Category Archives: Chatter

An Open Letter to Glen Beck from a non-Orthodox Jew

Hey, Glen.

Look, I know we don’t get along. We don’t agree on much of anything. But still, we really need to talk.

The other day, you said some really stupid, really offensive, and really ignorant things about Jews. I know you’re insulted – after all, four hundred Rabbis from across the spectrum came together to call you out for being an antisemitic asshole, and that’s gotta hurt.

But that’s no excuse for being a pig-ignorant jackass.

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Preachy Twits: Please Go Away!

And I fell into a rant… Please pardon this off-topic diversion. I’m almost certainly going to get myself into trouble with this, but I don’t care. I’m sick of being harassed by twits of all stripes. (Do go listen to the song at that link; it’s a very fun bit of silly modern Klezmer by a really brilliant performer.)

I’ve mentioned around here that I’m Jewish. I don’t actually talk about what I believe – but I’ve mentioned the fact that I am a religious, theistic, reconstructionist Jew.

Every time I mention my Judaism, I get two related clumps of email. One of them is from Christians, who feel a deep need to tell about how my beliefs are all wrong, and I desperately need to listen to them tell me about Jesus. And the other clump is from atheists, who feel a deep need to tell me about how my beliefs are all wrong, and I desperately need to listen to them tell me about why there is no god. I don’t know quite why, but this seems to have gotten worse since we launched scientopia; even though my average daily pageview rate is down by about 50%, the number of preachy emails I’m getting from both christians and atheists is up by about 30%.

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I am a racist

(Unfortunately, this post has been linked to by a white supremacist site. Instead of providing a forum for their foulness, I’m shutting down comments on this post.)

Unfortunately, I lost the link that inspired this. But I recently saw a post by a conservative about “reclaiming” the word racist. It went on to list a collection of reasons why he was a racist. The gist of it was that all of us dirty liberals were the real racists – because there’s no possible reason for us to support things like affirmative action, welfare, etc., unless we really, deep down, believe that minorities – particularly blacks – are stupid animals incapable of taking care of themselves.

It’s typical bullshit. So I’m responding in my own way. Because, you see, I am a racist. I’m not proud of that fact – but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can’t avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege. I don’t support social justice programs like affirmative action, welfare, and job training because I think that poor black people need help because they’re less smart than me: I think that people like me have unfair advantages that we rarely appreciate, and that everyone deserves the same advantages that I’ve been lucky enough to receive. But however idealistic I am, however commited I am to social justice, the fact remains: I am, to my shame, a racist.

  1. I am a racist – because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
  2. I am a racist – because even after learning about the unearned privileges
    that I recieve, I still don’t notice them.
  3. I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches
    me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
  4. I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
  5. I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
  6. I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I
    have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and
    talented than I am never had the chances that I did to
    be successful, because of the color of their skin.
  7. I am a racist – because I am a white man who has directly benefited from
    the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
  8. I am a racist – because every day, I benefit from the denial of
    basic privileges to other people.
  9. I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people
    who are different from me.
  10. I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over
  11. I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied
    to people of different races and backgrounds, I don’t speak up.

The point of this isn’t just to do a sort of “walk of shame”. The
point is that I am an incredibly lucky person, who has benefited from
all sorts of things – from where I was born, to the color of my skin,
to the background of my parents, to my gender. I have recieved, and
continue to receive benefits because of those, and many other factors
that have nothing to do with my own merit. And except for
very rare occasions, that goes unremarked, unnoticed.

People like me think of ourselves as the default – as “normal”
people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to
be normal, unremarkable. We don’t notice just how much we benefit
from that assumption of our own normality – the benefits we
receive fade into invisibility. We don’t even notice that they exist. And
then when someone who doesn’t get those benefits
has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we

The underlying theme of people like the jerk who inspired this
post is: “I made it by myself, without any help. So
they should be able to make it by themselves, without any
help either.”

But that’s bullshit, because none of us “made it by ourselves”. We’re
the beneficiaries of the system we live in.

