Michael J. Radwin

Tales of a software engineer who keeps kosher and hates the web.

Ariella has a blog

Ariella started keeping a blog today. I guess after seeing me waste a bunch of time with this thing she decided to give it a try, too.

I’ve long been a skeptic of blogs, but I’m starting to be a believer. Last week, wrapped up in my own egocentrism, I searched Google for the text “Making the Case for PHP at Yahoo” to see if the buzz had spread beyond slashdot. I was astonished to find something like 47,000 entries — most of them on random people’s blogs.

This was enough to convince me (and eventually Ariella, too) that keeping a blog is not such a marginal thing after all.

Free Hebrew Dictionary?

Does anyone know if there are any Hebrew-English dictionaries available that aren’t encumbered by copyright restrictions? Ideally I’d like to find something in electronic form, but I’ll take a print dictionary if that’s all that’s available.

Torahthon: the Zealotry of Pinchas

The second session I attended at Temple Beth Am’s Torahthon was Dr. Ron Reisberg’s class on “The Zealotry of Pinchas”. He advertised the title of his session as “Good Tefila, Bad Tefila”, but acknowledged at the beginning of his teaching that he decided to change the subject. Instead, much to my pleasant surprise, we did a little bit of Talmud study.

We read the story of Pinchas from Numbers 25 in English translation and made sure everyone in the group understood the story. We then moved on to the Gemara and read the Rabbis’ interpolation of the story to understand whether Pinchas was justified in his actions and whether we could extrapolate any halachic lessons from the story.

Reisberg made the argument that the Rabbis were trying to limit the applicability of the story to the narrowest case so as to discourage religious zealotry. I was reminded of this other discussion in the Gemara about the rebellious son who is supposed to be put to death for disobeying his parents. In short, the Rabbis found this story from the Torah objectionable, but they did not dismiss it. Instead of contradicting the text, they simply applied it as narrowly as possible, claiming that a child could be put to death under only the very specific conditions mentioned in the Torah. After much discussion, the punch line goes something like “There has never been such a son, and there will never be such a son.” In other words, the Rabbis couldn’t admit that the Torah was wrong, but since they felt that capital punishment was inappropriate for a disobedient son (no matter how extreme) they had to neuter the story so that it simply couldn’t apply in any real case.

In understanding the story of Pinchas, Rabbis similarly try to limit the situations in which religious zealotry is allowed. They can’t dismiss it outright, because the Torah explains that God is pleased with Pinchas and makes him a member of the priesthood. But the Rabbis explain that the murder of Zimri and Cozbi is justified because it was the manifestation of God’s jealousy. Had the killings taken place after Zimri had slept with Cozbi it would have been an unjustified act of revenge; the fact that Pinchas killed them during the act is what makes Pinchas righteous and not a murderer.

I know there are the makings of a good drash here, but I can’t quite get into it. In my book, zealotry is just plain wrong. Unlike the Rabbis of the Gemara I have the luxury of being able to say that Hashem made a mistake. Pinchas should not have been praised because murder, even if for the “right” reasons, is always wrong.

Torahthon: Shema for Beginners

Ariella and I went to an evening of learning called “Torahthon” tonight at Temple Beth Am. Rabbi Mitch Malkus from the Pressman Academy lined up about 20 great minds from the greater Los Angeles Jewish Community (mostly Conservative rabbis and professors) to teach some short classes to the community.

The two sessions I attended were amazing. I went to Rabbi Avi Havivi’s “Shema for Beginners” section first, where we explored what the 3 (or 4, depending on how you look at it) parts of the Shema are trying to convey. We probably spent a full 10 minutes talking about what we weren’t going to talk about (the blessing before and after the Shema, the meaning of the paragraphs when looked at in context from where they were taken from the Torah, the ritual choreography involved in reciting the Shema). I learned more than I expected. It will be a huge boost to my kavanah when I recite the Shema next (which ought to be tonight when I go to bed, but we’ll see about that).

One of the most interesting things we talked about was the “Adonai Echad” component of the first sentence. Sure, there is the usual perspective of monotheism vs. polytheism which probably made a lot of sense during biblical times and maybe even when the liturgy was being canonized. But the most interesting suggestion that Rabbi Havivi made was that the Echad was referring to God’s uniqueness. To paraphrase, God is unique, a singleton, in a category all by God’s self, and the One-ness of God cannot be compared to any human experience we might try to understand.

In storytelling, we use metaphors to understand God, but we’re aware that these are merely tools to help us humans understand the Divine. We recall that God led the Israelites out of Egypt “with a mighty outstretched arm” but of course we know that God doesn’t actually have an arm. Similarly, at various points in Tanach we conceive of God as having love, anger, or jealousy, but God doesn’t actually have any of these emotions, at least not the way we understand them as humans experience them. Similarly, God’s uniqueness cannot be compared to the way we think of individuals being unique. God is the one any only member of a set.

As a computer scientist, I could say that this all appeals to me so naturally and intuitively, with set theory and discrete mathematics and all. But it works for me on a spiritual level as well.

Hiding .php extensions in Apache

Here’s a neat little trick. If you want to serve out PHP scripts without showing the .php extension, you can add something like this to your httpd.conf file:

DefaultType application/x-httpd-php

DirectoryIndex index index.html

Those directives will tell Apache that if there is no extension on a file, it should run the file through the PHP interpreter. On the filesystem itself, any PHP scripts can be called foo.php or simply foo (i.e. have no extension at all).

In a standard Apache configuration, DefaultType is set to text/plain. This may have made sense in 1996, but these days pretty much everything is HTML.

The DefaultType approach is substantially more efficient than Options MultiViews because there is no need to do readdir() calls to figure out what file to serve out. It gives the added flexibility that if you ever rewrite part of your site to use a different technology (switch to mod_perl or whatever) that the links won’t rot. And it’s 4 bytes less to send for each GET request!

Hiding the .php extension doesn’t really make your site any safer, because anyone who wants to hack your site can simply guess that you’re running PHP behind the scenes and attempt well-known exploits. This could be best described as “security through obscurity” which gives engineers a warm and fuzzy feeling, but isn’t really any more secure.

Yahoo!/PHP media wrapup

After the buzz on slashdot several more reputable news websites published stories about Yahoo! and PHP. Here’s a summary so far of the press coverage:

I doubt this sort of thing ever makes it into the New York Times, but it’s really novel for me nonetheless. All sorts of people I know from years back have emailed me over the past couple of days to say “Dude, you’re famous!”

15 minutes of fame, part 2

The PHP-Yahoo! story got picked up today by CNET News.com. My favorite excerpt:

“(Yahoo) is a cheap company. (It) can’t afford to waste engineering resources.”

–Michael Radwin, Yahoo engineer

I hope I don’t get fired for pointing out that my employer is stingy. 🙂