Proud to be an American*

July 4, 2020

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people from around the world, and their thoughts and feelings about America – combined with the events of the last few months – have made me pause and think about how I think of myself as an American.

I feel really fortunate to live in the United States. Americans take so much for granted – from clean water to the availability of, well, everything. The past few months have been the first time most of us have experienced any kind of supply scarcity in our lives. And even in a time of crisis, we’re still able to access some of the best healthcare in the world, have nearly ubiquitous access to technology that connects us to anything or anyone, and feel safe in our communities.

Of course, that rosy picture of the world’s only superpower doesn’t tell the whole story. Millions of Americans don’t have the money to access the healthcare they need. Technology divides us as much as it brings us together. And some people in our communities rightly feel more threatened than protected by those tasked with enforcing the laws in our cities and towns.

This is nothing new. Peel back the gilded stories of America’s history in textbooks and you’ll find layers upon layers of cringe-worthy details. We’ve been destroying people and populations since the country was founded – and even before that (looking at you, Columbus).

But what inspires me about America to this day is that its citizens hold the power to determine what happens in this country. First and foremost, we decide who should be in power. We can effect change if we speak up and rally together. And yes, the methods by which we choose our elected officials can improve, but there’s even progress on that; I hope we can expand ranked choice voting beyond the borders of Maine, for example.

We also can’t take for granted the power to speak and protest. It’s one of the first rights enshrined in the Constitution to Americans. The right to speak, assemble, and demonstrate without the fear of harm or retribution must be protected at all costs, because that’s what makes and keeps us free.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” lately. It’s widely considered one of the most patriotic American songs, but the first couple of lines in the chorus are what’s been stuck in my head:

And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free

“At least I know I’m free.” Freedom is amazing, of course, but that “at least” is a pretty mediocre tone for a patriotic song.

Even the Founders knew this process would take time. The preamble of the Constitution makes it clear: 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

They knew America would be “a more perfect union”, not “a perfect union”. America is still a relatively young country, and in many ways we’re still learning. Hopefully.

Personally, I like to think we’re moving in the right direction. Change takes time – often a frustrating amount of time – but we’ve seen progress in some really critical areas over the last years and decades. It takes work. It’s exhausting. But we have to keep going. It’s our duty as Americans. It’s what the Founders wanted.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Constitution is a document driven by unity. And while the Bill of Rights outlines individual rights, they’re all outlined in order to maintain the union. This country is about more than any single person. It’s a vision of improvement and refinement. It’s a vision of progress. 

To be honest, there are times when I can’t agree with Greenwood about being “proud to be an American”. There’s a lot in our history – including our recent history – that doesn’t make me proud of my country. But that unrelenting quest in the direction of a more perfect union is why I feel fortunate to call myself an American. We’re always moving forward, even if that arc is maddeningly long.

Hey, he’s blogging again

September 20, 2017

Over two years ago, I posted the most recent post here on Two Cents and a Thousand Words… until now. A lot has changed since then – both good and bad – but one constant is my love of writing, and I’d love to start doing that more again.

I’m not going to set any expectations about frequency or content here, but what I expect Two Cents to become is a sort of behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on in my life. Sometimes it’ll be my personal journal. Sometimes it’ll be a look into my thinking behind projects and next steps. But in a lot of ways, this might be the most me place online.

Old posts are still kicking in the newly-created archive. But right now, it’s all about looking forward.


May 17, 2015

I’ve heard from a couple of people lately that they’re not impressed by the amount of negativity on my social media accounts lately. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, mostly because I hadn’t intentionally been more negative, so I looked through the statuses I’d posted lately on my accounts. I’d guess about half of my recent posts on Twitter could be considered negative in some way; if you look through Facebook, the percentage is much smaller.

So why do some people notice the negativity? In my specific case, I think part of it is that a lot of the “happy” posts I used to put on my main account have moved to other places, like Justin Russell Photography and re:bangor. And in general, I think people tend to notice and gravitate to negativity more than positive posts (this is basically the business model of a lot of cable news, actually). Still, the thought of being considered a negative person bothers me.

Looking through the posts made me realize something else: it can be tough to read between the lines on social media.

It’s been a really rough few months for me. I’ve tried to cover when I’m with people and when I’m online, but it’s there. There’s not any single cause; it was a combination of a number of psychological blows that’ve knocked me to the ground. Luckily things have gotten better, and I never reached a point where I felt scared or out of control of myself, but the fact remains that I’d been having a tough time.

