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Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Tech Meltdown

Not everyone agrees with what I write here. In fact, whenever I opine about things, most of the reactions are of the pooh-pooh variety, pummeling me with posts about how far off the mark I am. I know I see things playing out politically, socially or economically, but that's because I view them through a different lens. Every once in a while, though, some of my most fervent critics will return to admit my analysis was correct, albeit a tad premature.

This may be one of those times. So tighten your chinstrap. You may not agree with what's coming.

At the time of this writing, the current national pastime seems to be the undermining of anything having to do with Donald Trump, both personally and professionally. The facts notwithstanding, an ever-shrinking contingent is still protesting pointlessly, although nobody seems to know about what. The entire "progressive" left seems to be riding on momentum now, fueled by their bitterness left over from their losses in the 2016 election. It hasn't much longer to live, however, as Trump's rising economic tide is indeed lifting all boats: Even the most vocal protesters are spending more time watching their 401Ks grow and less time whining about it.

If you're a student of history -- real history, not the revisionist stuff that tears down statues and builds bathrooms dedicated to gender confusion -- you can see that Trump's recovery and reconstruction efforts are working even faster than Ronald Reagan's did during his first term. When Reagan was saddled with repairing the widespread damage done by Jimmy Carter, it took him two full years before the country could begin to feel the ship being righted. In less than nine months after his inauguration, Trump is already way ahead of Reagan's schedule, with just about all sectors of the economy up and improving -- and feeling it.  That's all good news. One sector, however, is likely to head south, and even though nobody wants to hear about it, I'm here to tell you:

The Tech Meltdown is coming -- and way sooner than you think.

Tech giants like Apple, Google, Amazon and even newcomers like Snapchat and other tech-based ventures are completely out of step with what's happening in America. Sure, they're huge and well capitalized. But that's the result of decades of a lackluster economy, when nothing was happening and nobody had any reason to invest in anything else. Decades of malaise instilled the notion that innovation and technology were the future, and millions of boomers and millennials bought into it.

That's all changing.

Of course it's not fashionable to  say it, but America has always been, and likely will always be, an industrial economy. That's not to say that services and technology don't have their places. But industry and manufacturing have always been the engines powering our progress.  You can see it happen now, if you know where to look. Energy, defense, manufacturing and all of their ancillary industries have soared in value -- and real business orders -- since Trump was sworn in.  Don't take my word for it. Check your own stock ticker to see who's up and who's not. Look at GDP rates and real unemployment figures.

All the needles are pointing in the right direction -- and tech has nothing to do with it.

Now that the market has more real options to invest in real companies with real products that pay real dividends and offer real growth, the two decade illusory-yet-unfulfilled promises of tech are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Dark concerns about Apple's built-in obsolescence, Google's omnipotent disregard for privacy and Amazon's anti-trust behavior only add to the mix.  The Silicon Valley venture model of pumping and dumping short-lived, valueless propositions is just as unsustainable. As the internet bubble once taught us, corporate hubris takes you only so far.

That's why the glory days of tech are over. It's only a matter of time until the big selloff hits.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it may just be the ticket to make Bay Area real estate affordable again.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cracking The Internet Lens

If you were born after 1990, you and I are not the same. We're very different, because you've never experienced what life is like during a healthy economy. You've never known a time when optimism was a way of life. And as I wrote a while back, you've been taught to make do with what little you have rather than building your life into something bigger and better.

That's too bad. Because there's still plenty of opportunity out there. It's just that you wouldn't know it because you've spent your life viewing it through the Internet Lens.

Before you dismiss this as some older guy's rant about politics, forget it. That's not what I'm ranting about at all.  Besides, you get enough of that with your latt√© and morning bran muffin. A more appropriate consideration would be what the internet has done to irreversibly harm the market for collectibles, those once-rare items ranging from knick-knacks to cars that could only be discovered after hundreds of hours hunting.

Weren't expecting that, were you?

