Sunday, April 30, 2006


The mere existence of this comment is a disturbing commentary on the state of the First Amendment.

Hypothesis on Plagiarism and Copyrights [corrected]

Hypothesis: Incidents of plagiarism increase as the length of copyright increases.

Reasoning: Plagiarism is an academic crime. It is prevented by attribution. Copyright infringement is a legal crime. It is prevented by licensing or by building off works from the public domain.

Copyrighted works eventually become part of our general culture. Copyright is a bargain between the needs of authors to be compensated for their creations and the public good of having their creations available for free use. The full argument is made in Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture.

Currently, a copyright lasts until 70 years after the author's death or 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation if the author is a corporation. Congress can extend (and has extended) the terms of copyrights each time they are in danger of expiring. By the time any works created today enter the public domain, most will be culturally irrelevant. The majority of works written after 1923 may be assumed to be copyright protected in the US.

The length of the copyright term encourages attempts to “cheat the system,” by removing attributions and hoping that nobody will notice. Building new works out of older works is part of how our culture expands and evolves. Disney makes movies out of public domain novels and fairy tales, updating them and bringing them new cultural relevance. They also lobby Congress to make sure that these new creations are never cycled back into the public domain.

As one example of the benefits that come to a work from its being in the public domain, see Dracula 1897, a LiveJournal-based "real-time" edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula, enhanced for a medium that Bram Stoker never knew would exist. (hat tip: Lawrence)

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

From the extremely bad ideas department (updated)

A new project, calling itself Explorer Destroyer has proposed a campaign to end Microsoft's browser dominance. They are requesting webmasters to add a scripts to their sites that has three settings. The scripts only activate if the user comes to the page using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The first, called "gentle encouragement" will place a message offering a Firefox download. This is simple advocacy. If a webmaster doesn't mind having banner ads on his/her site, this one isn't too bad. The second, called "semi-serious," puts up a splash screen that claims that Internet Explorer "is not compatible with [the] site." If the site is well-designed, chances are, that's a lie. That, and, the annoyance is just the webmaster acting like what we technical people call “a dick.” The third is the one to which I seriously object. Entitled "dead serious," it will arbitrarily block a user from viewing the site if he/she is using Internet Explorer.

I'm all for people dumping the IE security hole for Firefox (or any other browser, for that matter). But, this is the wrong way for anyone in the open source community to go about advocacy.

The Internet is based on neutrality and standards-compliance. Any computer can connect to any other computer on the Internet, independent of who sold it, what processor powers it, what network card physically connects it or what operating system it's running. All that the computer has to do is conform to publically available the TCP/IP networking standards. Similarly, all modern browsers can read the data from all websites because they conform to (X)HTML, ECMAscript, and a host of other specifications. There is no longer any reason for a website to sport a "works best in browser X" button.1 Any website that really doesn't work on one platform or another is, in effect, breaking the Internet. This is certainly the case where the site is fully or nearly standards-compliant and just rejects requests from one platform out of spite. Respect for these concepts means allowing users to have a choice, even if you think that choice is a bad one. The alternative is having a number of mutually incompatible Internets, and, in that case, everyone loses.

(UPDATED and edited: I misunderstood how Google got involved in this.) Google is promoting their own extension of Firefox -- Firefox+Google Toolbar, and any referral to it through AdSense gives website publishers $1 for referral. The Explorer Destroyer project is using that feature so that its scripts are equivalent to that kind of referral. The Explorer Destroyer project, not Google, is effectively making the Mozilla Corporation and the Mozilla Foundation into pawns in the Google vs. Microsoft war by attacking Microsoft using Google's money.

Beyond contributing code, the best way for a webmaster to support open-source is to refuse to write in anything other than platform independent and standards-compliant code.2

Google can keep their money.

(via LinuxWorld)

1 The fact that some websites do not respect browser neutrality and Internet standards is a statement against the programmers who wrote them and/or the tools they used. While there are some features that are available in some browsers and on individual platforms, and not others, there are frequently alternatives that will do the job just as well or better and maintain platform neutrality.

