23 August, 2009

Facebook frustrations

Filed under: General,Technology by Joel @ 12:41 pm, 23 August 2009.

Many things have annoyed me about Facebook lately. I ranted at their representative at ACL the other week, but his job was natural language processing, not bug-fixing.

Things have become especially frustrating when dealing with two of their most under-baked utilities: Pages (whataretheyanyway?!) and Events (beentheresinceforeverandstilldon’twork) in order for my Page, Barefoot, to advertise its concert series.

Pages have confused people since their inception. They might be better titled Organisations. They are a bit like groups, but they have fans instead of members, and I think Facebook didn’t want them created quite so freely as groups are (were?). They’re also a bit like personal Profiles in that they have a wall and apps and everything, and they can be fans of other pages. And they’re publicly viewable (and crawlable) on the web, so they act as web sites, and can help bring in FB’s bread. Basically, they’re what groups should have been, but never were.

Events are very popular, but they’re impossible for something like a concert series. You can only state one start and end time, so people get confused by our concert being over 6 days long, or say they can’t come because they’re unavailable on the first evening.

In the intersection between Pages and Events is an abyss of madness. One of the neatest features Facebook ever added to Events was the ability to message groups of people, depending on whether they were attending, not replied, etc. But if you create the event through a Page, you can’t do that:

if an event is hosted by a Page, the Page admin will not see the option to send a message to event guests. Individuals may be added as event admins in order to have this option. (Facebook FAQ)

Oh, I just need to make myself an event admin! But I can’t because Page admins can’t be added as event admins if the Page hosts the events.

Yet, if I remove another Barefoot member from being a Page admin, I can add them as an Event admin. And indeed, then I can add them back as a Page admin.

So somehow, very dodgily, now a person is both a Page and Event admin and can (yay!) send messages to event guests.

Another frustration: after finally finding this hole in Facebook’s foolishness, I could no longer send to people who’ve replied Not Attending. I can understand that those not attending are probably not interested in hassle messages. But when people reply Not Attending because Facebook makes it seem like we only have one concert, not five, I’d like a way to send them a clarification… :(

End rant.

14 August, 2009

Moses the Interpreter

Filed under: Tanakh by Joel @ 1:59 pm, 14 August 2009.

Deuteronomy is literally translated as “second law”, just as is משנה תורה. In being a repetition, the book is of great interest as an interpretation of the preceding books of the Torah.

Its selection of laws to repeat and to add apparently shows different priorities to other books that have been noted by commentators since the time of its writing.

An act of intepretation which interests me is the placement of the commandment “thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deut. 14:21).

From earlier references (Exod. 23:19, Exod. 34:26), it is unclear that this law has anything to do with food. There, the statement is one in a list of laws which are not greatly connected one to another; its immediate context is pilgrimage, offerings and first fruits. (The second context is almost identical to the first, only occurring after Moses’ receipt of a second set of tablets.)

The Deuteronomy passage focusses on forbidden foods: only some animals are appropriate to be eaten; and carcasses of animals which have not been slaughtered are not to be. And then it states “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, just as it did in Exodus.

(Curiously, in all cases, the statement ends a section.)

From the Exodus context alone, one would not assume that this commandment had any real impact on diet. It may only relate to sacrificial ritual: perhaps it was a pagan or idolatrous practice; Seforno suggests that it was assumed to help one’s crops or flocks. It could have particular relation to pilgrimage: Ramban and Ibn Ezra suggests this was a time that young livestock would be present with lactating mothers; Rashbam suggests that the festive season was a time for meat. Or it may be a mere ethical matter: Rashbam and Ibn Ezra compare the law to not killing an animal and its offspring in one day, and to sending off the mother bird before taking her eggs.

