My iPhone 5 review

IMG 0017

I purchased a new iPhone 5 last month[1]. I don’t want to do a full review–there are plenty of more qualified people who have done those already–but I wanted to touch on a few highlights and some things have struck me as I use it.

Much has been written and said about how this is not a revolutionary upgrade over the iPhone 4S. I think they’re right, but they’re also wrong in what that means. They acknowledge that the iPhone 5 is thinner, lighter, and taller with a bigger screen, but that there’s not much else new. But where I think the critics are wrong is in the comparison to last year’s model, the iPhone 4S. Unless you happen to make your living writing about technology–that is, if you’re not a normal consumer–you don’t upgrade your phone every year. Instead you don’t upgrade until your carrier gives you the okay, which is every two years. Thus the proper comparison is to the iPhone 4 and from that phone this is a big upgrade: The processor is much faster and everything about the iPhone feels zippier; I finally get access to Siri; The camera is a huge improvement.

In fact, I would say that there hasn’t been a truly revolutionary year-to-year upgrade since the iPhone 3G brought 3G speed, a real camera, GPS, and everything else. (Some might argue the Retina display upgrade from the 3GS to the iPhone 4 was revolutionary.) Since then it’s been incremental and evolutionary from year to year with enough features for the typical upgrader to buy a new phone.

Even though I do think the iPhone 5 is a great upgrade, I still might not have upgraded this year, except the home button on my iPhone 4 had stopped working.[2] That’s not to say that I don’t love my new iPhone. Like I said, evolutionary.

Improved features

IMG 0025

That said, it looks gorgeous. I opted to get the all-black version and it’s sharp. The aluminum back will be more durable than the glass, undoubtedly and the sharp, deep blacks of the Retina display blend seamlessly into the black bezel that surrounds it so that the display almost feels like it’s floating in space. The gorgeous contrast and brightness of the display almost demands a great black and white photo as your lock screen, like mine.[3]

From a more functional standpoint, I’m finding that I love Siri. Sure, it’s not perfect, but my understanding is that over time it will gain more and more functionality as Apple develops the server side[4]. Even now it’s very useful. Ironically, it’s restored a workflow I had four years ago that stopped working. I wrote in 2008 about how I used the now-defunct web service I Want Sandy and the now-defunct voice recognition service Jott to send stuff I wanted to remember to my task management app Omnifocus from my ancient Nokia dumb phone while on my interminable commute. Now, with Siri and the Omnifocus iPhone app (which work together), I’ve got that back and even better. I just tell Siri, “Remind me to…” or “Remember…” and it goes to my Omnifocus in-box.

I find Siri to be very useful in other ways as well. Launching apps with it can be faster than hunting among the several hundred apps in dozens of folders on multiple pages on my phone. Playing music can be good too, although sometimes Siri has difficulty understanding what I’m asking for. For instance, when I ask for “Matisyahu”, she[5] thinks I’m saying “modest Yahoo”. If I ask for his song “Miracle”, she plays Kenny G’s “Miracles”. If I ask by the iTunes partial album “Miracle-Single”, I get Darlene Zschech’s song “Miracle” on her iTunes partial album “Miracle-Single”. I have too many songs in iTunes that refer to miracles.

When introducing iOS 6, Apple made a big deal about Siri being better at sports, movies, and restaurants. Since Melanie and I almost never get to go to the type of restaurant at which we can make reservations, that part goes unused as does the movie theater bit. (We go to the movies about as often as we go to fancy restaurants, which is to say never.) But I regularly make us of her ability to tell me about the weather or to give me information about sports.[6] She’s also great at providing random information, such as the kind the kids ask for, like what time is it in Australia right now and is it daytime or nighttime there.

What else do I like about the iPhone 5? As I said before, the camera is a big improvement, especially in low light conditions. (There have been some complaints about purple hazing under some conditions, but my solution is simple: Don’t do that.)

The larger screen is nice, although I can’t say I felt cramped on the old screen. Having a fifth row of icons on the main screen does mean I don’t have to dig quite so deep for more of my apps.

Other improvements are due to the iOS 6 upgrade available to many iPhones and iPads so I won’t include those as iPhone 5 improvements.