2 Which, incidentally, might also break the way it looks in Internet Explorer. But, that's a bug in IE, not the website. If I find out about a display problem of my website in IE, I will usually fix it, but I will not break my own page's standards compliance just to fix a bug in a browser.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What not to do from a call center

This morning, I got a call from Verizon Wireless telling me about their newer plans. Incidentally, I don't mind getting these kinds of sales calls from companies with whom I actually have a business relationship, especially if they don't call often. I also recently renewed my wireless contract (and got a new phone out of it), so, it wasn't a bad time to be reviewing my wireless plan.

Along with informing me that I could get 100 extra minutes per month for the same price as I'm paying now, the woman at the call center starting going through the obligatory script trying to sell me more services. The conversation is paraphrased, but, roughly accurate.

Verizon Wireless rep: This call may be monitored for quality assurance, is that OK with you?
Me: Yes.

[Skipping blather about plan]

VZW: You will be able to send text messages for 10 cents each. Or, we have a plan for unlimited text messaging to any mobile customer for $9.99 a month, if you use that...
Me: I'm not interested. I don't use text messaging.
VZW: Oh, that's for the younger people.

At this point, I sensed an opportunity...

Me: How old do you think I am?

And the VZW rep fell right into it...

VZW: Maybe in your thirties...


Me: Not yet.
VZW: Oh, I'm sorry. I meant about people in their teens. You're not in your teens, are you?
Me: No.

The representative then went on to tell me how sorry she was, and I finally told her that I wasn't actually offended. She probably was hoping that call wasn't monitored or recorded.

Before I was on the National Do Not Call Registry, I used to get sales calls from companies that I had never bought anything from, and had no intention of starting. At that point, I learned that call center employees were reluctant to hang up, no matter what what going on in the conversation with their victim potential customer. At one point, I got a call from the Boston Herald trying to get me to subscribe. When asked why I didn't want to subscribe after having heard the script of all of the paper's wonderful features, I told the call center rep that the Herald was part of a government conspiracy with the aliens to infect our brains, or control us, or something like that. The poor call center rep then spent a few minutes arguing with me telling me that the Herald was not involved in any conspiracies with the government or with aliens. Meanwhile, I just tacked on additional charges at each argument, trying and failing not to laugh. Eventually, I got bored and hung up.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Friendly blogosphere etiquette reminder...

This is just a friendly reminder of blogosphere etiquette: It is considered extremely impolite to out the real-world names of pseudonymous bloggers, on their own blogs or on others' blogs, unless the blogger has done so him or herself or given you permission. If you need to refer to another blogger, use a link or the pseudonym.

Shavua Tov (for the one day of regular week)...

Friday, April 07, 2006

The kitniyotization of quinoa has begun! (update)

... at least in the Chareidi world.

A year ago, I wrote that, eventually, quinoa would be considered kitniyot. Quinoa is a pseudo-cereal crop native to the Andes that can be used a grain-equivalent. It is clearly not included in the five species of grain that are prohibited from the Torah for use on Passover. “Kiniyot” is a broad, undefined1 category of items that are not chametz, but are forbidden by custom to Ashkenazic Jews on Passover. Because of its nature as an undefined category, and the lack of a contemporary reason for continuing the prohibition, the category of kitniyot has expanded to include such items as corn and peanuts2 (both New World crops).

For the record, here's the text from the Aish website:

Finally, there is one product called "quinoa" (pronounced "kin-o-ah") that is permitted on Passover even for Ashkenazim. Although it resembles a grain, it is technically a grass, and was never included in the prohibition against kitniyot. It is prepared like rice and has a very high protein content. (It's excellent in "chollent" stew!) You should be able to find it at most health food stores. Of course, it needs to be from a closed container that is new for Passover.

Let's see how long it stays there...

(Hat tip to llennhoff on WeirdJews)

Update: Yaakov Menken on Cross Currents and Gil Student on Hirhurim chime in. The kitniyot-expansion machine ticks on. We are now in stage III of the process: uncertainty.

Update 2: A clarification of the “process” of kitniyotization:
  1. Unknown
  2. Universally permitted
  3. Kitniyot in limited circles. Some permit, some prohibit
  4. Kiruv organizations prohibit?
  5. Universally accepted as kitniyot. Prohibited.

