The President Gives us Permission to be Optimistic

Over the weekend I made the pilgrimage to Washington D.C. for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Attending an inauguration in a packed city is not a simple logistical feat. Many roads are closed and the metro is jam packed with people. Luckily some law school friends of mine rent an apartment about ten blocks from the Capitol, and they let me crash there the night before. I only had to wake-up at 8 a.m. for President Obama’s noon speech. The wait was long and cold. I was tired. However I was happy to be there.

We live in a world of cynics. People and pundits dismiss politicians as corrupt and the voters as stupid. For better or worse, the mainstream view of politics and government is rather dim. Lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats are often greeted with skepticism. Yet in spite of all this cynicism about the process and our future, President Obama walked onto the stage and gave us permission to be optimistic.

This stood in stark contrast to the story you may not have heard about the man in the tree. He rightfully was not given time on the television cameras or radio feeds, but for those in attendance the man pictured below was quite the annoyance. He began his arboreal ascent around 9 a.m. when he unfurled a sign and started shouting unintelligible things. Eventually we were able to discern that he was protesting abortion. The Capitol police were apparently flummoxed at how to react to his presence. They yelled at him to come down and subsequently deployed two ladders onto the tree. They climbed up and he climbed higher. Then they backed down. It was too dangerous for them to follow him further.

So high atop the tree he sat for a couple hours, resting. Then, as the benediction began, he started shouting. He called Obama the anti-christ and begged the crowd to end the American holocaust. There were some bouts of shouting and angry tweeting at the man, but for the most part the large crowd managed to ignore him.

As irritating as he was, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that the man in the tree sat there shouting for hours unharmed while the President delivered his inaugural address. In more repressive regimes he may have been shot or knocked down without concern for his safety. However it is also a testament to the American people that when confronted with the man’s gospel of fear and cynicism they ignored it and accepted their President’s invitation to be optimistic.

Over the past four years, President Obama and the American people had a tough Act I. The economy still has some ways to recover and we still have problems to solve. Yet where everyone else sees roadblocks the President only seems to see speed bumps. He has made tangible progress in areas like healthcare, immigration, and civil rights. For that reason, in spite of how unnerving challenges like the fiscal cliff are, I am still excited to see what awaits us in Act 2.

Saving Wethersfield's Wilkus Farm

Last night I attended an organizational meeting of people interested in saving the Wilkus Farm in Wethersfield. A few years ago the residents of my town voted in a referendum to preserve the farm as open space. However the Town Council has recently moved towards swapping some of the land for land on Goff Road. This is in spite of the fact that there is a farmer that wants to buy the land, improve it, and use it for farming. That bid is one that I and many others in town support.

There were a few facts that stood out at this organizational meeting. First is the sheer number of people (of all political affiliations) that came together in one room to support this cause. Secondarily was that Rick, a friend of mine, noted that in the meetings leading up to this one, there were not a lot of people turning out to oppose the idea of the land swap. Meanwhile the Council pointed out they received many letters in support of a land swap. The unofficial chair of the evening, Bill Knapp, noted that he encountered people in the library that were unaware that this was an issue. It was the general consensus in town that the land had been preserved, even though that technically was not the case.

The lesson from this meeting was simple: decisions are made by people that show-up. The group agreed that it was important to have a presence at the next Town Council meeting. The hope is that the councilors will see how many people support having a farmer instead of having a developer build houses and change their position. Otherwise we will have to engage in a referendum effort if we wish to prevent the land swap.

Hartford's Spotlight Theater: Affordable and Hip

A few weeks ago the Spotlight Movie Theater opened as the first tenant in the new Front Street development in Hartford. After all the buzz surrounding its opening I decided to visit it with a friend.  We went to see The Hobbit on Thursday night, and I was impressed.

The first thing that works well for the theater is its location. It is right near the Arch Street tavern and easily accessible from the highway. It is a quicker drive than the cinema in Berlin that I went to as a child. Many people from suburbia worry about parking in Hartford, but it is not a problem when you are visiting Spotlight. There is free street parking at night on Arch Street, some free parking spaces on Front Street in front of the theater entrance, and a big parking garage adjacent to the development that only costs $2 if you validate your parking ticket at the theater. Suffice to say you won’t have difficulty finding a space.