Like I said it’s not revolutionary. Instead, I would say that iPhone 5 is about polishing the jewel, not mining the raw diamond and cutting its facets. I love this phone. It’s the best iPhone I’ve ever had and part of the reason for that is that it’s not a huge change from what came before. How much more perfect can perfect get in one year increments?

  1. My tale of woe in ordering the phone may amuse you. I tried to order it as soon as pre-ordering opened on Friday, September 14 at 3am Eastern (since Sophia had conveniently woken me up to tuck her back in) and then realized I wouldn’t be able to. We were headed to Texas the following week for my brother-in-law’s wedding and Apple’s order system wouldn’t let me change the shipping address from my billing address to my in-laws’ house. So I went back to bed and got up at 7am and the shipping time had slipped to two weeks by then, at which date we’d be home.  ↩


  3. You can continue to use your iPhone if your home button stops working by going to Settings > General > Accessibility and turning on AssistiveTouch. This puts a movable software button on your screen that when you touch it gives you access to a number of hardware functions, including the home button.  ↩


  5. The image on my screen above is from the awesome historical photo website, This particular image dates to 1943 and shows a dock stevedore at the the Fulton Fish Market in New York holding an immense lobster claw. Compare it to the still-large lobster in his other hand to get an idea of how big this monster must have been.  ↩


  7. Much of Siri’s functionality happens off the iPhone in Apple’s servers somewhere on the Internet, which is why it requires you to have an Internet connection to work.  ↩


  9. Apple officially does not refer to Siri by gender, but it’s a female voice and so I will anthropomorphize it.   ↩


  11. Even here there are limits. She can give me the AFC East standings and tell me who is playing whom, at what time and on what channel, but she can’t tell me when their bye week is. And while she recognizes NASCAR as a sport, she admits she can tell me nothing about it. Way to be all blue state, Siri.  ↩



A Day at the (Ren) Faire

King Richard's Faire

We went to King Richard’s Faire on Saturday. It’s a classic Reniassance fair which has been operating in the town of Carver, south of Boston, for the past 31 years. It’s quite an operation these days, with permanent structures that stay up year round and a huge staff of performers and behind-the-scenes workers.

We went two years ago because we got a good deal on a Groupon, which is good because the whole deal is so expensive. Normally, adult tickets are $27 each and kids 4–11 are $15.[1] Well we got the same deal again this year which was two adult tickets for $29. So we spent about $45 to get in.

Of course, the spending doesn’t end there. The food prices are exorbitant, especially for the quality of what you’re getting. And they do this food ticket thing which hides the actual price of the item at the time of purchase and also lets them require minimum purchases. You end up buying more tickets than you need and there are no refunds on unused tickets.[2] Plus other fees for games and mazes and rides. It adds up quickly.

We tried to circumvent the overspending by bringing our lunch, because it doesn’t say anywhere on their website that you can’t bring in outside food. Alas, that sign is on the front gate. Likewise the notice that they don’t take credit cards for tickets is buried on the site. But they do have handy ATMs… with a $3.00 surcharge.

Nevertheless we did have some fun… after we realized in the parking lot, following our one hour drive, that we’d forgotten the diaper bag at home. Luckily, we’d packed the sippy cups separately and Melanie had put one emergency diaper and wipes in the glove box just the other day. We decided to brave it and it turned out okay.

Oh yeah, the fun. Of course, the jousting is the big deal. Knights on horseback crashing into one another at full tilt. It’s all playacting, I know, but Isabella and Sophia loved it. I think the galloping horses were the highlight for Sophia. Ben, however, did not like the noise of the accompanying drums and cymbals nor the spray of sand and hay as the horses galloped past. Melanie had to take him out in the middle of the event.

We also spent time wandering from place to place, seeing the occasional humorous show put on by performers doing a comedy bit with swordplay or jugglers or a storyteller. The girls especially loved the princess academy where they got to meet the princess and her court and learn courtly manners and then meet the queen herself.

