A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and the move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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Complexity

This article discusses Apple’s manufacturing process for nearly all of its products, machining aluminum at a scale unlike any other company in the world. It is a fascinating discussion of Apple’s fanatical attention to detail and the amazing enormity of the scale at which it works.

I bring it to your attention not simply to praise Apple or its products, but to bring up a different point, namely that nearly everything is more complicated than you think it is. You see, the impetus for the linked article was a claim that the iPhone 8 would be made of industrial ceramic, like the new Apple Watch Edition, instead of the current machined aluminum. But the author of the post points out all the reasons why that can’t be so.

Many of those reasons are things that only someone involved in the world of industrial-scale manufacturing would know. But they are very real limitations… or at least challenges. But unless you inhabit that world, you wouldn’t understand.

I’ve found this to be applicable in nearly sphere of life. I’ve been on the inside of a number of organizations, including a few with controversial public faces. And almost invariably I have found that critics and kibitzers think they know what’s going on when they really don’t. They imagine motives and capabilities and options that are mere figments of their own imaginations and wishful thinking.

So the next time you (or I) are tempted to say, “Of course they should do X because this is what they’re thinking,” pause for a moment and consider that may be they shouldn’t because maybe they aren’t because probably you don’t know.

Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

The iPhone Who Cried AMBER Alert

All the major smart phone manufacturers–Apple, Google, Microsoft–include a feature that was developed in conjunction with the US telephone carriers and the US government to send out emergency alert notifications, including AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts. (Android breaks it down even further to Presidential Alerts (war, terrorist attack), Imminent Threat Alerts (natural disasters and weather), and AMBER Alerts.) AMBER Alerts are law enforcement messages aimed at locating a missing and/or endangered child and typically give you a last known location, a car license plate number and make, model, and color.

In theory I support the inclusion of these emergency alert systems, especially as you can’t count on as many people listening to radio or watching TV at a given time of day to hear and see the Emergency Alert System be activated. And all the phone manufacturers give you some control over whether you have some or all of the alerts enabled on your iPhone, Android phone or Windows phone.

Apart from the built-in functions, you can also download other apps that provide emergency notifications. I have a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) app for state-level notices and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app that provides emergency notices as well. All of them limit notifications to phones within a designated locality, inside some radius with the emergency situation at its center.

However, I think someone needs to do some work to determine when and under what circumstances the alert system is activated. Last night, at about 2am, parts of the Northeast US were awakened from sleep by the piercing tones of an AMBER Alert on their phones. A woman was driving from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire with a child in medical distress and they couldn’t locate her. They eventually found her at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

I will grant that this is an important alert, but does waking up millions of smart phone owners with the piercing tones of an alert help find this child? Is this the best use of this feature? Because I guarantee you that many of them turned off the AMBER Alert notice on their phone this morning. (I haven’t, but my wife, Melanie, did.)[1]

If there’s a terrorist attack or act of war, I want to be woken up. If there’s a mega-tsunami bearing down on the East Coast, I want to know. But do I need to awakened for a National Weather Service frost warning? For an AMBER Alert on a car that is presumably on the highway and not in my bedroom where I am asleep?

The manufacturers, the carriers, and the government need to go back to the drawing board. They need to draw up new protocols for when to activate the system and under which circumstances. Because if this keeps happening, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, they will find no one paying attention to them when it really matters.


  1. The Do Not Disturb feature on the iPhone or putting any phone in silenced mode does not save you. The emergency alerts are designed to override all user-controlled attempts to keep the phone silent, except turning off Emergency Alerts all together.  ↩

Thou Shalt Use Secure Passwords

Password security is a problem everywhere. We are constantly reading news stories about yet another breach of a computer system’s security, even among government agencies and businesses that tout their attention to privacy, and many of these security lapses are due to poor password management, meaning they use passwords that are too easily cracked. The sad reality is that Catholic dioceses and parishes are extremely vulnerable to this kind of lapse.

In my experience, employees of Church institutions are just as bad, if not worse than employees anywhere else.[1] I’ve seen passwords on Post-It notes on desks, passwords that were first names, passwords that are names of the parish or town or address or phone number or zip code or a combination. I’ve seen user accounts for databases, web sites, and even donor databases shared by multiple individuals, including volunteers who come and go. And then there are the passwords that are used every place: web site login, the secretary’s email, and the Quickbooks database, not to mention someone’s personal Facebook profile so that if the password is compromised in one place, it’s compromised everywhere.

So what’s the problem? Disgruntled employees, nosy neighbors, cyber crooks are just a few of the potential problems. They could delete donor/parishioner records or snoop into confidential files. If a parish uses online giving or online religious education registration, then it even exposes parishioner credit card and other financial information.

But a solution to this problem is readily available for almost any situation. The place to begin is with password management software. There are several good choices, but my preference is 1Password from AgileBits Software, which is available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. The concept behind 1Password is simple: The software has hooks in your web browser and when it detects you are at a password creation screen, it offers to generate a password for you that can be more than 20 characters long, using numbers, letters, and symbols for maximum security. Of course, you’re not going to remember that password off the top of your head, so 1Password saves it in its database, and then for every single place you need a password, you can generate a unique and very secure password because you don’t have to keep track of it. When you need that password to login again later, you activate 1Password in your browser and it fills in the username and password automatically.