I grew up in a wealthy town in NJ. We didn’t consider ourselves
wealthy – but by comparison to lots of other people, we really were.
I went to a very good school system. We complained about it a lot:
the textbooks were too old; the equipment in the science labs were too
beaten up; the classes were too easy, and so on.

When I was in college, I got to teach a summer program for top
students from schools in Newark, Camden, and Jersey City. And I
discovered that my students went to schools where they didn’t have to
worry about their books being too old – because they didn’t
have any books. I mean that literally: in their english
classes, they didn’t have books, because their schools had
never been able to buy new books since it opened – and the
books had long since fallen apart. They didn’t complain about the
lousy lab equipment – because their schools had never had
science labs at all. How could people coming from schools like that
possibly hope to compete with students from a school like
mine? I didn’t admitted to college over people from their schools because
I was smarter. I got admitted into college over people from their
schools because I was richer and whiter.

And when my students went to the campus bookstore to buy
basic supplies like paper and pencils, the people who worked there
followed them around the store – because what would a
bunch of poor black kids be doing in a bookstore if they weren’t
there to rob it?

I write this math blog for fun. How did I get the background to do
it? I come from a highly educated family. They taught me to read
before I even started preschool. I’d learned about statistics from my
father when I was in third grade. I learned about algebra in sixth
grade, even though my school didn’t teach it until 8th or 9th. I
learned calculus in my freshman year in high school – even though my
school didn’t teach it until a senior year AP class. I was learning this stuff
long before the school taught it to me; and my parents made sure that
they bought a house in a very expensive school district where there would
be things like AP classes. My parents paid for me to go to college – which gave
me the time to take courses not just because I needed them to graduate,
but because they covered things that I wanted to learn, just for fun.

How could a person from a family that just managed to scrape by,
who lived in a school system that couldn’t afford textbooks for the
basic classes, much less the AP classes, how could they compete with
me? It’s damned close to impossible. Not because they’re any less
smart, or any less talented. But because I’ve had an absolutely
uncountable number of advantages. Every day of my life, I’ve been
given benefits which helped make it possible for me to become who and
what I am. I’m here partially because I’ve worked damned hard
to get here. But that work, by itself, wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am,
without luck and privilege.

People like me need to remember that. We didn’t earn what we have
all by ourselves. We may have earned part of it – but only
part. An awful lot of what we have is built on privilege: on the advantages
that we’ve been given because of race, gender, wealth, and family.

Scumbag Animal Rights Villains Harass Children for Father's Speech

This post is off-topic for this blog, but there are some things that
I just can’t keep quiet about.

Via my friend and fellow ScienceBlogger Janet over at Adventures in
Ethics and Science
, I’ve heard about some absolutely disgraceful
antics by an animal rights group. To be clear, in what follows, I’m not saying that all animal rights folks are scumbags: I’m pointing out that there’s a specific group of animal rights folks who are sickening monsters for what they’re doing.

The background: There’s a neurobiologist named Dario Ringach. Professor
Ringach used to do research using primates. Back in 2006, when he did
that, animal rights targeted him, and his children. The did things
like vandalize his house, put on masks and bang on his childrens windows, and
protest at his children’s schools. Professor Ringach disappointingly but
understandably gave in, and abandoned his research in order to protect his

Fast forward a couple of years. Last week, Dr. Ringach, along with Janet and
several other people, participated in a public dialogue about animal
research at UCLA. Dr. Ringach spoke about why animal research is important. That’s
all that he did: present an explanation of why animal research is

For that, for being willing to participate in a discussion, for saying
something the animals right people didn’t like
, the animal rights thugs
have decided to protest. That’s bad enough: to stage disruptions against a
professor simply because he said something that you didn’t like. No, that’s
not enough for these rat bastard assholes. They’re going to stage protests at
his children’s school. They’re going to harass his children
to punish him for speaking when they want him to shut up.

I don’t care what you think of animal rights. I don’t care what you think
about any topic. Harassment isn’t an acceptable response to speech.
And no matter what, children should be off limits. Even if their father were
everything that the AR people claim that he is: if he really were a person who
tortured and murdered people for fun, going after his children would be
a disgusting, disgraceful, evil thing to do. To do it just because
he dared to talk about something they don’t like? These people deserve
to be publicly condemned, and criminally prosecuted. Threats and harassment
have no place in public discourse.