Granted, the majority of social media users aren’t psychologists. But when you see posts from the people you know well – or the people who you may not – do you think about what might be going through their mind as they write a post?

Never be afraid to ask if someone’s ok. And in a venue where attacks and argument seem to be the norm, try to thank or recognize someone publicly for what they do every once in a while.

I’m going to make a focused effort to follow that advice in the coming months (along with other more positive posts). I hope you’ll join me.

Facebook, blame, and the new world our kids face

May 21, 2013

“This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Facebook.”

In every tragedy that even potentially involves a predator finding a victim online, Facebook and others seem to bear a large portion of the blame. It’s convenient to point fingers at a site, and yes, it’s important sites take steps to protect their users, but it really only deflects our attention from the truth; there are new dangers for our kids, and we don’t fully know how to combat them.

I remember the conversations when my parents taught me what to do if a strange adult asked me to follow them or offered me candy. The threats children face now are really very similar to those we’ve been preparing kids to handle for decades; the difference is that now anyone has easy access to almost any child and can put on almost any face.

The sad truth is that it’s tough to prepare kids for a world that changes every year – or every month. I can’t reasonably expect all parents to understand how to use every new tool. (Heck, I was one of the first people on both Facebook and Twitter in Maine, and I just sent my first Snapchat a week or two ago. And yes, it does make me feel old to think that Facebook messages and email are considered passé.)

I remember high school and the recipe for disaster that environment fosters. Take a hearty craving for validation and acceptance, throw in a good bit of invulnerability, and voilà… trouble.

We need to figure out how to educate children about the importance of online privacy and safety. Digital literacy and conduct need to be part of every school curriculum, and there needs to be better resources for parents who may not have even heard about the tools and apps their kids use every day. Parental controls on a phone are a start, but they’re not enough. Kids are smart (and crafty).

As I spend more time thinking about these challenges, I keep coming back to those talks my parents had with me about conversations with strangers. The methods by which predators lure children are ever-changing – and ultimately irrelevant. The candy may be digital now, but the lessons we need to teach our kids are the same.


May 6, 2013

A few weeks ago I posted this status on Facebook:

There’s always been a part of me that’s a little uneasy being called “photographer”. It’s been shrinking lately, but it’s still always been there. Well, after this morning – after doing something I’ve wanted to do for years – I’m now completely comfortable with it. And it feels good.

And it’s true. I’m a photographer.

Unlike a lot of photographers, though, I don’t cringe when I see bad photos from phone cameras on Facebook. I think everyone should take and share photos; it’s a great way to record and experience what you believe is important about your life. I share more photos of my friends than they probably want, but it’s because I think it’s important to have that record.

But when someone goes through the transition I’ve been feeling lately – when he starts to label himself as “photographer” – my expectation changes. I think it’s fine for a photographer to share a quick snap every once in a while, but an artist’s presentable work should have some level of quality. If I see some sort of huge watermark on a crappy photo, it angers me. That’s when the label of “photographer” turns from passion to ego, and I never want to be the kind of photographer who believes every photo he takes belongs in a museum.

In order to reach that level of quality you have in your own work, you need to recognize your own strengths. I know I’m really good at performance (and to a lesser extent, event) photography. I’ve reached the point where if I don’t think I’ve performed at my potential, I get frustrated at myself. (That happened after Thursday’s dance showcase, for example.)

That doesn’t mean you can’t grow as an artist; I want to get better at portraits, so I’ve been asking friends to go out on shoots. They’re patient, and I think I’m getting better – but I still have a ways to go before I’m satisfied with my own work for that kind of photo.

It’s tough, too, because friends often do the friendly thing and tell you that your photos are great regardless of their actual quality, much like a friend would compliment you on your beautiful new cat even if she were a dog person. I’m sure some of the compliments I’ve received on my work from friends fall into that category. My goal is to share good photographs. If I post something that isn’t good, I want to hear it (hopefully along with some suggestions about how I can improve). I know I’m a good photographer, but a) I want people to mean it when they say that to me, and b) I want to get better.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve been living a dream I’ve had for years. I’ve been really, really busy, but it’s completely worth it – and I want the title of “photographer” to mean something.

My attempts to stop myself from getting pissed about Google Reader’s shutdown have failed

March 14, 2013

Well, Google made it official. Google Reader, a web app I’ve been using since just about the beginning of time, will be no more on July 1st.