The Ren Faire Phenomenon

There was also lots of opportunity for people watching. It’s a curious thing, these Ren faires. Lots of people were in costumes of all kinds and of varying levels of authenticity with most not very authentic at all. It was fun to see people in out-of-the-ordinary period costumes like the Saracen and the Scottish Highlander. On the other hand, there was an inordinate number of pirates, pointy-eared elves, and even a family of vampires(?).

But one thing that really stood out to me was the unbalanced ratio of bawdy wenches to noble ladies. In fact, it was more like 30 to one. For every woman in a demure dress designed to make her look like a woman of noble bearing from the Middle Ages, there were a couple of dozen in dresses designed to make their breasts hang out. (It’s such a phenomenon that this weekend they held a cleavage contest for best, well, you know.) What is it that makes women prefer to be wenches instead of ladies? Women used to (and some still do) want to be pursued by a gentleman instead of throwing themselves as a sex object at every man.

General bawdiness actually seemed to be the rule at the fair. Even in shows aimed at children there were oblique sex jokes and liberal use of the words “damn” and “ass”. (I just know this post is going to make some people’s Internet filters block my blog.)

Thine Elephant in Ye Olde Roome

I wonder if some of that stems from what was distinctly lacking from a fair designed to portray life in Medieval or Renaissance England[3]: any mention of the Christian faith.

The Church was a major part of life in those centuries, even including the Protestant churches after the Reformation, so what happens when you excise it? You end up with an idealized view based on an anti-authoritarian wish fulfilment. Let’s face it: Ren faires grew out of the Sixties hippy movement, a rejection of authority and a harkening back to an imagined time of free love and unbridled fun. Likewise, I think the accompanying fascination with the occult and Wiccanism is part of that. In the Middle Ages, anti-authoritarianism still looked pretty much Christian, but that’s still too Christian for today, so it’s something even further afield. Which isn’t too say that there wasn’t evidence of the Christian roots of merry olde England, whether it’s the knights’ cheers of “For God and King!” or the subtle pattern of the Chi Rho embroidered in the queen’s gown.

In the end, however, King Richard’s Faire was mainly good, if expensive, fun and a chance to glimpse a different reality for a day. I do have to say in conclusion that it wouldn’t take a lot of encouragement to get me to start re-enacting in that world, although I think I would tend toward the SCA’s authenticity over the Ren faire’s loosey-goosey attitude. If you’re going to do it, re-enact authentically.

  1. Do the math and you realize pre-teens and teens get charged the full adult rate!  ↩


  3. The tickets are 50 cents a piece and you must buy at least $5 worth at a time. A sheet of 40 tickets is $20. Meanwhile, french fries are 12 tickets and a sandwich is 16 and two ice cream cones is 18 because I have all these extra tickets and what do I do with this 1 extra ticket left over at the end? Oh well, it’s non-refundable so something was 50 cents more expensive today.  ↩


  5. They aren’t exactly clear on their time period and even the regular players are mish mash of different eras and even different societies. I suppose the reality–no pun intended–is that it’s really a fairy tale period and not supposed to be any particular real time. This isn’t the Society for Creative Anachronism with its penchant for accurate re-enactment. It’s a theme park.  ↩


Photo from Flickr user C.C. Chapman. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Catholic New Media Conference 2012 Recap


This past week was the 5th Catholic New Media Conference and it was held in Arlington, Texas, alongside the Catholic Marketing Network trade show and the Catholic Writers’ Guild conference.

This was my third CNMC–my first was in Boston in 2010 and last year I attended in Kansas City, Kansas–and I have to say that each year it improves, not because of some deficiency in the past events, but as a natural growth as more and more people become involved.

I won’t go through a detailed play-by-play of everything that happened, but I’d like to give my impressions. The first day included some Main Track events as well as the first Catholic Tech Summit. The latter was particularly interesting to me because of my work as Creative Director for New Media at the Archdiocese of Boston. Josh Simmons’ talk on the 7 keys to a great organization website was both an affirmation of the work we’ve been doing as well as the source of some good ideas for how we can improve. Pat Padley’s expert explanation of how to create a winning digital strategy (based on his professional work for very large corporate brands) will pay dividends as we implement those ideas for the Church.