Personally, I’m a strong supporter of animal research. Of course it’s
important to minimize any pain and suffering that is inflicted on the animals
used in research – but people who do the research, and the organizations that
oversee them, are extremely careful about ensuring that. And animal research
shouldn’t be done for trivial purposes: the work must be important enough to
justify subjecting living creatures to it. But the results are worth the cost.
I can say for certain that I wouldn’t be alive today without the
results of animal research: I had life-saving surgery using a technique that
was developed using animals. I rely on medications that were originally
developed using animal models. My mother is alive today because of animal
research: she’s diabetic, and relies on both insulin and medications which
were developed using animal research. My father survived cancer for 15 years
because of animal research: his cancer was treated using a radiation therapy
technique that was generated using animal research. My sister isn’t a cripple
today, because of animal research. She had severe scoliosis which would have
crippled her, but which was corrected using a surgical technique developed
using animals. My wife would be terribly ill without animal research: she’s
got an autoimmune disorder that damages the thyroid; people with it need to
take thyroid hormone replacements, developed – all together now – using animal
research. I could easily go on: there’s probably barely a person alive today
who hasn’t benefited dramatically from animal research. It’s an essential
tool of science.

While I’m ranting: one of the common responses from the animal rights
people is that we don’t need animals for experimentation: we can use computer
simulation, which will (supposedly) be more accurate, because we can use human
biology in the simulation, whereas animals used as models are often
significantly different from humans, so that the results of tests on animals
don’t translate well to humans.

Everyone must, by now, have heard of the programmers mantra: GIGO: garbage
in, garbage out. A simulation is only as good as the knowledge of the person
who wrote it. You can only simulate what you understand. The problem
with computer models for medical tests is that most of the time, we don’t
how things work. The research is being done on animals precisely
because we don’t know enough about it to simulate it. For one simple example,
consider cancer. There’s a lot of animal research done where we basically
deliberately give cancer to an animal. We can’t simulate that, because the way
that cancers grow and spread is still a mystery. We don’t understand exactly
what triggers a cancer; we don’t completely understand the biological
processes going on in cancer cells, or exactly what the difference between a
cancer cell and a normal cell is. We can’t simulate that. Or, rather,
we can, but only as an experiment with a real-world counterpart to verify it.

In any case, getting back to the original point: it really doesn’t matter
whether you agree with animal research or not. The important point here is
that using intimidation, threats, and harassment the way these AR groups are
doing is absolutely, unequivocably wrong. And to extend it from the
scientist to his children is beyond wrong. It’s downright evil. And
to harass both the scientist and his children not for doing the
research that they object to, but for talking about why that research
is important? I simply do not have the words to express how repugnant it is.

Academia vs Industry: an Updated Opinion

One thing that continually amazes me is the amount of email I get from
readers of this blog asking for career advice. I usually try to just politely
decline; I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to give personal
advice to people that I don’t know personally.

But one thing that I have done before is shared a bit about my own
experience, and what I’ve learned about the different career paths that you
can follow as a computer science researher. About six months after I started
this blog, I wrote a post about working in academia versus working in
industry. I’ve been meaning to update it, because I’ve learned
a bit more in the last few years. When I wrote the first version, I
was a research staff member at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center. Since
then, I left IBM, and I’ve been an engineer at Google for 2 1/2 years.
Having spent a couple of years as a real full-time developer has
been a seriously educational (and humbling) experience. If you’d like
to look at the original to see how my thinking has changed, you can find it

At least as a computer scientist, there are basically three kinds of work
you can do that take advantage of a strong academic background like a PhD. You
can go into academia and do research; you can go into industry and do
research; or you can go into industry and do development. If you do
the last, you’ll likely be doing what’s sometimes called advanced
, which is building a system where you’ve got a specific
goal, where you need to produce something real – but it’s out on the edge of
what people really know how to do. You’re not really doing research, but
you’re not doing run-of-the-mill programming either: you’re doing full-scale
development of systems that require exploration and experimentation.

