Yellow Stars, Pink Triangles, and Blue Crescents

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As part of their systematic program of dehumanizing people in concentration camps, the Nazis made Jews and gays wear yellow star and pink triangle badges, respectively. In the case of the Jews, this eventually led the Nazis trying to kill them off in the world’s most reviled case of genocide. They were also made to wear yellow stars in public, too. Gays were subjected to execution, bizarre medical experiments, castration, and jail sentences.

I bring these horrific atrocities up for a reason. The United States is in danger of succumbing to a dark fear that the country will consistently victimized by Islamic State terrorists, radicalized criminals who state Islam as their cause.

Bigotry waged against Muslims is reaching an all time high in this country, perhaps worse than the period of time immediately following 9-11. Hate crimes are increasing.

To be clear, the acts of radicalized terrorists are those of extreme fundamentalists, nor do they speak for the vast majority of 2.6 million Americans who state they are Muslim. Angst against American Muslims is fueled by the United States’ own radical conservatives, the Christian right and extreme Republicans.

The worst of the worst, presidential hopeful Donald Trump wants to close the borders to the Islamic peoples of the world, all one billion of them. In prior statements (since deflected as taken out of context), the demagogue Trump said he is willing to create a database — the modern registered list — of Muslims.

These rhetorical statements and the actions they imply are dangerously close to taking yet another dark step, requiring all Islamic people to wear blue crescent badges. Fortunately, all of these “solutions” are unconstitutional in our Democracy.

The Inexcusable Rhetoric of Racism

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Image by Padraig Rooney.

Trump’s defense is to have minions state that this is no different than when the United States put Japanese citizens in internment camps during World War II. This was one of the most cruel and embarrassing moments in U.S. history. Forty years later, Republican President Ronald Reagan signed a law apologizing for racism and paying reparations to those Japanese citizens.

Don’t think Donald Trump is alone in his fear-mongering demagoguery. Another leading Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has stated the United States should only accept Christian refugees from Syria because they won’t commit acts of terror.

Christian right leader Jerry Fallwell Jr. suggests that all Americans should carry guns to shoot Muslim terrorists. Because guns are the answer, right? We don’t have enough armed American psychopaths going on mass murder rages. Now let’s arm more people and encourage them to shoot threatening Muslim Americans.

The real issue is ignorance and fear. Ignorant American citizens who don’t understand others, and are now reacting to fear. These people are preyed upon by their so-called political leaders. The end result of this rhetoric? Inexcusable wide-spread racism and bigotry.

This groundswell of hate supports the Islamic State’s rhetoric that Americans hate Muslims. Further, the angst meets the terrorist group’s goal of inspiring fear.

A Time to Be Active

We need to look at the moral fiber of this country. Do we truly believe in the principles outlined in our Constitution, the principles of tolerance and freedom? Or will we succumb to fear and hate-mongering.

If you think it can’t happen, that we won’t force Muslim Americans to wear blue crescent badges or register at the police station in every town they visit, then just consider what happened to Jews, gays and others in Nazi Europe; yellow stars, pink triangles, and horrors beyond the imagination. That Western “civilized” country succumbed to the fear and war mongering of Adolf Hitler.

Informed Americans need to be active in politics right now. It is a time to participate in debates, and make sure your voice is heard. More than anything, this is a time to fight racism and make sure that every American — regardless of race or religion — is welcome as part of our community.

It’s also a time for people to start taking Donald Trump seriously. The GOP has been forced to acknowledge Trump may actually win the Republican ticket. Like the Huffington Post, the rest of us, too, must come to grips with Donald Trump’s demagoguery and damaging statements.

We cannot allow the Donald Trumps and Ted Cruzes of the world destroy all of the great freedoms protected by the United States’ Constitution. To quote one of our founding fathers John Dickenson, “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.”

I’m Grateful the United States Let Us In

November is time for gratitude in the United States. Yet after the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, the United States of America is divided about whether or not to let suffering war-torn Syrian refugees into the country. Some Americans fear refugees are hidden agents of ISIS or Daesh as the terrorist group is coming to be known.

The whole conversation sickens me, in large part because the very nature of it goes against the very fiber of this country. So let me proclaim my gratitude this month for the Americans who let my Jewish relatives into the country, refugees of antisemitism in the 19th century and war-torn Nazi Germany.

Most of my ancestors came from Germany and Russia in the 19th century to escape anti-semitism. While conditions were better, they met milder forms of anti-semitism in the United States. My father’s ancestors changed their names from Lowenstein to Livingston to mitigate some of the bigotry they experienced.

One relative decided to fight back. Sigmund Livingston formed the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which now is simply the Anti-Defamation League, a cause that fights for tolerance of all races and religions.