The discussion moderated by Matt Warner and Jeff Geerling on Catholic standards and APIs could be just the start of a very important effort that will result in a unity among Catholic developers and end users, including parishes, ministries, and dioceses. During the discussion, I said that dioceses often have multi-faceted needs and we turn to very expensive big-company solutions, which are sometimes too expensive to afford. But if there were a common API and true interoperability, we could break down those problems into smaller chunks that we could address over time. In addition, the software for those smaller parts could be written by smaller developers, opening up the market much wider.

I didn’t stick around for a couple of the late afternoon and evening events because I was meeting my sister-in-law Theresa for lunch. She lives in Plano and works in Dallas now, so we agreed to meet a Chinese restaurant she knows about in Arlington. Unfortunately, rush-hour traffic in Dallas is as bad as it is in Boston, plus she ran out of gas, and oh by the way, there was both a baseball game at the Ballpark at Arlington and a football game at Cowboy Stadium right outside the convention center which didn’t delay me, but all of which in fact made Theresa two-and-a-half hours late. Hunger may be the best sauce, but the food at First Chinese BBQ was excellent. The portions were huge and the price was cheap. Plus so authentic.

On Thursday, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen kicked things off with a retrospective of the past seven years of Catholic new media, by which they are measuring time by their own work in Catholic new media. For some of us, ahem, we’ve been working in Catholic new media a lot longer. After all, Catholic World News began with me and Phil Lawler way back in 1996 and there were others even before that. But I understand that Fr. Roderick was using his own perspective to show how quickly the field of new media changes. For example, seven years ago Facebook was still a quirky little website for college kids.

Elizabeth Scalia’s keynote on new media and the new evangelization managed to be both humbling and inspiring. I am a big fan of her blog The Anchoress for her ability to excel at both the spiritual writing as well as the cultural and political observations, and all her editing work over at Patheos where she has brought an amazing gallery of some of the best Catholic bloggers.

Rob Kaczmark of Spirit Juice Studios, which produces some of the best Catholic videos on YouTube, which isn’t to say they don’t do a lot of other regular commercial work too. Anyway, Rob reviewed the videos of the top ten Catholic YouTube channels and then the top ten mainstream channels. The results weren’t even close. Even for most of the professional Catholic channels, the quality wasn’t as high as even some of the one-man secular channels. Rob drove home the point that (a) details–like proper hair and makeup for everyone in every shoot–matter and that (b) quality isn’t about your budget, but it’s about your attitude and unwillingness to settle for anything less than your best.

Following up on that talk was Brandon Vogt’s, which in my estimation may have been the best of the conference. Brandon is a rising star in Catholic new media, not least because of his book “The Church and New Media”. (I joked at one point that Brandon was mentioned by name by every other speaker at the conference. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.) That reputation is well-deserved because Brandon is knowledgeable about new media, persuasive in his delivery, and has a knack for explaining things in an accessible way. Brandon’s presentation showed how Mormons, Protestants, and Atheists are using new media in ways that put Catholics to shame, and of course what lessons we could take from them. I was particularly impressed by the work of the Mormons, from their beautiful websites to their incredible work in search-engine optimization to the “why didn’t I think of that” concept of their LDSTech website, which matches up volunteer technology professionals with church technology projects. It’s genius.

Later was the talk by Bishop Christopher Coyne, who has also become a rock star for Catholic new media folk. More than once I saw someone taking him aside to ask him how to approach their bishop about one new media idea or another. Bishop Coyne’s topic was about being the bearer of the Good News within a digital culture, which means we need to stop shooting each other in the foxhole and start treating one another like Christians.

That night was a dinner for both the CNMC crowd and the Catholic Marketing Network hosted by Ignatius Press. There was a little too much talking, but the highlight was the performance by country music star (and Catholic convert) Collin Raye, who also spoke about the brief life and death of his granddaughter from an undiagnosed neurological condition at 10 years old.