And when you’re done with your logins, you lock up 1Password and then you only have to remember the one password that unlocks it again, hence the name “1 password.” Even better, that one password is doubly secure because it never travels over the Internet to lock or unlock anything, just the software on your computer. And if one of your passwords is compromised, only the password for that site will need to be changed because you have created unique passwords for every site. 1Password also has a feature called Vaults, which allow you to share parts of your secure password database with a co-worker or the boss, for example, without exposing all your passwords.

Like I said, this is just one password manager. There are others that work just as well with different features and different models of security, like LastPass and Dashlane, to name two.

I think that secure password management is so vital to good stewardship of parishes and ministries that the cost of a password management utility should just be considered the cost of buying a computer. In this day and age, password management is a part of basic computer skills.

Likewise, good password management software is useless if there aren’t strong workplace policies to back them up. Employees and volunteers alike have to know that they have a duty to secure the virtual front doors and back doors of the Church that is just as real as the duty to lock the doors of the offices. We wouldn’t put the weekly collection in the top drawer of the secretary’s desk in an unlocked office, but that’s what we’re doing in a virtual sense when we use bad and insecure passwords.

For thousands of years the Church has safeguarded the patrimony entrusted to her, whether the world’s great artworks or the sins entrusted to her in the Sacrament of Confession. In that spirit, we should continue to safeguard the more mundane business affairs of the Church and her people as well. An essential ingredient in those best practices is good password management.

Update: Allison Sheridan of the NosillaCast podcast made a video with a good, simplified explanation of the importance of strong unique passwords. If you think your password system is good enough, then watch this video to see why you need to step up your game:

Meanwhile, the Naked Security blog at Sophos.com offers some more information about password practices and how insecure we all really are.

According to a new report from password manager and digital wallet company Dashlane, a survey of 3000 people, evenly distributed between the US, the UK and France, found that 53% of US respondents have shared a password with a colleague.

The younger the employee, the more likely they are to think that the sharing economy includes passwords: 67% of respondents aged 16-24 said they’ve shared passwords; it drops to a still-dismal 59% in the age bracket of 25-34, 52% with 35-44-year-olds, and a still quite lame-o 46% of those 45-54.

That’s just one of several sobering studies they quote. I suggest you read it all and then take action.

Update 2: 1Password has become an even better tool for password management now that they offer 1Password for Teams as well as 1Password for Families. Considering all that you get bundled in, it’s a great deal.


  1. In this, I am not speaking of my current employer, the Catholic parishes of Walpole, Mass. where we are implementing better password policies than most.  ↩

Evangelization by Press Release

When most people think of press releases, they generally don’t think evangelization. In fact, for those who tend to receive mailbox-clogging numbers of press releases, they are convinced they come from the other direction. But press releases can be a helpful tool for evangelization by parishes and other ministries.

I’ve been on both sides of the press release divide, receiving them as a magazine editor and radio producer and sending them on behalf of parishes and ministries with whom I’ve worked, and I would say that a press release  functions as a way for an interested party to generate interest by an uninterested party in something potentially interesting. That isn’t to say that press releases are always unwelcome. A reporter or editor or producer on a deadline and looking for new ideas and interview subjects will welcome a timely offer of a person or thing of interest to the audience which will also fill an empty slot. However, the PR must stand out, clearly offer value, and fit the mission of the media outlet. But I’m not here to offer a manual on effective press releases.

Parishes and small ministries should recognize that local media, especially small hometown newspapers or local radio stations or online news sources like Patch.com, can provide them with a platform for reaching the unchurched and the curious. For example, the collaborative of two Catholic parishes in Medford, Massachusetts, recently launched a new combined web site with a companion smartphone app. Many parishes launch new web sites but how many send press releases to their local paper about it. The Medford collaborative did and it was published in the North of Boston Wicked Local news site, which also publishes a bunch of small community newspapers in the Boston area. With this simple news story, the parishes are able to showcase their new site, create buzz, and set themselves up in the mind of readers as savvy users of technology. For non-parishioners, this could be a moment where an impression of the churches can be set. Perhaps it’s the moment they decide to try out a Sunday Mass. Maybe it’s one more step which builds on other positive local news stories about events and happenings in the parish which will lead the curious back to church.

Parishes should look at their local media outlets as another resource for communicating with the community alongside their Sunday bulletin and social media accounts. Not just for Mass times on the religious services page, but for real stories in the news section.

Do you have a parishioner doing something extraordinary? A youth group going on an interesting trip? Are you organizing a big festival? A Christmas concert? Are you holding any event to which the general public will be invited? And I don’t mean just prayer and devotional events, but social gatherings and service opportunities as well. Write a press release and make it interesting, not just self-serving. Think of what would interest you in a story about a church that isn’t yours. Make it succinct, compelling, and well-written. Include a high-resolution photograph or two. Find people willing to be interviewed. And then send these press releases regularly. Become visible in your community’s media outlets as a first step to reaching out to the curious as a first step in your evangelization efforts.