Later, the last group of my lineage left Switzerland at the feet of the Nazi army, which was granted access to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Though Switzerland was neutral, officials could not guarantee my ancestors’ safety. My grandfather and his brother and sister — the Bigars — were told to flee Lausanne and they did, barely escaping Venice on a boat hours before the Nazis arrived. They made their way to New York with nothing, and started their lives anew.

Freedom Starts at Home

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When you consider the ancestry of most Americans, they, too, were refugees. Whether rebels or slaves, by choice or by force, they ended up here. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, their descendants have an open opportunity to build better lives here, the so-called American Dream.

Watching politicians engage in every activity possible to deny access to Syrian refugees makes me question that dream. This great prejudice, bigotry if you would, is perhaps one of the greatest exercises in hypocrisy Americans could engage in. For while “Je suis Paris” may be true, so is “We are Syrians.” Almost all of us are descendants of refugees of some sort.

Consider Daesh’s primary proaganda in fighting Western powers is to combat the western enslavement and abuse of Islamic peoples. Daesh, while an acronymn that literally translates ISIS in the Arabic tongue, is a word in its own right (rather than an acronym) meaning ‘a group of bigots who impose their will on others.’ So now we have American conservative bigots supporting the Deash bigots’ logic and their justification to enact atrocious acts of terror.

Perhaps Thanksgiving 2015 is a time to consider what this country still believes in. I hope it remains freedom and tolerance. If so, this outbreak of fear-driven racism should pass. We should embrace Syrian refugees and help them stand up and find a path to a more prosperous life in the United States.

After all, freedom begins at home. If we can’t practice the principles we espouse to the world in the United States, then being “American” stands for nothing but hypocrisy. Our brand of freedom should not be a condition of race, creed, or belief. And for that reason alone we should allow screened Syrian refugees to relocate here in America.

Thank you to all of our ancestors, those that left their homes for a better life in America and those that embraced the refugees of yesteryear, helping them find their way. I am grateful for what you built. I hope this generation continues those principles.

4 Ways to Reboot and Adapt New Skills

Recently we discussed surviving rapid change in media technologies. There comes a point where we embrace the fear of change. We accept it as inevitable, and grow willing to adapt new methods and technologies. But how does one go about embracing new skills?

Going back to college for a second degree is not an easy choice, both from a time commitment and from a financial perspective. One could debate whether or not another college degree could prepare you for a new profession given how fast technology is changing everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a Masters degree in Communications, Culture and Technology from Georgetown. I still use the lessons learned, but my degree was from 2000. The long-term value was learning media dynamics, and how to think about the way people use communications tools.

Getting that degree was expensive, and it’s not something I can easily do again. So, in that vein when I need to learn new technical skills, I turn to alternative methods. Here are some ways I have embraced learning.

1) Experiential Learning

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Millennials (in general) have a great attitude about change. My friends Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of When Millennials Take Over, note that Millennials discard and adapt new technologies with the times. If one technology stops working, they move on to the next tool.

Learning by simply adapting a new method or tool can be extraordinarily difficult. Yet learning through experience can provide the deepest and most impactful knowledge. You know firsthand because you adapted by trial and error.

The challenge in this method is what I would call a sophomoric failure. A false confidence about how a technology or method works can carry you until a challenge arrives. There are often many tutorials online from people who have done the same thing, a virtual “YouTube University”, and sometimes these how-to articles and videos can help. But if the challenge is too stifling it could cost you a project or a job.

I would argue this is the challenge some social media experts face. They play with tools and talk about them, but cannot execute on projects based on their experience. A deficiency in the larger communications skill set is often the problem.

I self taught myself social media and learned several lessons along the way, including being more personal, reciprocation, etc. I became better with practice, but if I didn’t already possess other communications and marketing skills prior to my social start in 2006, I would have struggled a lot more.

2) Conferences and Seminars

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Seminars, one-day workshops, and conferences are a quick way to jolt your thinking. They help you think about challenges in a different way. These types of events usually offer a quick lesson(s), and some examples from a more experienced person(s).

The value of a seminar is a quick fix to stale thinking. It may be all you need. But make no bones about it, the impetus is still upon you to learn and excel after the event.

Further, it’s important to have a discerning eye at conferences. Not all events are created equally. At even the highest quality conferences, not all sessions are equal. To use the social media expert analogy again, you may be just getting more sophomoric knowledge from another sophomore. Look for real examples and experience to discern the value of the tips offered.

When I first sought outside experience in 2014 to break out of a stagnant period as a photographer, I paid for three workshops from KelbyOne, National Geographic, and Nikon. The lessons were valuable, and I still use them today.

3) Intensive Experiences

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A different method of learning is to take on an immersive experience. This basically puts you into a highly engaged full-time work simulation or learning environment. You are run through numerous exercises under the guidance of an experienced professional or instructor.

The effort is intense. It can blow your mind. But the new skills gained are invaluable and can really help you break out of a rut, and forge new ground. The trick is to continue using the skills in your regular work.