Friday was devoted to the topic of blogging and it started with a keynote by Jennifer Fulwiler, who gave an amazing synopsis of the spirituality of blogging. The two other highlights of the day were Dorian Speed’s talk on building a blog community (Dorian is so entertaining, I’d listen to her read the phone book) and Julie Davis’ talk on Catholic bloggers as the 1st Corinthians of the internet. (It’s not necessary a complimentary comparison; go read what those Corinthians were like.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay for what I heard was a great panel discussion on blogging because I had to catch my flight home. But overall, once again, the CNMC has proven to be an indispensable opportunity to get together with likeminded individuals and inspire one another, not to mention to actually see face to face some of these people I’ve been talking with for ages online.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t end without giving a public thank you to our online friend MamaT of the Summa Mamas, who heard my online plea for a place to stay in the Dallas area for the CNMC and opened up her home for me. While I didn’t spend as much time with her and her husband as I could have wished, we did have some very nice late evening conversations. (I was up and out of the house very early most days and back very late.)

So now the CNMC is ended for another year and most attendees are already wondering when and where the next one will be. I know that I for one will be there wherever it is. After all, the lessons learned and the relationships forged are invaluable.

Photo by Flickr user OntheU (Steve Nelson)


How to Keep PowerPoint From Killing Your Business

Audiences Hate Powerpoint

Phil Lawler expresses the same frustration many of us have with dull, droning PowerPoint presentations.

Consider how the omnipresent use of PowerPoint—with its attendant boundaries of bullet points and slides—actually limit innovation and communication in corporations. If it can’t be boiled down to easily digested bits of information—the Ivy League business school equivalent of food-processorized Chicken McNuggets—it can’t be communicated to management and colleagues and clients and thus it it ends up on the virtual cutting room floor. (Ah, mixed metaphors!)

And yet presentations don’t have to be evil. Go ahead and give all the detailed stuff in bullet-point handouts, but keep the presentation light. Use imagery (no clipart!) and headlines instead of bullets or, God forbid, bullets. Talk off the top of your head; don’t drone from written notes.

Heck, I know people who connect their iPad to a projector and *draw* their presentation on the fly! Now that’s creative!

Now some will rightly point out: “But Dom, I’ve seen your presentations and you have bullet points!” Yes, I have done that. And I hang my head in shame because when I’m running out of time and rushing it’s easy to fall back on bullet points (think of that next time you see a heavily bullet-pointed presentation). On the other hand, I never, ever resort to just reading them through. I figure if you can see it on the screen and in your handout, you don’t need me to read it to you.

So for the love of innovation and for the continued patriotic dominance of American industry throughout the world, I implore you to stop reading your bullet points word for word and to break out of the Microsoft PowerPoint box.

N.B. Incidentally I prefer Apple’s Keynote presentation software. For one thing it’s design more readily accommodates breaking from the PowerPoint paradigm. Plus it works more like Mac software.

Photo by Chris Pirillo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

John 6:60 is Consolation for Priests, Deacons, Bishops

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

While much of the discussion of the Mass readings for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time focuses on the second reading from the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, with it’s talk of submission, I think today’s Gospel shouldn’t be overlooked.

I particular, I think the end of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel should provide consolation to every priest and deacon who’s ever given a homily or teaching that’s fallen flat.

Imagine: Jesus has just laid out for his disciples the awesome reality of the Eucharist–the source and summit of the Christian life and the centerpiece of Christian faith and worship for the rest of time. And what was their reaction? Most of his disciples walked out on him, unable to accept what this man they’d been calling messiah and teacher was telling them. And as for the rest,cell, Peter sums it up on their behalf, saying essentially, We don’t know what to make of this crazy talk but we trust you so we’ll stick around. That is, unless you can find someone else with the words of eternal life but who doesn’t have crazy “eat my flesh” teachings.

Even Jesus seems resigned to losing them all as a result of preaching the truth: Will you leave me too? It’s like he expects them to.

Again, this should console every Christian preacher and teacher, every bishop, priest and deacon. Get up and preach the hard truths. Don’t water it down, don’t apologize for it. Some will walk away angry. Some will stay, confused but loyal. And some few may actually understand. But whatever the case rest assured you aren’t the first to go there. It even happened to God.