Collectibles, especially rare ones, aren't that tough to find any more, of course. Now you can discover just about anything you want, anywhere in the world, with a simple point and click. As a result of the internet, what was once considered rare might not actually be as elusive as once thought. It's that way with collectibles and it turns out it's that way with humans, as well.

Before the web, people who lived in the shadows and margins of humanity felt alone and isolated, usually closeted and/or shunned by the conformity of pre-internet society. Each one felt as alone and as rare as a double-struck nickel. After 1998, however, that all started to change, as the internet did what it does best, making it easier to find rare specimens -- human or otherwise -- were not quite as rare as they'd thought.

When you take three giant steps back to see the big picture, you will find people and postage stamps are not that dissimilar. In fact, they are perfect examples of life through the Internet Lens, where much of what we see, hear and view is -- by the nature of the Internet Lens itself -- skewed by the views and values of those most motivated to use the internet to discover those more like themselves.

And that's why anyone expecting any kind of impartial, politically-agnostic content would be massively disappointed in their hunt for objectivity. While the internet provides a platform for all to present their views, it's only those who are motivated to connect with others -- usually in an attempt to confirm their own self-interest -- who actually do so.

It doesn't matter if you're extreme on the left or the right or possess an ardent passion for chickens. In fact, it doesn't matter what you think or do. All that matters is that you're motivated enough to send out the call to connect with those as rare as yourself, while the rest of us conformists merely sit and endure the absence of any refutation of your views. The result is an illusory reality that is absolutely skewed by special interests -- but not by the usual cast of multi-national, corporate villains. These special interests have their own agenda and it's not at all like yours.

Welcome to life through the Internet Lens: Where rare is represented as normal, no matter how abnormal it actually may be.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Easy To Be Hard

I have no idea why science fiction writers exert so much energy on fantasies about time machines when all it really takes to be launched into another age is a decades-old hit playing on the radio.  In this particular case, I was tootling down the highway when I was ambushed by a major hit from the sixties musical Hair entitled Easy to be Hard.

Although the show was a big hit on Broadway (and even a a movie), the big money was its soundtrack, and this version by Three Dog Night commanded American airwaves for months.  For those of you who never saw/heard about the show, it was the first major production to convey all the issues of the hippie counter-culture to mainstream America. It caused a big commotion, and was made even more popular by the fact that -- for the first time ever and as a challenge to censorship laws -- it featured one scene in which the actors on stage appeared completely naked.

Yeah. That was way before PornHub.

Back then, most people thought Hair was just about hippies, a 90 minute glimpse of the long-haired, free love mind set.  Today, however, the show -- and especially the song itself -- have taken on an eerie new significance. Keep in mind that the hippies of the sixties preached gospels of love, tolerance and universal acceptance, yet as the show points out, in practice, they could be just as capable of cruelty and intolerance as those against whom they protested. Hundreds of hippies could march together against the cold, oppressive, unfeeling Establishment while simultaneously ignoring the personal pain of the confused adolescents marching right there with them.  Easy to be Hard sums up the dissonance perfectly, with a melody just as haunting:
How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no

Especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd
How about a needy friend
I need a friend

How can people be so heartless
You know I'm hung up on you
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no
Now, a new millennium reveals that the grandchildren of America's hippies are just as self-absorbed and unfeeling as their grandparents were. Every day, mainstream America is subjected to the whines and rants of professional victims, clamoring for the rights and privileges of ever-emerging minorities while viciously savaging their neighbors and just about anyone from whom they differ.

Gay, trans, lesbian, queer, black, brown, feminist, PETA and the rest -- you name 'em, they hate you and seem to have no problem spewing bile toward you while demanding unconditional acceptance for themselves. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with various groups' self-advancement. I do, however, have a big problem when they preach love while swinging a baseball bat at the heads of those who differ from them.

The last few years has allowed social and not-so-social media to rack up endless clips of social justice warriors' attacking anyone, anywhere -- and usually for no clear reason at all.  It can't be doing too much good, other than pointing out the very obvious:

The sixties may be gone, but human hypocrisy, apparently, is timeless. 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Islam 442

In case you haven't noticed, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over how the world should be handling the issue of radical islamic terrorism.  I've noticed it, too.  I'm probably just as frustrated as anyone who wants to rid the world of a true global plague. Watching national leaders on every side of the problem do little more than issue public statements of condemnation "is the very strongest terms" just isn't cutting it.