Unsurprisingly, many commentators pick up on the law’s food context in Deuteronomy. Certainly, the rabbinic understanding of the law as a prohibition of eating or cooking meat and milk together is only really afforded validity by it’s citation here. Perhaps this also explains the famous statement that this law appears three times “once to prohibit eating, once to prohibit benefit, and once to prohibit cooking” (BT Hulin 113b, 115b; Rashi on Exod. 23:19); the Halakhic midrash could only take one mention to refer to food, because in Exodus this doesn’t seem to be the point.

In a way, Jewish approaches to the bible often treat it as a commentary to itself. The midrash constantly connects multiple passages in ways that may have not been obvious at first, and hence treats the relationship between two apparently disparate texts.

The interpretative act apparent in the text of Deuteronomy — as a repetition of the law — allows us to see these connections within the bible, without first applying the easily-distorted lens of midrash and later commentaries.

Happy birthday (belated), Singapore!

Filed under: Asia by Joel @ 1:48 am, 14 August 2009.

Suddenly, the food in Sydney (even in Newtown) seems extremely expensive; WiFi internet is frustratingly occasional; our city is congested with cars and many outrageously-overpriced taxis; it lacks in ethnicity, its streets are dirty, and it is simply cold.

Me and the giant durian known as the Esplanade At least that’s how it seems after a week in Singapore. Where else can you eat a meal for one dollar? access the internet (to find a bus stop, a restaurant, or a better price) for free on most street-corners? walk past buddhas, mosques, hindu temples, a variety of churches and a still-in-use 19th century synagogue in a 10-minute amble?

Singapore is an curious mix of cultures from across southern Asia, with a Western sense of security and East Asian technology thrown in. Quite a pretty city too, if you like the geometry of modern architecture and Singapore’s multi-colour take on it.

Though young as an independent country — it celebrated its 44th birthday on the day I departed — Singapore certainly has enough to be proud of.

The conference was also very good, and left me with many ideas, very few of which actually had to do with the direction I thought I was heading for a PhD, but still, nice to have some inspiration. Good to see again those people I had met at EACL; to meet others for the first time who I’d cited, who I’d seen cited, and who I’ll be likely to cite in the future.

Other highlights included (more-or-less chronological):

  • The wonderful Jewish community there and their hospitality for the shabbat that opened my trip;
  • Having at least one token vegetarian stall in most food courts / hawker stalls (at least four in the one near our hostel), and elsewhere on the streets;
  • The entertaining restauranteur at Ci Yan on “Chinatown Food Street”, who had been recommended to us along with the food;
  • The Night Safari (much better than Chiang Mai’s, and probably less cruel to the animals), its shows, and Nicky wearing a boa constrictor;
  • Musical entertainment, unicycling polyglots and an academic dance-off at the ACL banquet;
  • Riding bikes (and teaching Matt how to do so) around Palau Ubin;
  • Running around Sim Lim Square looking for the few retailers with DDR3 RAM for my computer (ended up with 4GB at AU$125, which I think is a pretty good buy);
  • Ordering one of the most expensive menu items (a paper masala dosa) for dinner, and still paying only SG$2.50 (AU$2.10);
  • Some of the yummy Indian sweets from Chella’s, even if they each cost as much as a meal;
  • Being woken by the call of the Sultan Mosque muezzin too early on Friday morning;
  • Watching papers with my name on them being presented very well, but not having to present myself;
  • Awesome fake meats in the herbal mutton soup at Eight Immortals in Koufu food court (the closest to the conference centre with a vegetarian restaurant, and yet somehow I managed to avoid it till the last day of conferring);
  • Terrible cover-band music under the misnomer of “Gypsy” as a free National Day performance at the Esplanade;
  • Playing around with Yefeng’s tripod on the last night (to my fortune, his camera ran out of space);
  • Lots of green-bean, red-bean, sesame, and other Asian delights…

Somehow, food features quite prominently — even without chilli crab — doesn’t it?

And no, Sydney isn’t so bad. But there’s nothing like taking a holiday and intellectual inspiration at the same time.

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