the American Jewish community is second only to the Babylonian Exile at adapting itself. I didn’t vote for Trump, but he’s not Hitler.

But that doesn’t mean everything is going to be good for everyone. So I think, in this new world, a lot more is going to be up to us, to make sure we are doing things that make a difference: lobbying our government, helping people in need, standing up for those who are put down. Not just business as usual.

To start with, I’m going to be at the Boston Women’s March for America tomorrow. While I’ll admit it’s not completely coincidental it’s the day after inauguration (as much as anything, it’s that someone has organized a relatively safe protest on a day with no work or school, and while you could give me reasons not to go you can always find a reason for inaction), I’m not protesting the election results. Trump is legally the president. It doesn’t have to fair, but I don’t know that there is an absolute arbiter of “legitimate” or “qualified” beyond the electors and officials who have signed off. And this is actually my point: as much as we’d like a leader who makes us feel like everything is going to be okay (and for some, that leader is Trump), we have to make that world ourselves.

October 11, 2016

Trump Disrespects Men, and Yom Kippur

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 3:49 pm

What makes me really angry about things Donald Trump said isn’t that it disrespects women. It’s that it disrespects men.

When our country’s founders wrote “all men are created equal,” or Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote about Halakhic Man, or Hannah Szensh wrote about “the prayer of Man” (actually, in Hebrew, there are two words for “man” and she used adam, which conveys the deeper meaning more than the common word ish)—that language seems archaic now: it would be better to just say “people.” But the classical usage of “Man” also had a deeper connotation: a good, civilized human. A mensch. Donald Trump may have male chromosomes, but he’s not much of a man in this sense.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with “locker room talk.” Not just for the sake of (as the rhetorical trope goes) my mother/sister/daughter, but because it’s a challenge to being a man. Being a man means having testosterone-fueled energy and needing to find a way to sanctify it and to do the right thing. Bill Clinton has clearly struggled with this, and I’ll say to him what he said to us: “I feel your pain.” Mitt Romney has lots of children, so presumably he’s done the same stuff Donald Trump talked about—with his wife, when she consents. Teenagers may talk about this in locker rooms, but grown men are supposed to be better.

What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? In Jewish terms, we have good and evil inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. The little angel and devil on our shoulders, like in cartoons. We need both, and we wrestle to keep them in balance. On Yom Kippur, we check in with ourselves as to how we’re doing with that.

Such work is a big part of being (to quote Glenn Beck!) a “moral, dignified man” and Trump doesn’t seem to have any respect for that.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

July 22, 2016

Rambling thoughts on FOMO, email and the news of the world

Filed under: Media, Personal Blog, Technology — marcstober @ 4:44 pm

I have over 50 thousand messages in my inbox. Most of them unread.

Cheryl makes fun of me for it because she manages to keep pretty close to “inbox zero.” But I think she’s more the exception than I am.

It’s all FOMO. For example, I just deleted hundreds of message from Glassdoor. But I’m hesitant to completely unsubscribe. What if I missed the perfect job or bit of career advice? It could be like leaving money, or my happiness, on the table.

Heck, I don’t want to unsubscribe to coupons I might get. I just got an e-mail from a certain business and was reminded to use a $20 promotional gift card before it expired. Score! If I delete promotional offers what I end up needing what they’re promoting? Unsubscribing from Constant Contact with its “SafeUnsubscribe” is especially fraught. It make is hard for a company to add you back to a list, even if you want them to, without an extra opt-in. I suppose the one time it happened (that I wanted to restart getting news from a certain company) it worked out but….

Of course, the thing about FOMO is that it’s not humanly possible to keep up with everything. By definition, you are missing out on 99.99% of what is going on in the world. If you’re a big media junkie, 99.98%. (Not exact numbers, but you get the point.)

The interesting thing is that we ever think we weren’t missing out on most of everything. There is this expectation that we are supposed to be keeping up with everything. For my parents’ generation, that was watching the nightly news. Which has turned into having CNN on, all the time.

The usual fiction goes like this: there is normally nothing going on and if there is, then we hear about it and do something about it. For example, if there’s a murder or an accident in our community, we expect to turn on the news or open the paper and hear about it. And there’s a response, and then things would recover and go back to normal. I don’t think I’m the only for whom that’s the expectation of normal, even though I know that not every disaster in someone’s life is actually in the news.