Hey, I'm just a branding guy. A strategist. So whenever I see a problem, my first reaction is to suggest some sort of a workable solution or at least ask the right questions.  Some days, a brand strategy is all it takes to turn a business around.  Other days, the same kind of strategy is all it takes to turn a political situation around.  After all, brand strategy is all about human behavior, and as long as we're influencing the human decision-making process, its principles can work almost anywhere -- including combatting radical muslim terrorism.

If you know your history, you need not look too far to find a real, tenable solution to the problem -- only you'd have to look the right place to find it.  In this case, you might want to take a look at the 442nd Regiment Combat Team of the second world war:

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team is an infantry regiment of the United States Army, part of the Army Reserve. The regiment was a fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (mostly from Hawaii) who fought in World War II. Most of the families of mainland Japanese Americans were confined to internment camps in the United States interior. Beginning in 1944, the regiment fought primarily in Europe during World War II,[2] in particularItalysouthern France, and Germany.
The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.[3]The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts. The unit was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations (five earned in one month).[4]:201 Twenty-one of its members were awarded Medals of Honor.[2] Its motto was "Go for Broke".

The above Wikileaks summary gives you a good idea of what Japanese, Italian and German Americans were up against when they were relocated into internment camps as part of the American war defense.  It was not a pretty time, but the reaction of each group tells a remarkably similar story:

While they were innocent victims, Japanese, Italian and German Americans took it upon themselves to prove their character by taking up arms against the very people from whom they descended. If you've ever read the chilling accounts of the 442 in Italy -- overtaking Nazi positions thought impenetrable -- there's no doubt of what true American heroism is about.

It doesn't get more convincing -- or effective -- than that. So I guess the big question here is where is the muslim 442?

We live in an age of super media, where data and publicity zip around the world far faster than they did in 1944.  News travels in seconds instead of weeks.  Given Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and every other social medium, it seems the muslim world could do itself a lot of good if it enlisted its own on behalf of its western friends.

Let me be clear: Cultural and racist issues against Japanese, Italian and German Americans didn't suddenly stop after the second world war. But less than a decade later, their situations were greatly improved, and our enemies were vanquished, thanks largely to the 442 and the like.

History provides all the lessons we need.  It's just a question if anyone really wants to learn them.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The French Canary

I have my political views. You have your political views.  For a minute, put them aside for the sake of some pure, staggering, strategic analysis.  This could be historic, so buckle in.

Look, I'm a brand strategist, so I'm more concerned with why things happen, on the theory that if you understand why things happen, you're better prepared for when they happen.  If you're really good, you can also get an accurate picture of what's going to happen, which comes in handy, too.  My work tends to stay in the commercial sector, but make no mistake:  Branding is about making decisions, wherever those decisions are made.  So as long as humans are choosing their actions, the forces at work in purchase decisions will remain very much like the ones influencing social and political events.

Which brings us to France.

At the time of this writing, France has just inaugurated its youngest president in history.  That's not important. Two thirds of the French vote carried the center-left Mr. Macron into office, sending the right-leaning Ms. LePen to defeat.  There's no doubt that Ms. LePen had a serious branding problem, but that's not important, either.

Here's what is important:

Starting in June, 2016, the world has witnessed profound growth in anti-globalist sentiment.  It began with BREXIT and -- regardless of social media hash tags to the contrary -- continued with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.  Social media like Facebook and Twitter is rife with malcontents who post memes and videos espousing the dangers of unrestricted immigration.  In the past year, Sweden has become the poster child for increases in crime, while Hungary and Poland are being heralded for their own zero tolerance policies.

Clearly, the battle lines are being drawn all over the world. But it's France that tells the real story.

Two decades ago, LePen's National Front party was barely a blip on the radar. Two weeks ago, it registered roughly 30% of the national French vote -- and that's just the official tally:  That doesn't include those who were sympathetic to LePen, but simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for her.

