Wednesday, July 1, 2009
I recently watched the video testimony of a friend's mother, done for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Visual History Foundation. To simplify an incredibly dramatic, complex story, Dina Kagan escaped from the Lithuanian Vilna Ghetto in 1941 and joined a resistance group living in the nearby forest. She returned to the ghetto numerous times over the following year to help other Jews escape. Sometimes Dina was alone on these missions, walking 50 kilometers to the ghetto, using fake identification papers to get past the Nazi guards, and smuggling fellow Jews out through sewers that took a day to navigate through 3-feet-deep sewage and 5-foot-high tunnels.
The interviewer asked Dina if she considered herself a hero, and Dina answered "no". She believed heroes to be people who take risks during normal times. WWII was not a normal time, and she was just one of many people who took extreme risks and placed themselves in danger for others. I empathize with her point of view. I've thought of the ‘hero' issue before, mostly around stories about police and firemen who are injured or die while on the job. I admire these people tremendously, but are they heroes when they are just doing their job? They sign up for those risks. They ask
for those risks. They aren't innocent people, suddenly thrust into harm's way, who rise to the challenge.
On the other hand, if the classic definition of a hero is "one that shows great courage" (Webster's Dictionary), then ‘hero' can be applied to many: inner-city school teachers, journalists covering news in the middle East, children with life-threatening illnesses, the employee who speaks up against the odds, etc. Some of these people choose the path that leads to heroics; others end up on the path inadvertently. Perhaps that's the line of demarcation: hero by choice or by circumstance. One doesn't deserve the ‘hero' label more than the other, but I do believe that those who become heroes through circumstance are asked to dig deeper. Of course, I believe that Dina was a hero - unconditionally. At the same time, her testimony featured a young person who could easily have been me, or any of you. So, what are the circumstances in our lives that call for courageous action? I've no doubt they're within reach, just waiting for us to dig deeper.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Crowd-Sourcing's Love/Hate Relationship
A friend who's starting a new business turned to 99designs.com for a logo. 99designs uses crowd-sourcing to connect people in need of design work with thousands of designers who compete for the prize of having their logo picked and receiving a fee ranging from $50-$5000 for their work. I shared the site with a graphic designer I know, who emphatically objected to 99designs' business model, claiming it de-values the work of graphic designers and is the antithesis of everything the American Institute of Graphic Art stands for.
Crowd-sourcing is here to stay, for better or worse. Right next door to the concept driving 99designs are companies that offer stock images for a mere fraction of the cost a custom image would require. Like 99designs, the business model behind stock image companies results in saturating the market with inexpensive content, therefore making it more difficult for custom photographers to compete. Yet, the business practice of stock image libraries is accepted as commonplace with few, if any, objections. A quick look at the history behind stock image companies illustrates how this business continues to fill a market opportunity:
One of the first major stock photography agencies was founded in 1920 by H. Armstrong Roberts, and in the later part of the century, Getty Images and Corbis became the go-to brands for stock images. Newer, micro-stock models such as Shutterstock license images for as little $1. In 2005, Scoopt started a photo news agency for citizen journalism enabling the public to upload and sell breaking news images taken with cameraphones. More recently, Cutcaster extended this model by allowing anyone to upload images, state their price or let buyers bid on the images.
At its best, crowd-sourcing can do things like solve tricky science and software problems and support political movements (think of those Moveon.org house parties). Conflict comes about when jobs are lost as a service or product becomes more cheaply available. Programmers, designers and a hefty amount of time were initially essential to the creation of a website. Now, there are a myriad of companies that offer templates which can be used to easily create a website in a matter of minutes. The videos on YouTube are a result of crowd-sourcing, and the abundant video entertainment available through the Internet continues to contribute to the demise of television.
Especially in an economy where cost-cutting measures are de rigueur, crowd-sourcing, DIY, and other trends which enable cheap solutions will continue. The good news is that there's still a viable market need for custom work by talented artists. Big brands and many small ones rely on design that is specifically crafted for their product. Designers are integral to the product's success, and crowd-sourcing a one-off idea isn't going to satisfy the brand's need.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
"Fuel" Gets It Right
I saw an amazing documentary, "Fuel", which follows Josh Tickell (also the film's director) in his pursuit of new energy solutions. As much as I admire "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The 11th Hour", they left me demoralized about the havoc we've wrought upon our sweet planet, not to mention overwhelmed by a deluge of alarming information. Conversely, "Fuel" quickly invested me in Josh Tickell's personal story by providing context right away: he grew up near oil refineries in Louisiana and experienced first-hand the health effects of pollution from these plants. There's such an abundance of refineries in this particular area of Louisiana – 150 – that it's nicknamed Cancer Alley. Louisiana isn't alone; cancer alleys are rampant in our country.
Despite a hefty dose of information and requisite scary statistics – toxic diesel fumes are 4x greater inside school buses than outside! America produces almost 50% of the world's carbon dioxide! – I was completely caught up in Josh's experience as he searched for alternatives to oil. I wanted this regular guy to find the definitive clean, affordable fuel option that Al and Leo never ponied up. At the end of the film when Josh explains that our plethora of alternative energy resources – biofuel, wind, solar, etc., – provide all we need to free ourselves from dependency on oil, I was as relieved as he was. The examples he used to illustrate his point made the options feel real and accessible in a way "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The 11th Hour" didn't. One of the most memorable examples featured the largest truck stop in the country, Carl's Corner in Texas, which converted to biofuel (they were the first to offer BioWillie, the biodiesel fuel marketed by Carl's longtime friend, Willie Nelson).