Presumably there is some weird mash-up of human brains evolved to participate in communities of hundreds or thousands of people, and technology that makes a small world out of millions or billions of us. I may lead a someone privileged life, but in a community of thousands—a college campus, my office building, the public schools on my side of town—this pattern holds. Emergencies happen once in a while, and we notice them, and respond, and recover.

It is so hard not to apply that principle to the whole world. Something terrible happened somewhere, we’ll see it on TV or the Internet, respond, and things will go back to normal.

It is so hard to really believe that the world as a whole is so big. That the one-in-a-million event in a small community is a daily event in the world, and the pattern of news, response, and recovery doesn’t apply.

The irony is that fear of missing out on everything doesn’t mean I’m not missing out on something. How do I not miss out on what I really don’t want to miss out on?

July 14, 2016

Not .NET

Filed under: Personal Blog, Software Blog — marcstober @ 7:10 am

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a recruiter; I get these pretty typically:

I came across your resume in a file of ours…. I am not sure if you are looking around anymore or not but I just partnered up with the company searching for a .NET engineer…

I am long over identifying as a “.NET engineer.”

Let me tell you how I got into this business. First, I taught myself Perl from a book—back when Perl was cool! Then, I taught myself Microsoft Access from book, and also from learning relational databases from the academic side in graduate school. With that I became a citizen developer, learning the programming language that came with Access, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). I leveraged that experience into jobs that required more serious development on the Microsoft stack, first in Visual Basic 6 and then in C# with the advent of .NET.

C# in particular is a great language and Microsoft despite all the criticism they’ve taken has made some great software. But while I’ve made actual money using Microsoft technologies, I’ve always envied the cool kids working on a LAMP stack or Plone or Django or Ruby on Rails. That is where this work becomes an art form. Or building iPhone apps.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten back to what first got me into technology in the ’90’s, web development. And, finally, I’m at a job where I’m not at all a Microsoft developer; I’m still running IIS but, conspicuously, without ASP.NET.

So no, I’m not interested in your old resume on file that says I’m a .NET Developer. Besides which if you can’t even look me up on LinkedIn and see what I’ve been doing since I talked to your agency ten years ago you’re not a very good recruiter anyway.

Oh, and that first database was to track custom imprinted B’Kol Echad orders. So that I was ever a Microsoft-stack developer was all caused by that other domain I am still passionate about.

June 15, 2014

My Real Claim to Fame

Filed under: Personal Blog, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:35 am

In 2009, I answered a CSS question on StackOverflow about word-wrap in an HTML table.


5 years later, almost every time I go to the site, I am greeted with new reputation points from people upvoting my my answer. I now have a reputation of 3,602 which the site tells me is in the top 10% overall! My answer, which is the top answer to the question, has been benevolently edited and commented upon and the question protected due to its popularity.

I got lucky. If I had this problem I wouldn’t know the answer today and would go looking for the answer on StackOverflow. Even if someone asked the question today and I did know the answer, someone else would probably answer it before me. I just happened up on an unanswered question to which I’d just happened to figure out the answer in some other work I was doing.

The significance of this is that figuring out these little technical details of user interface implementations really is how I make my living, and it’s also how I leave the Web a little bit of a better place than I found it. As my tagline says, repairing the world, one byte at a time.

(For those who aren’t familiar, StackOverflow is a hugely influential online question and answer forum for computer programming questions. I like to say, only half jokingly, that my job as a software developer isn’t really about knowing how to do anything but about knowing how to find the right answer on StackOverflow.)

June 1, 2014

Who’s Social Now?

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Jewish Organizations, Parenting, Social Media — marcstober @ 2:41 pm

So this was an interesting tweet:

There are times when I wish the religious organizations I’ve been involved with would take some marketing lessons from the retail world. But, sometimes, we should value what we’re doing better: community and social stuff. I mean, the Jewish world is in the business of giving people a way to find community and social on Friday night as we have been for thousands for years. Businesses trying to add community and social features to their website are WAY behind at what community really means.

Indeed, I came across this tweet because I was ordering labels for kids going to summer camp. I am going to let the nonprofit Jewish summer camp meet some our family’s needs for community and social. Try as they might, the e-commerce company trying to be social seems a little forced. But they probably make good labels.

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:


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.

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


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.”

Next Page »