The theater itself looks modern and posh. When you walk into the theater the ticket and concession stand (they are combined) are directly in front while the bar and restaurant sections are on the left. There are two theaters to your right and then two theaters located behind the restaurant. The integrated nature of the complex was a bit disorienting at first. The rope lines that typically segregate the theaters from the rest of the establishment were not present here. Once you buy your ticket at the register you are free to roam and enjoy yourself.

The bar is the typical rectangle setup with several local beers on tap along with wines and other liquors. There were only a couple other patrons there when I visited Thursday night, which was probably disappointing for a bar and restaurant. However it seemed about right for a movie theater on a Thursday night. The prices at the bar were comparable to similar establishments in Hartford or West Hartford Center. I did not sample the food so I will have to save that for next time.

After entering the theater I sat in a chair that felt like nesting in a cloud. There was ample body and leg space along with cup holders on the armrests to hold an adult (or non-adult) beverage. The projection of the movie was uniform (no overly dark or bright spots) and was in perfect focus. I did not notice popping or any sound artifacts from the surround sound speakers. I do not know what heaven is like, but if I ever go there I sure hope it feels like that.

Overall I give Spotlight 4 out of 5 stars. Its only drawback is having only four theaters limits the selection of movies it shows at any one time. I will be back to sample the food in the future.

How The Internet and Mobile Will Change in 2013

You can already see it, but the free ride is coming to an end. Up until now most Internet presence, content, and software has been subsidized by angels and venture capitalists, advertisers, or revenue from non-Internet sources. Some recent articles suggest that the venture money is drying up. This means that companies that were providing free rides (such as facebook) have to start building up other revenue streams. For facebook and others advertising is the first place to look.

We already have seen facebook adding advertising options such as posts in its mobile app and their sponsored posts feature. They have also creatively partnered with local merchants to allow people to send real gifts through facebook and they let people buy virtual items in their online games with facebook currency. There are two ways to make advertising more effective: be relevant or be intrusive. Google bets on relevant while facebook seems to be moving towards intrusive. We also see shadows of what is to come in the recent Instagram controversy where facebook asserted its interest in using user photos in advertising. Unless facebook finds less intrusive ways to monetize its user base, I predict its changes will lead to a decline in its use.

Similarly twitter has instituted limits on third party API access. Presumably this is to steer users towards the official twitter site and applications where it can more easily sell advertising. Twitter has a tough tightrope to walk here. Many of its power users swear by third-party clients like Tweetbot. Since many of these clients already cost money the most sensible move for twitter to make would be to charge developers for API access per user and then let the company pass that cost along to the user via the app purchase. If twitter does not do this, I predict they will phase out third party clients completely.

Advertising is a diverging field. Companies like the New York Times report that their advertising revenue is declining. In contrast the cost of programmatic advertising from companies like Google is increasing. It is important to note that New York Times print advertising revenue dropped 11% while online advertising revenue only dropped 2.2%. Technology news upstart The Verge, which survives on ads sold directly to premium brands, reported it had a profitable first year. I think we will see an increase in digital ads and decrease in print ads because people are moving online. You can see the difference in the following slide from Mary Meeker’s presentation:

Another thing you will see more of is paying for content directly. When the New York Times decided to institute a pay wall there was lots of outrage. I was a heavy user of their website and was disappointed at having to pay, but I gave in and signed up. Lots of other people followed my lead. Now these digital subscriptions make up a substantial portion of their revenue while print subscriptions are in a decline. The Hartford Courant is lagging here since they still have a substantial online only audience that is getting a free ride. Since the New York Times hybrid paywall model is successful it will probably be adopted by other players like the Hartford Courant.

Design and substance are growing in popularity. This is evidenced by the rise of apps like Instapaper and the popularity of the Snow Fall feature article in the New York Times. Even meme properties like BuzzFeed are moving towards generating more long form material. Pocket, a competitor to Instapaper, notes in its infographic that 240 million things were saved to its service this year; the most popular was a long form profile of President Obama from Vanity Fair. We will see more of this kind of content in 2013.

Competition, scale via app stores, and lack of demo versions has pushed the price of software down to free in many categories but we may see a rebound. The New York Times notes that it is difficult for many independent developers to make a living by selling apps. Zynga, which supports its mobile apps through advertising, has not been doing so well. Their intrusive sending of notifications and placement of other advertising has certainly not endeared them to me. Companies like AgileBits, maker of 1Password, are reverting to the old model of charging for new updates to their software (though not without criticism). The New York Times endured similar criticism when they put up their paywall but ultimately giving away software for free is not sustainable, and the mobile advertising in the apps degrades the user experience. So you’ll pay more for applications but they will be of better quality.