I’m going to talk about what the differences are between
academic research, industrial research, and advanced development in
terms of the basic tradeoffs. As I see it, there really five fundamental
areas where the three career paths differ:

  1. Freedom: In academia, you’ve got a lot of freedom to do
    what you want, to set your agenda. In industrial research, you’ve
    still got a lot of freedom, but you’re much more constrained: you
    actually need to answer to the company for what you do. And in AD,
    you’re even more constrained: you’re expected to produce a particular
    product. You generally have a decent amount of freedom to choose
    a product to work on, but once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much
    tied down.
  2. Funding: In academia, you frequently need to devote huge amounts
    of your time to getting funding for your work. In industrial research,
    there’s still a serious amount of work involved in getting and
    maintaining your funding, but it’s not the same order of magnitude
    as in academia. And in AD, you don’t really need to worry about funding
    at all.
  3. Time and Scale: Academic projects frequently have to be limited
    in scale – you’ve got finite resources, but you can plan out
    a research agenda years in advance; in industrial
    work (whether research or AD), you’ve got access to resources that
    an academic can only dream of, but you need to produce results
    now – forget about planning what you’ll be doing five years
    from now.
  4. Results: What you produce in the end is very different
    depending on which path you’re on. In academic research, you’ve got
    three real goals: get money, publish papers, and graduate students.
    In industry, you’re expected to produce something of value to
    the company – whether that’s a product, patents, reputation, depends
    on your circumstances – but you need to convince the company that
    you’re worth what they’re paying to have you. And in AD, you’re
    creating a product. You can publish papers along the way, and that’s
    great, but if you don’t have a valuable product at the end, no number
    of papers is going to convince anyone that your project wasn’t a failure.
  5. Impact: what kind of affect your work will have on
    the world/people/computers/software if it’s successful.

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The Conservative Rewrite of the Bible

This is really off-topic for GM/BM, but I just can’t resist
mocking the astonishing stupidity of the Conservapedia folks.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Andy Schafly and his pals are
working on a “new translation” of the bible. They say that they need to do this
in order to remove liberal bias, which is “the single biggest distortion in modern
Bible translations”. You see, “translation bias in converting the original language
to the modern one” is the largest source of what they call translation errors, and it
“requires conservative principles to reduce and eliminate”.

Plenty of people have mocked the foolishness of this. So many, in fact, that
I can’t decide which one to link to! But what’s been left out of all of the mockings
that I’ve seen so far is one incredibly important point.

What the “Conservative Bible Project” is doing is not translating
the bible. It is rewriting the bible to make it say what they want it to
say, without regard for what it actually says. These people, who insist
that every word of their holy texts must be taken as absolute literal truth
without interpretation — are rewriting their bibles to make it say
what they want it to say.

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The "Last Three Books" Meme

Via, a meme that I thought looked really interesting.
What were the last three genre books that you purchased? Why did you purchase them?
And do they feel comfortable together?