N.B. We did have an awesome homily on Ephesians 5 today by Fr. Matt, the priest in residence at our parish who is the director of the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. Among other things, he incorporated the 1986 Peter Cetera hit “The Glory of Love”, especially these lyrics:

I’m a man who will fight for your honor/
I’ll be the hero you’re dreaming of/
We’ll live forever/
Knowing together that/
We did it all for the glory of love

He said this is both what a Christian husband says to his wife and what Christ says to us.

Then Fr. Matt gently castigated those who are uncomfortable with Ephesians 5 but have no trouble with reading 50 Shades of Grey, which really does demean and subjugate a woman.

He hit this one out of the ballpark. And did so despite the fact that Anthony bolted from the pew in the middle of the homily to find his mother who was with Ben in the back of the church. But that’s another story.


USS Constitution sails again

For only the second time in the past century the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, sailed under her own power in Boston harbor.

The sailing marked the 200th anniversary of her landmark battle versus the HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812, in which she became the first US warship to defeat a British warship of equal size and power. It’s also the action in which she earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” for the way in which the British man-o-war’s cannonballs bounced off her sides.

The last time she sailed was in 1997 on her 200th birthday. She was towed up to Marblehead, Mass., the birthplace of the US Navy, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, for a week of festivities including lots of Navy brass. Even the network morning shows came up to broadcast live from the shore of Marblehead for the final sailing. I was there too, standing on the shore at the crack of dawn to see her towed out to sea where she put up her sails for the first time and made her way as the Grand Dame she is.

Then in 2007, I had the opportunity to be aboard the Constitution during her annual July 4 turnaround cruise. My dad had come to know one of the former commanders of the ship and got two of the precious tickets for the public. That was an awesome experience and an amazing day. Among other things I was able to record video of the 21-gun salute as it was fired from the gun deck.

So you can imagine that when I heard about today, I very much wanted to go see it. The sail was to occur in Boston Harbor (map), as she would be towed out to President Roads then turned around whereupon she would set her sails for the return journey. Thus the ideal spot would be Castle Island in South Boston.

Unfortunately, Mass for us is 9:30 am and by the time we got done and would have been able to get to Castle Island would have been too late to get through the crowds into a decent viewing position, not to mention the starving children.

Ah well, maybe someday she will sail again for a third time in my lifetime. Hmm, maybe too much to ask.

What web designers can do for more password strength


Password security has been in the news lately and so the last few days I’ve been slogging through a long-neglected project replacing all the insecure passwords I’ve used over the years on various websites with new, very strong passwords.

(I use 1Password from Agile Bits Software for my password management. It’s available for all major platforms, Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. It’s powerful, easy to use, secure, and allows you to sync your passwords across all platforms.)

Something I’ve discovered is a discouraging tendency among the user interface designers for many e-commerce websites to fail to provide a good experience to their users to encourage good password discipline.

For one thing, they often fail to give you any requirements for passwords up front. I typically use a 20-character password consisting of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. I can’t tell you how many times I have submitted a new password along those lines only to receive an error message that I couldn’t use symbols or that the password had to be shorter. You should never present necessary information for the first time to the user in an error message after their first attempt. In a sense, you’ve created a Soup Nazi customer service experience. It’s a minor annoyance, but the customer’s attempt to do something that seemed completely valid received the equivalent of a hand-smack and makes them feel stupid at some level.

Another troublesome trend is from websites that put an upper limit on the length of passwords. I understand that when you have hundreds of thousands of users, an extra dozen characters to store in a database will take up, oh wait, 3.5 megabytes of disk space. If you have that many users, you can afford the disk space. What’s even more disturbing is that some large sites, like CafePress, which handles financial transactions on behalf of users, puts a maximum length of 10 characters on its user passwords! That’s hardly suitable, according to many security-minded folks. In fact, I think that should be a minimum password length.

Something else to be wary of in account security is the use of security questions. The best security questions ask for obscure questions that only you will know. Unfortunately, what you often get asked for is your mother’s maiden name or the city where you were born. In this day of massive Internet databases, that information is all too easily found. Other answers might be similarly easy to mine if you’ve talked about yourself at any length on a blog or social network. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s personal email was hacked because the security questions on her email provider asked for data that was available in her public biography.