I feel the same as I did when went through its rocky patch, really, but with an added bit of disappointment. Google Reader’s uniqueness was that it wasn’t just a web app; it powers a number of fantastic third-party applications, including Reeder (one of the reasons I love my iPad) and Headlines Reader (an innovative app my my friend Matt). Luckily, Reeder will live on past the closing of Google Reader, but many other applications (FeedDemon, for instance) won’t survive. Google’s hurting developers with this decision.

After I thought about it for a while, I realized that the shuttering of Google Reader isn’t what angers me. Instead, it’s a perfect example of why I can’t stand a lot of Google’s mentality about products and services.

A lot of people ask why I stick with iOS even though Android is arguably a better mobile operating system in a lot of respects. There are a lot of answers to that; one happens to be that the third-party apps for iOS (including, for example, Reeder) are worlds ahead of anything available on Android. Another reason is Apple’s track record with product support as compared to Google – and Google Reader’s shutdown solidifies that point for me.

Google, by any definition, is a technology company. They make some great products: Gmail was leaps ahead of any other email service at the time it launched, Google Maps did the same thing with mapping, and Google Glass (although I’m not a fan of it) is really amazing tech. Google’s problem is that they tend to lose interest in their products fairly quickly and decide to close them down on a whim. If they do that with a service you like (say, Wave, Buzz, iGoogle… the list goes on), you’re out of luck. (If Google were really as open as they claim, they’d turn the code for Google Reader open source, much like they did with Wave.)

For any Google service I use often (Gmail, Reader, and YouTube, mostly), I make sure that I have an exit strategy. For Gmail, I download a copy of all my email to my computer. For Reader, I sync with NetNewsWire to have a local copy of feeds. And on YouTube, I try to make contact with people whose channels I enjoy so that I have an alternate way to stay in touch if YouTube suddenly disappears.

Dave Winer summarize the bottom line nicely: if you really rely on a service, pay for it. You’ll tend to end up with products with more incentive for the developers to keep going. That’s why I pay a bit more for iOS, it’s why I often pay for apps, and it’s why I’ll probably end up paying for a service to replace how Google Reader helped me work and enjoy the web.

Finding your destination while you’re on your way

February 21, 2013

When I received my first digital camera as a Christmas gift in 1999, I had no idea about the journey I was starting. I’d always loved photography; I developed my own black and white prints at a summer day camp in grade school, and my mom loves to remind me that she captured my first steps on film because I was trying to grab the camera out of her hand. But digital was what made my interest explode. I spent years traveling around Maine and capturing the natural beauty of the state. In college I discovered the rush of capturing performances – concerts, dance, and theatre – and I’ve been fortunate enough to have full access to shoot great events like the American Folk Festival and Live and Dance Strong.

My next adventure

These past couple of months have been transformative for me; I’ve grown as a person, and I’ve grown as a photographer. And portraiture has started to call my name.

I have a lot of thoughts about many kinds of portraits, and I don’t think I’ll ever be what many people consider to be a typical portrait photographer. A few friends of mine have given me strange looks when I say I’m not interested in taking photos of babies or doing senior portraits for high schoolers right now. Those kinds of portraits may follow down the road, but for now I want to focus on capturing the beauty of many of the friends and others I’ve been lucky to know over the years.

A project I’ve been planning all along

There’s one project in particular that I’m excited to begin. Little did I know that I’ve been working on it for years.

One of my absolute favorite hobbies is talking with people about what they love to do. I love one-on-one conversations about passions with people I know in person, and whenever I have the chance, I enjoy meeting and talking with people face-to-face or online about their interests. I’ve covered a strange blend of these passions over the years, ranging from running to music to bodybuilding to contortion to dance. What drives someone to spend so much time on one talent or skill? In every case, I’ve noticed these passionate people have one trait in common: they’re never satisified. They want to be better. That inspires me.

While I was thinking about how I wanted to approach portraiture, I realized that I could tap into all of the connections and friendships I’d built. I realized I could extend that love of learning about passions into a photographic space. That’s when it all came together, and I decided that my main portraiture project will be a study of the passions people have and what drives them to be their best. I want to show the diversity of skill that the people we see every day hold.

The thought alone of working on this project excites me. I’m building a list of shots I want to take, and I hope to start publishing photos soon.


I’m extremely fortunate to have many people in my life who have supported my own passion – photography – over the years. They’ve pushed me to be better. I’ve frustrated many of them by being conservative about my goals and process, but their encouragement has led me to grow into the person I am today. Photography has changed my life for the better, and for that I thank everyone who has supported my journey. And it’s just beginning.