  1. Daniel Abraham,The Price of Spring (The Long Price Quartet): This is the conclusion to
    Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, which is a wonderful set of novels. Each
    volume of the quartet is a self-contained story – but the pieces also fit together
    into a larger story-arc. The volumes each take place over the course of a season,
    and each is separated by about 20 years. It’s fantasy with very rare but incredibly
    high-powered magic. Certain people can, after significant training, cause an
    abstract concept to become a real physical being, called an andat
    which they can control. For example, the first book in the quartet focuses
    on “Seedless”, aka “Removing the part that continues”, which is the embodiment
    of the idea of removing children – whether that means removing the seeds from
    a bale of picked cotton, or performing an abortion by removing and killing the
    unborn child. The last book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the ones
    before, but it’s still excellent. Why’d I buy it? Because I picked up the first one
    on a whim a while ago, and got hooked. I couldn’t wait to get the last volume. And
    you wanna talk cliffhangers? The last volume of this left every single woman in the home nation of the main characters, and every single man in the home nation of their enemies, completely sterile.
  2. Vernor Vinge, The Peace War: I haven’t started reading this one
    yet. Why’d I get it? Because Vinge is a genius. I’ve loved everything of his
    that I’ve read. But some of his early stuff, I was never able to find. Then a friend
    mentioned that it had become available for the Kindle! So I immediately ordered it.
    (And I do mean immediately – I didn’t even wait to get back to my desk – I pulled
    out my Android phone and ordered it from Amazon right in front of the coffee machine.)
  3. China Mieville, The City & The City: I just started this one;
    I’m about 70 pages in. It seems decent so far. The story of why I bought this
    one is interesting. Y’see, I don’t like Mieville. His writing always seems to
    me to be self-consciously but unsuccessfully stylistic – like Mieville sees
    himself as a brilliant prose stylist, while being unable to really pull off
    the brilliantly styled prose that he imagines he’s writing. But I keep getting
    his books – because I keep seeing reviews from people that I really respect
    that talk about how wonderful his prose is. I just don’t see it. He’s a decent
    storyteller – but I can’t see the beautiful prose that everyone talks about.
    It’s not that I don’t like artistically styled writing; I actually love things
    where I’m struck by the beauty of a phrase, and need to stop reading for a
    while just to bask in the beauty of the words; Brust’s “The funniest thing
    about time is when it doesn’t. I’ll leave that hanging there for the moment,
    and let you age while the shadows don’t lengthen, if you see what I mean.”
    from Yendi blows me away every time I read it. But Mieville just seems to be
    trying to write that way. Anyway, “The City and the City” is based
    on a wonderful idea, so I figured I’d give it a try. It’s a murder mystery set
    in a city which is spatially overlapped with another city. In some places (called
    “crosshatched regions”), you can see both cities at the same time unless you
    will yourself to “unsee” the other one; in other places, you’re solidly in one
    city or the other. And the two cities are actually different nations,
    so to cross from one to the other requires going through customs. Even
    not “unseeing” the other city is actually a crime. Brilliant idea; I’m really
    hoping he carries it off.

As for “are they comfortable together?” No, not really. We’ve got one
historical high-fantasy from an alternate earth; one gritty current-time
potboiler in a setting that has fantasy elements; and one far-future
hard science fiction. They really don’t make for comfortable neighbors.

So. What’s your three latest? Post ’em in the comments, or post ’em on
your own blog, and then link from the comments.

Very off topic: Why I won't be at my high school reunion

This comment thread has gotten long enough to start causing some server load problems. As a result, I’m closing the comments here, and I’ve added a new post where discussions of this past can continue.

If you’re not interested in completely off-topic personal rambling, stop reading now. This is very off-topic. But I wanted to say this once, and I wanted to do it in a way where I had some control over the publicly viewable responses. I will not be following my usual commenting guidelines here – anything which I consider to be abusive will be deleted, with no warning.

I graduated from high school in 1984. Which means that this year is my graduating class’s 25th year reunion. As a result, a bunch of people from my high school class have been trying to friend me on facebook, sending me email, and trying to convince me to come to the reunion.

I don’t feel like replying to them individually, which is why I’m writing here.

As pretty much any reader of this blog who isn’t a total idiot must have figured out by now, I’m a geek. I have been since I was a kid. My dad taught me about bell curves and standard deviations when I was in third grade, and I thought it was pretty much the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen. That’s the kind of kid I was. I was also very small – 5 foot 1 when I started high school, 5 foot three my junior year. Even when I shot up in height, to nearly 5 foot eleven between junior and senior year, I weighed under 120 pounds. So think small, skinny, hyperactive, geek.

Like most geek kids, I had a rough time in school. I don’t think that my experience was particularly unusual. I know a lot of people who had it worse. But I think that it was slightly worse than average, because the administration in the school system that I went to tolerated an extraordinary amount of violent bullying. Almost every geeky kid gets socially ostracized. Almost all get mocked. In fact, almost all face some physical abuse. The main determinant of just how much physical abuse they get subjected to is the school administration. And the administration at my school really didn’t care: “Bruises? He must just be uncoordinated and bumps into things. Broken fingers? Hey, it happens. We’re sure it must have been an accident. What do you want, an armed guard to follow your kid around?”