There are many examples of intensive workshop environments. Today’s coding academies are great examples. Language immersion seminars and schools are a more classic example.

The Santa Fe Photography Workshop I participated in over the summer was one such experience. I learned quite a lot, and have since used the tips Tony Corbell passed on in several situations, including the above photograph of my daughter Soleil.

4) Continuing Education

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Getting away for a week to several months may not be an option for many people. This is where traditional education and corporate training comes into play.

Learning through continuing education credits may not be as hip as a conference in a schwanky location or an immersion course, but it offers a proven way of learning new skills for work. The time commitment is much more reasonable (one or two evenings a week), and while homework isn’t necessarily fun, it offers a familiar routine for most.

Consider that many employers will compensate you for taking on a training program. It makes you more valuable to them. And continuing education and approved training courses are considered to be more acceptable and safe methods of learning.

When I worked at TMP Worldwide 15 years ago, I got moved into business development for a period of time (Yeah, I know, embarrassing, but I loved it!). At the time, my manager assessed my skills and suggested a Dale Carnegie sales training course. By the time two month-long class was over I had become the class SalesTalk champion, and I closed two multi-million dollar deals within the next year. Not too shabby.

These are just four ways I have learned new professional skills outside of the traditional college degree. What would you add for those looking to sharpen or reboot their skills?

RFP: Request for Pain

Having done two mandatory tours of duty in the big agency world, I understand the RFP process. It’s a necessary evil to win most large accounts. However as a small business, I find them to be downright painful. An RFP ought to be called a Request for Pain.

As a small business owner, RFPs are extremely taxing. Consider that in a large or mid-size agency you have business development and senior staff dedicated to winning this kind of business. In a small agency like mine, you are basically pulling time from a very limited resource pool. Instead of focusing on local networking events, phone calls, building relationships online, and developing useful content, you spend 20, 40, 60 or more hours building a proposal and pitch.

The odds of winning RFPs are not good when you are small. I would say the same thing for a large agency, but is easier to dedicate the resources and mitigate the risk.

You almost always have to have a prior relationship, and get the RFP written to you, or intelligence to help you shape your pitch. There is almost always a favorite or two in the dance.

If you do not have a prior relationship, question whether it is worth your time. Many times the third through fifth firms have been referred as good agencies that might be able to do the job, but the odds are long. In the cases were the RFP is hard-wired, some or all of players three through five are asked because they can’t win. They have a glaring flaw.

In the case of a small agency, size is almost always in issue. In a wired RFP, a small agency is an easy kill. Scaling questions must be addressed to the client’s satisfaction. Sometimes this is overcome with a focus on niches, such as community management or social media content. With larger contracts, though, even the ability to scale quality niche work becomes an issue. Most large companies don’t want to deal with a network of consultants and small boutiques to achieve scale. Can you blame them?

People do business with people they like. So if there is no relationship, you have to become the darling of the potential client very quickly and get the same type of intelligence that the favorites receive. That can be hard to do. If the client is cold and distant during the initial RFP process consider it a clear warning that you are wasting your time.

I almost always decline to participate in RFPs because of these many issues. The pain is not worth it. At least for a small firm like mine. My time is better served networking and building relationships for projects and winning business with people that know and trust me (and my firm).

What do you think of RFPs?

Rebelling Against Scripts

We know so little about ourselves as human beings. Yet, the technology and media industries are full of finite statements about how people will act in this new age of technology and sensors. Such are the opinions of futurists.

Vision attempts to deliver a script of how things will evolve. Programs are developed with algorithms that suggest the “best” behavioral path. They create a means to help people fit within the vision of how things should be.

Then reality strikes. Both the data and human instinct defies the vision.

People rebel against scripts. They defy them and act differently. Computational models respond to the new behavior and suggest improvements. New and better means are found.

Defiance Today

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Image by Phantom Rebel.

As more of our lives become scripted by tech — and by design what others determine the best method to act is — we will find outliers. These people look at a recommendation and defy it.

Rebellion is an inevitable consequence of the human condition. When people are forced into defined situations, a small group breaks free from the norm. They see that everyone is behaving one way at that time, identify alternatives, and choose to find a different way.

The fastest way to work? Google Maps be damned. Everyone participating in birthday congratulations on Facebook? Pass on wall writing, and send a text.

By bucking the trend, some people make things worse, but others succeed.

One of the biggest scripts we are fed today is the need to share. Share everything. Share it on Facebook (Like it will do, too). Retweet, pin, and/or plus one it, too! Send us your photos wherever you are, and check in.

Sorry, corporate America and your data-compromising social network partners. More and more people are rebelling and saying no.

Conversations and photos are going private. More than half of social updates are occuring on dark channels. We know about SnapChat, but how about WhatsApp? Beyond the billions of messages, six hundred million photos are shared privately on WhatsApp every day.