The best security questions are open-ended. They let you devise your own questions you will answer. Second best are a large selection of questions that ask you for some obscure information. But even if the site asks for some obvious data, keep in mind, you don’t have to tell the truth. Make up fake answers. Just be sure to remember your mis-answer or record it somewhere secure, such as 1Password.

Far too many people still use easily cracked passwords. Many security studies have shown the most commonly used password is, in fact, password. The rest of the top 25 list is similarly maddening from a security perspective. (Also, I am always appalled at the password-insecurity of even my friends and colleagues who are technologically sophisticated.)

So like with locking your car door to keep your car from being easy pickings by opportunistic car thieves, your goal is not to be perfectly secure from hacking, but making your passwords less hackable than the majority. After all, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the guy whose password is password.

Padlock by zebble, on Flickr

Social networks should be more like email, less like AOL

My social networks

The owner of a company developing a product based on the Facebook Platform has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg describing how Facebook, at first, encouraged him to develop his software and then tried to force him to sell or be destroyed by a competing product from Facebook. Dalton Caldwell then goes on to talk about his new quixotic quest to develop a paid alternative social network that treats users as customers rather than the product being sold to advertisers.

It sounds a little ridiculous to suggest that a little company could overtake Facebook with its 1-billion-plus users and Twitter with 500-million and Google+, which is backed by the Internet giant. On the other maybe it’s not that one small company could overtake, but many. Maybe social networks should work more like email.

The situation today is like the old days of Compuserve and AOL and Prodigy. Those of us who were around them can recall that we were on islands on the Internet, in small communities that had minimal connection to one another. I remember the day we could finally email someone at AOL from our Compuserve accounts. It was astonishing to think we could cross over the walls that separated us. We were on the Internet.

Today’s social networks are like that. Facebook and Twitter are giant islands. Sure there’s some interoperability, but it’s at the mercy of FB’s and Twitter’s and Google’s whim. If they decide to an API developer’s business is too good, they just acqui-hire or develop their own version. Think of Instagram’s purchase by Facebook or Tweetdeck’s purchase by Twitter. The big social networks are beholden more to their advertisers than to their users and so they’re more interested in protecting their revenue sources and keeping your eyeballs captured within the boundaries they define. You’re stuck inside their walled gardens.

Maybe social networks should work more like email. We would buy service from an “on-ramp” service, someone who gives us access to The Social Network, not one site but a “cloud” that isn’t under any one person or group’s control, and using common open protocols we communicate with one another. So whether I’m on Twitter and you’re on Facebook and he’s on Google+, we can talk without any funny business from the common carriers. And then each company can differentiate and attract users by offering added value services. Those who want free service can continue to be treated like a commodity on the old guard, just like those on Hotmail or Gmail get free email service at the price of being mined for demographics so that personalized ads can be served to them. Or you can pay for your service, maybe even set up your own little domain, and connect to the wider Social Network that way. And if you don’t like your provider, you switch to a new one. Just like email.

The big social networking behemoths wouldn’t go for it, of course. The status quo benefits them in the short term. But maybe if enough small upstarts worked together to create alternative, they wouldn’t have a choice.

Think it’s unlikely? Remember that AOL used to be the biggest Internet company in the world. Nothing is forever and even the mightiest can be humbled.

(CC) Gavin Llewellyn.

Our hometown pizza glut

Pizza Box!

The little Boston suburb we live in has about 11,000 residents. That’s pretty average by Massachusetts standards–in fact, it’s right about the mean for population of cities and towns in this state–although that also includes the tiny rural communities in the central and western parts of the state. For the area around Boston, we’re pretty small and easily overlooked. Yet for such a small town, we have a glut of pizza shops. It’s mind boggling.

According to a 2011 pizza industry report, Massachusetts is the state with the highest per capita number of pizza shops in the nation at 3.4 shops per 10,000 people. And how many does our small town of 11,000 have? Six. Yes, six. Nearly twice the per capita of the state with the highest per capita in the US.