So now, France -- a country not well-known for its tolerance of non-white, non-Christian cultures -- has a major portion of her population reaching its boiling point.  Once known as the City of Lights, Paris has become a checkerboard of dark, impoverished ghettos where sharia law prevents the enforcement of French civil law.  The French are witnessing first-hand the degradation that social media has been blaring  about for the last few years -- and they don't like it one bit.  That's the significance of LePen's recent advances.

But there's more.

Nothing angers a mob -- especially throngs of Frenchmen -- more than being ignored by elitist rulers. It bothered the people of France enough in 1789 to start chopping off their own rulers' heads.  Now, with their civil remedies, elections and laws proving ineffective, it's not all that unlikely that we'll begin seeing Frenchmen take to the streets, going to those places where no French civil or military authority dare go.

Historically, "having run out of viable options" is what propels civil unrest movements, which often have a knack for turning violent.  So it shouldn't come as a surprise if/when France's white, unemployed working class -- in response to its tone-deaf government -- decides to take matters into its own hands.  Call it the Timothy McVeigh Syndrome, as multi-story residential tenements in Paris's immigrant neighborhoods begin collapsing in heaps of bomb-blasted rubble, each episode empowering the anti-immigrant movement on to its next attack.

The predictable reaction would be Macron sending in the French militia to restore order, which would backfire as social media portrays the action as "the French government favoring immigrants over its own citizens."  In the business, we call that a "PR disaster."  In the real world, we call it a precursor to civil war.

And that's why France is worth watching.  She's the canary in the European coal mine.

Okay, so that's one scenario and I'm just a branding guy. It could happen.  It might not.  But then, calculating the possibilities what I get paid for -- even when those possibilities aren't especially nice.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Changing Your Mind

It's a lot of fun being young.  You can drink til all hours and still get up for work.  You can be in shape without ever going to the gym.  You also get to passionately criticize everything since you own very little and have even less to lose.  You can be a socialist, a communist, a Democrat or a Republican.  You can support Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan or Donald Trump.  It doesn't matter:

If things improve, you get to enjoy it.  If things get worse, you still haven't lost, because you were never invested in the first place.

Being young with no skin in the game is like when an online equities trader lets you practice trading stocks without using real money.  It's not your money.  It's all a big game.  And as long as you can get by, you're just fine.

Of course, that philosophy only works while you're genuinely young.  It doesn't work so well for Baby Boomers with families or their unemployed offspring, both of whom suffer from genuinely prolonged adolescence.  No matter which capital letter sociologists have slapped on to your particular generation, the fact is that more than ever before, we exist in a Nation of Children, where everyone ages but nobody matures.

I've ranted about this before in other blogs, but there's one aspect of maturity that seems to have slipped through the cracks:  The ability to change your mind.

Somewhere along the line, the media and various socially retarded organizations have issued an edict that nobody anywhere, at any time, is permitted to change his opinion for any reason.  Consistency, they argue, is a sign of virtue and stalwart character.  I submit to you it's just the opposite.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently stated, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," meaning that consistency for its own sake is, well, kind of stupid.

Stick with me for a few more paragraphs on this.  You'll like it.

To succeed in life, you have to adapt to its constant changes, which means there's very little that doesn't require periodic re-evaluation.  Just because something worked like a charm before doesn't mean it has the same chance of succeeding again now.  Think I'm wrong?  Try selling eight track tapes or touring the streets of Tehran.  Good ideas back in the seventies.  Now, not so much.

If life evolves, then it only makes sense for our opinions, values and tactics to evolve right along with it.  I see this everywhere.  When I question my client's methods and tactics, they frequently answer with puzzled responses like, "But we've always done it that way."  To which I usually answer, "Yes, but that's why you're failing now. What you're doing no longer works."

Easy enough to accept in a business environment, but for some reason, not so easy to accept in the political sphere.  Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump is the first president that actually understands the concept of evolution, and that consistency for its own sake yields nothing more than predictability.  It's also the basis for making bad decisions when you consider that the world is not at all like it was five, ten or fifty years ago.