Check in frequently and find your friends coming by and interrupting you? Use anti-social app Cloak to avoid them.

The social script keeps getting disrupted. People say no, and migrate to a technological alternative. A new norm is established.

A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

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The algorithm-driven “smart” world we are developing brings to mind Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. From the description, “He’s made an illicit copy of a state-of-the-art interactive device called A Young Ladys Illustrated Primer Commissioned by an eccentric duke for his grandchild, stolen for Hackworth’s own daughter, the Primer’s purpose is to educate and raise a girl capable of thinking for herself. It performs its function superbly.”

As the novel unfolds three different girls are raised with the algorithmic primer as a nanny of sorts. We see that socioeconomic background, situations and personality dramatically affect actual outcomes, even through all three have access to the exact same primer program.

None of the girls end up the same. Hunger, desire, emotional disposition and drive all make a big difference as their lives evolve.

Algorithms cannot predict the evolving human mind, and how it will react to each random situation. Many people will follow the prescribed script. But every person is new. Some will break from the path.

A mentality of following change exists. Innovators trailblaze, then early adopters follow suit. At some point it becomes safe for the general population to leave the tried and true, and adapt the new method of doing things.

Then a new generation of tools and technologies becomes scripted. Innovators and outliers rebel. The cycle continues faster and faster.

This seems to be our world now.

But whatever the truth about technology adoption may be, I am not too worried about algorithms driving human existence. We just won’t stand still long enough to let it happen.

What do you think?

Freaking Out About Surveillance at SXSW

The topic of surveillance threaded the general conversation at the SXSW Interactive Festival this year. From live video keynotes by the exiled Julian Assange and Edward Snowden to ever present sensor enabled wristbands and a surprising amount of people wearing Glass, privacy — caused by sensors, data, and the Internet-powered applications they empower — found its way into the very pores of the conference.

As a result, the always-on quantified self created a bit of a freak-out amongst attendees. Almost every conversation I had touched on this topic.

First, let me say it was refreshing to see social media and marketing take a supporting role at SXSW as the conference moved to discuss larger trends in the interactive sector. Clearly, the movement towards an omnipresent Internet creates dramatic implications for society and businesses beyond extrapolating personal data to deliver contextual marketing.

It was ironic to see everyone wearing sensors and discussing the latest personal data-driven app, while they conveyed concerns about societal. Those fears included stalking, government and corporate abuse of data, personal privacy (will your Fitbit report your bedside activity?), and the impact on self identity caused by constantly being on.

Yet, most of us felt that while valid, the sensor train has already left the station. We move about our lives vaguely knowing the tech we love is disrupting our own privacy and security, and ignoring the consequences. People may value their privacy, yet they strap on their fitness band or allow access to personal data via social networks, mobile phones, sign-ups and web browsers.

Perhaps it was the Snowden and Assange video keynotes that caused the underlying meme. Invariably, when conversations begin about on these topics people become concerned.

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Having attended (and walked out of) the Assange session and seeing what Snowden said, the two keynote speeches struck me as the self-justifying rants of sociopaths. The exiled self-proclaimed defenders of the public interest seem to need the attention, and enjoyed the audience. It is clear Assange and Snowden think they are above the law, and have no remorse for the certain deaths their actions have caused.

I am not saying that the societal impact of surveillance by friends, family, co-workers and government is not a worthy topic. People are rightly concerned.

BUT surveillance is a government, corporate and personal action that has been occurring since the beginning of civilization. Discussion of spies can be found as far back as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The medium creates the current manifestation of data and video surveillance. It’s no surprise that governments are collecting and sharing data, while pressuring companies to open their information repositories.

Unrestrained corporate actions leveraging personal data are not a surprise either. We live in a free capitalist economy that influences the government with lobby or special interest dollars.

No Restraint with Personal Technology

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My reaction to a full explanation of sensor-driven personal data.

What is surprising is our personal lack of restraint about data and privacy. We treat it like we treat the environment. There is no personal valuation or action to address the situation even though we fear the worst.

Yet when surveillance in this new digital world order is discussed, we freak out. That is ironic given the larger context. In reality, the fear is self-centered. We don’t like the thought of our little wrongs and guilty pleasures becoming easily accessible to others via the Internet.

Vulnerability is not openly embraced by a vast majority of people.

In the social media era, we saw ourselves, good and bad. In the end, we saw the ugly side of human nature. Perhaps we’re not ready to see even more of the bad openly served to the digital public thanks to our various personal technologies.

Yet, you have to think that such exposure would be bad business for many of the companies involved. Who wants an app that’s going to out them at every corner? Of course, if you live an honest life this is not an issue.

In addition, this is an issue of the moment, and for the older generation. The next generation, the children of today, will grow up in this world. It won’t even bother them.

What do you think?