Biofuels offset carbon emissions and are available now; the vehicles that use them are available now. Which means we can stop supporting rogue, corrupt governments abroad just so we can get our oil fix and, instead, start focusing on what's really important – making the planet all nice and sparkly again.
I had a feeling of déjà vu watching this film, and realized it's a recurring experience for me since watching President Obama being sworn into office: we aren't in the worst of times anymore. We've collectively entered into a new era of possibility. "Fuel" takes that belief and runs with it.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Communication: It Seems So Simple
I spend a great deal of time thinking about communication, mainly in terms of how we express ourselves and how that expression is interpreted. How many times have you been in a conversation with one person or many and walked away with entirely different ideas of what was just discussed? Communication can create clarity or confusion, and has the power to generate every emotion we know. Few elements in our life have a greater impact.
I recently reunited with a college friend, Tali Wendrow, whose 15-year-old daughter, Aislinn, is autistic. Over the years, Tali and her husband, Julian, tried a myriad of different therapies and methods for communicating with Aislinn, but none got her much beyond the basics. Their quest for finding a way for Aislinn to express real ideas, desires and dislikes lead them to try ‘facilitated communication,' known as ‘FC' when Aislinn was 11-years-old. FC is a process by which a facilitator supports the hand or arm of a communicatively impaired individual who uses a keyboard or typing device to express herself. FC proved to be a breakthrough experience for the Wendrows. Occasionally, Aislinn typed statements that didn't make sense or weren't true, but Tali and Julian know her well and weed out fiction from reality. Eventually, their daughter was able to provide genuine input when asked her opinion so her parents no longer had to make unilateral decisions for her. She was able to connect with others around her and even more importantly – they connected with her in new, substantive ways. Aislinn was able to participate in a broader range of activities, including age-level academics. Instead of being left out, she was included. Her level of joy increased dramatically, as did her parents'. It was an extraordinary new level of communication for them all, empowering and dignifying.
One day in November, 2007, while Aislinn was working with a facilitator at school, she wrote something highly inflammatory via FC. In a nutshell, the alleged statements led to her parents' arrest and she and her brother were put into foster care for over three months. However, FC is a controversial communication tool and ultimately, the charges were dropped because of its unreliability, as well as the fact that the alleged statements by Aislinn were false. Click here for the story: http://freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080317/COL04/803170336#pluckcomments
The irony that the very thing that opened up communication in the Wendrows' world is the same thing that brought them down, and then ultimately saved them, is profound. Yet, it's easy to understand why they were such proponents of FC. The desire to communicate is primal, for each and every one of us. Imagine not being able to genuinely communicate with your child or parent or sibling or friend or lover. To not be able to say the simplest things like ‘that tastes good' or ‘I miss you' or ‘I don't understand why you like spinning classes.' I had lunch today with a friend and we exchanged a deluge of information, face-to-face, rapid fire and connected in a million ways. It was so easy and so enjoyable for us both. This isn't the reality for a person with autism or those in her life. Yet, the concept is hard to grasp in a world where we are consumed with communication – phones are omnipresent, email, texts, IM, tv, radio, films, Facebook, YouTube. We have total freedom to express ourselves. And we take it for granted.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Until I moved to Los Angeles, I thought Kentucky Fried Chicken held a monopoly over fast food chicken. Then I saw Popeye's, and after recovering from the shock that anyone would have the audacity to compete with the Colonel, I started noticing an abundance of chicken restaurants in the Angel City. Why were there so many? How did they compete? Is this what divided LA from the rest of the country?
My poultry awakening exemplifies a phenomenon where awareness of one thing ripples into multiples of the same. It can be something you see – like Popeye's – and suddenly realize that your unassuming city possesses a thriving chicken sub-culture. Or, a phrase pops up that you can't get away from, like ‘gamechanger". Is it possible that pundits in the last election were paid a fee every time they said it?
Currently, psychics fascinate me. Primarily the ones with storefronts and who identify themselves with the classic neon palm. On a whim, a friend and I randomly visit a psychic while we are on a roadtrip, which leads me to wonder how psychics stay in business. Or rather, how they support themselves.
Much like the rippling awareness of chicken restaurants, I now see psychic advertisements everywhere - posters in yards, neon palms in store windows, a placard at a busy intersection, a flyer at the car wash. I decide to call three different psychics to do a little research, imagining an interesting article. That notion evaporates as each psychic responds with a similar sentiment: she's not interested. Doesn't need the exposure, doesn't want it. When I hear this for the third time, I ask why she would advertise her services with a sign at a busy intersection, yet doesn't want potential media exposure. "I don't need it," she firmly replies.
Of course, my curiousity sky-rockets. I decide to forgo phone calls and visit these psychics in person. Around this time, I mention my current obsession to a friend who directs me to the Orange County Register for enlightenment. I read articles that connect fortunetellers – a.k.a. psychics – with Gypsies and describe a down and dirty turf war between two major Gypsy families. (Side-note ripple: Apparently, one of the heads of a major Gypsy family is named Ted Stevens. Could it be...? ) Good thing this particular brand of Gypsies represents the minority.
I re-consider my obsession. I think I may have more to gain by switching back to Junior Mints or sand art, something that doesn't involve death threats and flashing guns. Another friend in New York tells me about a newspaper series she read that debated the authenticity of Manhattan psychics. Next, the LA Times prints a story about the murder of a psychic on Sunset Boulevard – the victim of a Molotov cocktail tossed into her store.
My innocent interest now feels decidedly misguided. I'm still fascinated by psychics, but am even more intrigued by how the ripple effect led me to them through literal signs and just as effectively, pointed me away.