Overall you will probably enjoy the Internet and your mobile device more in 2013. However you will pay more for that experience. For better or worse, our free ride is coming to an end.

This is my iPhone

One of my favorite gadgets is my iPhone 4S. The great thing about the iPhone is that it is easily extendable with an array of applications. Surprisingly most people do not use many of these. So I decided to post some screenshots and descriptions of what apps I am using. Maybe you will find some new apps you enjoy. If you have recommendations please share them in the comments.

Uber is a cab like service that can be summoned with the iPhone. I got a $20 credit for it but since they are not in Hartford I have not used it yet.

SeeClickFix is a New Haven based company that provides a program to report potholes and other quality of life issues in your neighborhood. Many public works departments in Connecticut interface with SeeClickFix so they can find and remedy problems after they are reported.

ForceEffect Motion is an app for simulating mechanical systems with moving parts. ForceEffect is for simulating systems without moving parts. They are fun to tinker with but maybe a bit geeky for non-math or science people.

123D Catch is also made by AutoDesk and can create a 3D rendering of an object after you take pictures of it from multiple angles. You can use other software from AutoDesk to edit the resulting object and then print it on a 3D printer.

VMWare View is for connecting to VMWare virtual computers in the cloud. It works better on the iPad than the iPhone.

The top row of apps is self-explanatory. Scan is a QR code scanner, and Amazon and eBay are for online shopping.

Google Drive is powerful now that it allows editing of Google documents. If you have a Google account it is worth downloading to access, edit, and share files. It is even better on the iPad.

YouTube, GarageBand, and Podcasts are self-explanatory. Miso Music was an app that I saw on Shark Tank that provided tutorials for beginners learning to play guitar or other string instruments. It is fun but I haven’t spent a lot of time with it.

iHandy level uses the iPhone sensors to check whether a surface is level. Cards is Apple’s mobile app that lets you design and send greeting cards the same way you can from iPhoto. I used it once to send a birthday card to a friend and was told the quality was good. djay is a mobile DJing app that is probably underutilized in my hands. I have not used Sprint TV as without a premium subscription the channel lineup is poor.

The fourth screen is dedicated primarily to games. My current favorite is Letterpress, a word game designed by the same developer who wrote Tweetie.

My third page is dedicated to news and media. In the news category I have NPR, CNN, The White House, and Politico Playbook. The Playbook is a nice summary of the news of the day that is driving DC. Instapaper is my favorite app for downloading long form articles to read later. It is one of my most used applications. iMuscle is an app that lets you tap a 3D rendering of the human body and will give you exercises to work on that muscle. I use it for workout ideas at the gym. DuoLingo is a free app for learning a foreign language. I have used it a little bit and so far have enjoyed it but have not used it enough to opine on its effectiveness.

My second page has some of my most used apps. CoBook is an enhanced address book application to keep contact databases synced and organized. I have the Mac version as well. I also use CardMunch to automatically convert business cards to iPhone contacts.

Waze is a social GPS application. I used it until Google Maps was released.

1Password is the ultimate password and PIN code management program. I have over 200 logins stored in it. With Google, Dropbox, and other websites I use Google Authenticator for two-password authentication. This adds an extra layer of security.

Dropbox is the best application to access and store files.

Camera+ is an enhanced camera application. It has features to aid in composing and editing photos, including a stabilizer.

CardStar stores all your loyalty cards so you do not have to carry them. It used to work with all types of scanners but on the iPhone 4 and later it only works on the optical ones.

The main application I use in the finance category is Mint. It pulls the account information from all my bank accounts and keeps me updated on bill due dates among other things. Most of my banking is through ING Direct and I use their application to deposit checks using my smart phone camera. It is one of the best features of having a smart phone.

These are all your standard social media programs. For twitter I prefer to use Tweetbot. It syncs among the iPad and Mac versions using iCloud and has an easier to use interface than the regular twitter client.

Finally the first page is fairly standard. I use the GMail app instead of the built-in mail app since it provides a little more functionality and better battery life. However I miss the ability to double-tap to zoom. Hopefully the app improves and adds this in the next update.

TurboScan is by far the best mobile scanning application I have ever used. It will process a picture of a page into a PDF that looks better than something you get from a flatbed scanner, especially if you use the option to scan three times. The only downside is that recently the user interface has become ugly.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.