Look around your own world.  What hasn't changed in your own life in the past four years?  Ten years?  Since your childhood?  My money says that far more has changed than hasn't, that your own life would be hobbled and that you would be paralyzed were you not able to jettison or alter your old opinions when faced with new circumstances.

Or maybe not.

You could choose to hold your breath, stamp your feet and demand that everything remain consistent because that's the way you like it. But the world would still go on and you'd be left with nothing but your eight track tapes.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Return of Bricks & Mortar

I do a lot of reading.  Biographies are my subject of choice because no matter how historically trivial or famous, everyone has a story.  And if you pay attention, you can learn a lot -- and save yourself a ton of heartache -- by listening to them tell those stories.

The biggest lesson common to all of those stories is that life changes a lot faster than you think.

At the moment, I'm absorbing the stories of people who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  That's a hugely dynamic period of American history.  John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was born before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, but by the time he died, radio, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, steam engines, automobiles, the War Between the States, the first world war and a host of other medical, industrial and technological inventions had come into existence, irrevocably changing every single American's way of life in a fairly short amount of time.   In just a few decades, horses and buggies gave way to cars and airplanes.  Gasoline, once considered a nuisance byproduct of kerosene refineries, provided the foundation for billion dollar fortunes.  Everything got better.  Everything went faster.

We've just gotten through a similar period.

Just a few decades ago, there was no internet. No social media. No point and click. No overnight delivery.  Telephones had rotary dials and most retail stores were closed on Sundays -- often on Saturdays, as well.

That all changed by 1998, however, when the internet got real, drastically changing the way humans interacted with businesses and each other.  Everyone and everything functioned on a 24/7  basis.  Corporate productivity and profit took huge leaps.  Stuff got cheaper. Stuff went faster.

Not everyone did so well, though.  Many commercial establishments blamed the "low-overhead" internet for their inability to sustain their "higher overhead" brick and mortar operations.  The online marketplace, they claimed, destroyed a lot of brick and mortar brands.

Nice excuses. None of it true -- especially now.

Brick and mortar is not only sustainable, but as of this writing, it's highly likely to flourish once again.  The reason is simple, but not one you'll find on any corporate balance sheet or in some self-appointed guru's latest best seller.

As of 2017, it's been nearly 20 years since the internet changed our ways of life.  Two decades is a short time to those who remember gas selling for 28 cents a gallon.  But it's a lifetime to a young, twenty-something adult who's never known anything other than pointing and clicking at a sterile, blue-tinged screen as the way to get through life.  Ask any young person about their frustrations, pressures and disappointments with the online world -- social media in particular -- and see how they respond.  I have.  They all report back the same answers:

Ineffective. Empty.  Pointless.

Okay, so maybe none of this is new you.  But here's something that might be:  The internet has created billions of very lonely people yearning for the human experience, which is precisely why bricks and mortar will come roaring back -- sooner than you think.

At this writing, we're going on three generations of social atomization, with the internet enabling billions of recluses to not socialize, as long as they use Facebook, Twitter and whatever other app is going IPO this week.  billions of posers are spending more time presenting their lives than actually living them, dying daily in their digital cocoons.

What these kids need is a place to go in real time to experience other living, warm, breathing humans.  They don't care what.  They don't care where.  It just has to be someplace real, where they can connect with other people.  And that's where bricks and mortar come in.  Mark my words, the re-emergence of totally analog retail environments is not too far off.  I'm not prognosticating a return of Sears or Woolworth or the local mall.   I'm talking about places and spaces with non-alcoholic activities incorporated into destinations whose primary purpose to shareholders may be revenues, but whose not-so-subtle agenda is to provide a gathering space with just enough purpose to drive shy, socially-ignorant millennials out into the real-time sunshine of social situations.

That's where the big money is going to be.  In and around bricks and mortar.  Out there, away from the screens and under the blue summer sky, where she can drop her car keys by accident -- so that he can be there to pick them up.