We also have two Dunkin Donuts (within about a quarter-mile of each other), two breakfast/lunch places, a dive Chinese restaurant of the sort that seems to make most of its money from its bar, a sit-down family-style, sports-bar-ish restaurant, and a Burger King. And six pizza shops.

It’s not like our town can actually sustain six of them. Just as we moved into town almost 4 years ago, the local Domino’s (seven!) closed its doors. In the past year, two of the six have closed and changed hands. In the past four years, at least one other place has closed and re-opened under new management as well. (This one has become our favorite because their hot wings are great and we can order through their website, a convenience not to be underestimated when dealing with four hungry, hyper kids at 5pm. Phone calls are to be avoided at this time.)

The closest pizza place to us, about a quarter-mile away, closed about a year ago, I think, and several months ago, we saw work begin on the renovations of the closed store. What is it going to be, we asked ourselves, and we half-jokingly guessed at an authentic Mexican taco stand, a small sushi bar, a cute Indian cafe.

No, we got another pizza place. And I’m not confident this one’s going to be around that long.

For one thing, they don’t do delivery. In this day and age, if you sell pizza, you have to deliver, especially if your restaurant has no parking to speak of, as this one doesn’t. Even the venerable Italian grandma’s place downtown that sells pizza but tried to remain a classic, red-sauce Italian restaurant has started delivering.

The second strike against the new place is that they’ve done zero marketing. Keep in mind that in our area, when a new restaurant that does delivery opens up within a four-town radius of us, we get their menu in the mail right away. The new pizza place has been open for a couple of months now and we’ve received nothing. I’ve gone online to search for their website. Nothing. (Construction of the restaurant took months, perhaps six or more. At one point, I thought they’d given up. That should be plenty of time to come up with some kind of website, never mind a marketing plan.)

In fact, the extent of their marketing appears to be a three-foot by two-foot signboard out front on the street with their three telephone numbers handwritten on them all cramped so that it’s impossible to read when driving by at the marked speed limit, never mind memorize for later use.

If you’re going to open a restaurant in this economy, you have to have a rock-solid plan, a way to ensure that you’ll reach your customers. But then what should we expect from someone who opened another pizza shop in a town that has twice the per capita pizza shops of the entire state which leads the nation in per capita pizza shops in the same place another pizza shop failed just last year?

Oh well, maybe when this one closes someone will open a sushi place. Keep the hope alive.

Pizza Box! by joebeone, on Flickr

Would you give up some privacy for lower premiums?

So the Progressive insurance company has a new product that lets you earn a discount by plugging in a little dongle to your car that reports on your driving habits. It raises some interesting questions about how much privacy we’re willing to give up, not to the government, but to a corporation.

At first, it’s very off putting because we can imagine how we could be penalized for bad driving – or even the kind of driving we do every day if they deem it to constitute a bad risk. Of course, there’s only so much data they can collect from today’s cars, like engine RPM and acceleration. And Progressive, at least for now, promises that your rates can’t go up based on the data they collect.

On the other hand, let’s take it a step further. What if they could collect data on things like attentiveness, how well you change lanes, whether you’re prone to jackrabbit starts or abrupt stops? (Such things would be possible if the car’s computer collected data like turn signal activation or if an eye-tracking camera were mounted on the visor or rearview mirror.)

Right now insurance companies base their premiums on general demographic data–age, gender, where you live, what kind of car you drive– plus your driving history, i.e. tickets and accidents. But if they had more data about your specific driving, they could better assess how much of a risk you are. There are some people who are effectively a zero risk. I can imagine they might offered a near-zero premium.

Conversely, a driver who is a higher risk might pay a higher premium. However, what if the insurance company could incentivize bad drivers to become better drivers? Perhaps on a month-by-month basis they could provide feedback to the drivers with ways to improve their driving, maybe with free training. And maybe they would say something like, “If you change these factors next month, we will reduce your premium next month by $50.”

Not only would that help reduce the risks for the insurance carriers from those drivers, but they would also reduce the risk for their good drivers as well.

With a few bits of already available technology, this could be a reality. It would take changes in what data cars record, thus how automakers build them, as well as a change in the regulatory environments in most states, but it’s something to think about.