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1 Kitniyot might initially have been defined as "legumes." Before crop rotation was commonly used as a farming technique, they were frequently grown in the same fields as grain products at the same time in order to take advantage of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These kitniyot may have contained actual prohibited chametz. An alternate derivation of the prohibition is that they or their products may be made to look like prohibited grains or their products. Either way, the reason for the prohibition is quite tenuous today. The best reason I can find is in a 1997 essay by Richard J. Israel:

Though I try very hard not to pasken for anyone, if you were to ask me, "As an Ashkenazi Jew, should I eat kitniot on Pesach?" I would say no. Most Passover-observing Ashkenazi Jews don't eat kitniot. If you want to be part of their club, don't eat kitniot.

2 The controversy over peanuts was unfortunately resolved in favor of a ban during the mid-20th century, so, Jews of my generation are less likely to accept them as permissible. (My current opinion is that they are permissible, but I avoid them on Passover). Peanuts, incidentally, are legumes, so, they could in theory have been used for the same purposes of nitrogen fixation of grain fields. To the best of my knowledge, they weren't, simply because they were unknown to the Old World at the time when those farming practices were used.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What about the Talmud?

This essay, by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, put online on Gil Student's Yashar Books Open Access site makes me wonder how she would have reviewed the Talmud.

Some of her criticisms of the Conservative movement's Etz Hayim Torah commentary are valid. The halacha l'maaseh (practical halacha) commentary indeed doesn't reference any of the process that is so important to Conservative scholarship, and even sounds so absurd that it looks like it written by a committee.

Her primary gripe is that the commentary (and the Conservative movement in general) should have ignored modern textual scholarship in favor of a “traditional” reading of both pshat (literal meaning) and drash (figurative meaning), because to include modern scholarship leads to inconsistency. She says that you can't have a midrashic view of halacha without accepting the traditional view of a unified pshat. Among other things, the CJLS effectively denies the basis of its own authority. To ignore modern scholarship (as she proposes) leads to cognitive dissonance and inconsistency as well, it just doesn't come out in the open. Like their Orthodox peers, Conservative Jews would either talk about it quietly in dark rooms, or simply pretend it doesn't exist or have any validity.

She never mentions my biggest complaint about the Etz Hayim: It's such an expensive book — why did they print it on such cheap paper?

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

From the Jewish Week...

From the Mar 24, 2006 New York Jewish Week (yes, I know I'm behind). Apparently, the "Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education" (PEJE) conference has come up with the solution to the Jewish day school tuition crisis:

For those not entirely sold on the idea — and even for those who are — the spiraling cost of a day school education is a major barrier [to day school attendance]. Potential antidotes to the so-called “tuition crisis” such as grandparent involvement and low-interest financing were the topics of several sessions at the assembly.


During a symposium called “Grandparents: An Essential Element of Day School Life,” Jewish school professionals shared strategies to have grandparents help cover tuition.

Bruce Powell, the founding head of school at the New Community Jewish High School of Los Angeles, said it is unfortunate when parents apply for financial assistance from schools in lieu of asking grandparents to chip in.

“They’d rather ask a stranger,” Powell said at the forum. “They’d rather ask Mr. Farber and Mr. Masor on the board than ask their own parents. I have one word for that — obscene.”


In another, Jewish Family & Life! CEO Yossi Abramowitz unveiled a financial model that would enable day school parents to borrow up to $80,000 annually to cover tuition and school expenses. Philanthropists, federations, foundations and funds from the State of Israel would help offset the interest and perhaps some of the principal on the 20-year loans.
(emph. added)

So, let me get this straight. They want parents to borrow $80,000 for 12 years to send their kids to day school, then the colleges want them to borrow another few tens of thousands of dollars for four year college, and, just in time to pay off those loans, they'll hit up the same people for money for their grandchildrens' day school tuition.

I can just see the 2050 PEJE conference: With all Jewish parents and grandparents who are committed to Jewish education in massive debt, the time has come to start asking great-grandparents to chip in to their great-grandchildrens' education. Uh... היש לדבר סוף?

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