October 19, 2012

I’m a builder. I love the way an idea flows from the mind into something you can see or touch – something real.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about when my love for building began. I’ve always had a creative streak in me; in fourth grade I made a pretty impressive diorama of Pompeii, if I do say so myself, and in fifth grade I hosted a spinoff of “Classic Concentration” with baseball cards as a class book presentation on The Trading Game. In high school I handed in an essay entitled “My Dog Ate My Homework” on a heavily-crumpled sheet of paper with one corner missing. Those projects – the ones with enough flexibility to allow me to explore the boundaries – were always the ones I loved. They never felt like work, and I wanted the final product to be perfect.

Lately the things I’ve built aren’t tangible. I have many thousands of photos stored on a hard drive, and I have web projects both for work and for myself in various stages of completion. The feeling’s still there, though. When I have that ability to play, that ability to explore… it never feels like work.

Sometimes I wonder whether actual work-with-your-hands craftsmen feel the same way about the things they make. There’s a special kind of connection with your work that you feel when you first see it roughly take shape, and it grows and grows until the thing you hold or see matches what you imagined in your mind. You made that. It’s tough for me to understand why everyone doesn’t have that same drive.

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked on a few projects that have really allowed me to experiment and explore. I’m doing some of the best work of my life. Through all the frustration I feel when I’m boxed in for some projects, it’s amazing to feel that sense of connection again with projects I truly love.

They don’t feel like work. I want the final product to be perfect. It’s that Pompeii diorama all over again – and I love it.


August 16, 2012

Twitter is, without a doubt, my favorite social network. As I’ve told many of my friends, it’s an amazing way to discover new people to follow and to take the pulse of the people you find interesting. There’s an adage that circles around tweetstreams every so often that summarizes the point nicely: “Facebook is for the people you know; Twitter is for the people you want to know.”

Tonight Twitter published a bunch of new rules for developers who use their service. As is standard with rule changes (remember the reply kerfuffle?), there’s been a heavy dose of backlash over the last couple of hours – including from yours truly. What Twitter didn’t do was provide a good explanation of why they were making their changes. It makes a lot more sense if you tackle that question (even if you still don’t like the changes).

The new rules

At its core, tonight’s update about the direction of Twitter’s programming interface revolves around a fairly major change: Twitter discourages third-party developers from writing apps that mimic the functionality of the products released by Twitter itself. If you use an app like Echofon or (my personal favorite) Tweetbot, this is going to affect you. Twitter wants everyone using their own client. (Let’s ignore the fact that Twitter’s native mobile clients were pretty late to the game compared to pioneers like Twitterrific, and, as Gruber points out on Daring Fireball, Twitter’s own iOS and Mac client was a third-party app called Tweetie before it was acquired.)

But why?

Granted, the ratio of people who use third-party clients as opposed to Twitter’s official apps is relatively small. But why anger some of the most loyal users of your service… and why tick off some of your cheerleaders, the developers who make the apps?

The answer Twitter gives in tonight’s post is that they want to encourage a consistent interface across the platform. I can appreciate the intent here; if Twitter rolls out a new feature or changes how something works in the system, they don’t want to wait for every third-party developer to implement the change. I understand, but I don’t agree.

I admit, it’s strange to hear a loyal Apple user complain about limits placed by a platform owner on developers. And yes, it is in itself a bit inconsistent for me to shrug off the restrictions placed on iOS by Apple while also criticizing limits from Twitter in a similar scenario.

Third-party apps and services make Twitter a richer experience. I’ve really started to enjoy Storify; it’s a great way to collect tweets (and more) about related subjects in a single place – something Twitter’s tools don’t easily allow. Tweetbot also adds a thick layer of functionality on top of Twitter’s default service; it allows more sharing options, lets you switch between accounts more easily, and frankly does everything in a more seamless and convenient way than Twitter’s official apps.

In this situation, diversity allows innovation. That’s how Twitter has grown, and that’s how Twitter will continue to grow.

So let’s go back to the original question: why do any of this? I mean, really?

The answer (surprise, surprise) has to be advertising. Twitter controls the entire experience in its own app, including the option to insert ads (“promoted” stuff) anywhere it likes. If the same user visits the site using a third-party app, Twitter doesn’t get anything. Therein lies the problem.

The inevitability

This day had to come at some point; it’s the fatal flaw of Twitter’s current business model, and they’ve chosen to finally do something about it.