In high school, I didn’t have a single real friend in my graduating class. I had a very few friends who graduated a year before me; I had a few who graduated one or two years after me. But being absolutely literal, there was not a single person in my graduating class who came close to treating me like a friend. Not one.

Like I said before, the way I was by my classmates in high school was pretty typical for a geek. At best, I was ignored. At worst, I was beaten. In between, I was used as a sort of status enhancer: telling people that you’d seen me doing some supposedly awful or hysterical thing was a common scheme for getting ahead in certain social circles. In the most extreme case, someone painted a swastika onto the street in front of my house with gasoline, and lit it. (In autumn, in a wooded neighborhood.)

I’m can’t even pretend that I wasn’t an easy target, or that I didn’t respond in a way that encouraged my tormentors. I was a hyperactive geek. My social skills were awful. I don’t think that I deserved the way that I was treated; but at the same time, I do think that my hyperactivity and my lack of social skills both helped make me such a good target, and discouraged anyone from intervening on my behalf.

But I don’t think that that excuses anyone who abused me. It doesn’t excuse the bastards who made up stories about me. It doesn’t justify the people who threw me against walls. It doesn’t explain the guy who broke my fingers, because he wanted to know what it would sound like. And it doesn’t absolve the people who watched, and laughed while that happened.

Now it’s twenty five years since I got out of that miserable fucking hell-hole. And people from my high school class are suddenly getting in touch, sending me email, trying to friend me on Facebook, and trying to convince me to bring my family to the reunion. (It’s a picnic reunion, full family invited.) Even some of the people who used to beat the crap out of me on a regular basis are getting in touch as if we’re old friends.

My reaction to them… What the fuck is wrong with you people? Why would you think that I would want to have anything to do with you? How do you have the chutzpah to act as if we’re old friends? How dare you? I see the RSVP list that one of you sent me, and I literally feel nauseous just remembering your names.

The only positive thing that ever came out of my time with you people is that my children are studying karate. My son will, most likely, have his black belt by the time he finishes fourth grade. He’s a hyperactive little geek, just like me. He’ll probably go through some social grief, just like I did. But when some fucker like one of you tries to lay a hand on him or one of his friends, he’ll beat the living crap out of them. One of the mantras that his karate school follows is: Never start a fight, but if a fight starts, always be the one to finish it. And that’s what he’ll be able to do. To definitively finish any fight that anyone starts with him in a way that will teach his abusers and their cohorts to stay the fuck away.

And that’s all that I want from you. Stay the fuck away from me. I don’t want to hear about your lives. I don’t want to know how you’ve changed since high school. I don’t want to hear about your jobs, your spouses, your children. I’ve got a good life now, and I cannot imagine a reason in the world why I would pollute that world with contact with any of you.

Mental Illness – a personal perspective.

This is an edited repost of something I wrote nearly three years ago. You can see the original post and comments here.

Over at Dr. Isis’s blog, there’s a post answering a reader’s question about whether to tell her postdoc advisor about her troubles with clinical depression. I agree with Isis’s advice – without knowing the advisor really well, you can’t be sure of how they’ll react. If the postdoc had become ill due to something like a diabetic episode, where the change in schedule and environment caused by taking a new job messed up the PDs control of their blood sugar – well, there wouldn’t be an issue. The PD would be able tell their advisor they had a medical issue without worrying too much about repercussions. But mental illness is different: the fact is that there is a very strong stigma attached to mental illness, which makes it different from other illnesses.

This is something that’s very important to me. I have people very close to me who have dealt with profound mental illness, and I’ve seen them suffer from the effects of the stigma associated with it. And I am mentally ill myself: I have clinical depression.

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Commenting Problems

Just a quick status notice: a bunch of commenters have been having problems with the system demanding authetication to be able to comment. I’m trying to fix it with the help of the SB tech folks. My first attempt made things worse, and made it impossible for anyone to comment. I’m trying to re-enable comments now, but since I’m not sure what disabled them, I’m not sure of what will work. Commenting ability using typekey authentication will be re-enabled ASAP; and commenting without authentication will be re-enabled as soon as the SB techs can figure out what’s causing the authentication requirement.