Are there other options? There must be compromises, like maybe…

  • Charge users an access fee to use third-party apps. Most developers probably wouldn’t like this, and it won’t fly for Twitter; it’s a numbers game for them now. New services like, on the other hand, could be a new place for devotees who want complete control.
  • Push ads through the API and enforce rules for displaying them. This sounds like a great option, but it’d be really, really difficult to enforce. That adds a ton of overhead for Twitter.
  • Develop a mandatory revenue-sharing program for third-party apps. Sell ads in your app, Twitter gets 30%. Works for Google and Apple. Could it work for Twitter? Again, lots of enforcement and overhead.

In a dream world, I hope the complaints from developers and loyal users will cause Twitter to reconsider their policy. But in reality, a change like this is inevitable in order to allow Twitter to be sustainable. Something’s gotta happen for them to be successful as a platform.

But again, it doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Credit where credit is due

August 11, 2012

My friend Audrey recently found herself in the middle of a debate about copyright and fair use. As a photographer and a general technology nerd, I’m pretty interested in that area of the law and its effects on everything from Pinterest to slogans to stickers, and I’ve been watching as this new saga unfolds.

A stolen situation

Here’s a quick rundown. The Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine, used one of Audrey’s Flickr images in a story. They made very little (if any) effort to contact her, and they didn’t credit or link back to her in their story beyond listing her job title at the time the photo was taken. This frustrated (if not angered) Audrey a bit, so she wrote to them; instead of removing the image from the story, they maintained that the usage of the photo in the article was covered by fair use.

I’m definitely not a lawyer, but I know enough to say that fair use in general is a very, very complicated piece of copyright law – complicated enough that some pieces are still being defined in court cases. (The Internet complicates the issue even more, of course. Stupid Internet.) Let’s leave the legality of the situation to the people who know something about the law and focus instead on what it means for all of us who enjoy taking photos.

Reproduction repercussions

I love capturing and sharing photos. I’ve posted hundreds of photos on my Flickr account and on Facebook; it gives me quite a bit of joy to be able to share events with the people I know and others who attended. What bothers me about this particular situation is that under the Press Herald’s interpretation of the law, there’s no way for me to know whether my photos will be used in one of their stories – and there’s no way for me to tell them not to use my work.

Sure, it’s flattering to have your photo used in a widely-circulated piece. Without any form of credit, though, sharing devalues your time, effort, and talent as a photographer. Their usage of a third-party photo in a piece is an implicit way to say, “We would’ve liked to have one of our staff photographers there, but we don’t have any media from that event. Yours are good enough to use, though.” Shouldn’t the photographer of the work be compensated for their time and effort – or at the very least, credited or contacted about its use?  (Note that, for example, photos taken by PPH staff photographers are all labeled with the photographer’s name. Their work is part of the Press Herald’s brand and quality.)

From my perspective as a photography hobbyist/enthusiast, there are many options for the Press Herald to handle the situation in a better way. Listing the best first:

  1. Compensate Audrey for her work. (This isn’t unreasonable to ask.)
  2. Contact her before the story is published and ask if she minds if her photo is used. (This just seems like good journalism to me.)
  3. Link to her photo on Flickr within the story, but don’t use the photo itself. (This would give her work the traffic for anyone interested in seeing the photo in question, and it would allow people to view more of her work.)
  4. Don’t use the photo at all. (The article itself describes the situation well; the actual photo doesn’t really add much.)
  5. Credit her for the photo, preferably with a link. (This would put her photo in line with the attribution used for other photos in the paper.)

Admittedly I realize that there are different thoughts on the issue, and I can understand that. I decided that I should ask the opinion of someone well-versed in this kind of usage, so I sent an email to the Portland Press Herald’s own reproduction permissions address:

Good morning! I want to write a post on my website about the Gentlemen of the Road show. I really love the photo you have of the promenade on the story at–Sons-on-Thursday.html . I’d like to know if you would mind if I used the photo in the post. I think it would really help to have a good photo on the piece.

Their reply informed me that they don’t allow other sites to use their photos, and they suggested that I link to the story from the post.

I’m glad at least someone there agrees with me.

UPDATE (August 13): For those not following the story closely, here’s where the situation stands. Since the time this post was published, the PPH has removed the response linked here from their site and has replaced the photo in the online version of the original article with a link to the photo on Audrey’s Flickr account. I’ve also heard that they may be compensating Audrey, but they have not offered a retraction or apology for the photo – which, as it turns out, appeared at the top of the August 7th print edition’s front page.