We Need Smart Elevators

elevatorWhen you begin to understand the potential for the Internet of Things (IoT), you view the world a little differently. You find applications that could be drastically improved. One area that I’m shocked that hasn’t caught up yet is the elevator.

If you live or work in building, the process in getting to your floor hasn’t changed much since the introduction of the elevator. While the technology around creating safer elevators has drastically improved.

Thankfully I’m not the only one thinking about it. Time featured a story in Oct. 2015 called “A Big Change Is Coming to Elevators, And It Matters More Than You Think,” which reads like a promotion for ThyssenKrupp’s MAX technology that links elevators to Microsoft’s Azure cloud and toots about efficiency for building operators.

Honestly, it sounds needlessly complex. Today, I walk into a lobby on the ground floor in a building that only has floors above. Replacing that button with a single low-fidelity camera could decrease that time by adding a simple command, “when person is within 10 feet and facing forward, make one elevator come to the ground floor.”

An even smarter application might be able to recognize a visually impaired person with a white cane, a person with crutches, a walker or a wheelchair and enhance that rider’s experience by allowing for a few extra seconds to exit the elevator.

As a former Bostonian, I grew up with the ideas of “four corners,” where the first four people to enter an elevator find a respective corner and “own it.” Yet, elevator buttons are in one of those corners. A smart elevator might simply ask passengers, “Floor, please?” With passengers entering from other floors, it would simply ask again. A panel might show which floors have already been selected. Sounds like Star Trek right? It is. And Star Trek first aired in 1964. This smart elevator isn’t a new concept.

Smart Elevators might also want to employ well-used and off-the-shelf camera technology to serve a variety of needs. For instance, facial recognition software might unlock floors that require certain approval instead of the leaning through an elevator crowd to swipe an access code. Such an application could also help those facing medical emergencies since there are far too many conditions where a person is unable to hit the Help or Alert button. A Smart Elevator might have an application where it sees a person on the floor of the elevator, connects that person with a 911 service as well as property staff to not only get help but bring that person to a floor where they could receive more immediate attention. With situations such as heart attacks, seconds are crucial and smarter elevators really could save lives.

Smart elevators could also be used for safety as well. During fire drills, when people are asked to take the stairs, elevators could be programmed to quickly return to their base floor for safety. And while it would take some approval, a smart elevator might remember floors where passengers with mobility issues are located and remain open for those people to get them to safety if they can’t use the stairs.

Such features should not require new elevators since the cost would far too prohibited. Upgrading existing elevators would still incur some expense but the benefits would help increase efficiency, safety and convenience.

Finally, smart elevators could easily end “elevator music” with something as simple as nature sounds, daily building activity updates, breaking news or a variety of different versions of radio-friendly music.

photo credit: at the LACMA via photopin (license)

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The Death of the Smartphone

Recently my 12-year-old son asked, “Why do we call this a phone?”smartphone

He, looking down at his iPhone 5S, had a point. More often then not he’s not using it to call anyone. He plays games, texts, surfs the web and plays music. Not typical functions of a standard telephony device but a modern, very nimble communications device that merges together many functions in a small and powerful device.

Which got me to thinking, if our smartphones aren’t really phones any longer, what should we really call them? And from a marketing perspective, how would you reclassify billions of devices with a completely new term based on the functions we use “smartphones” for every day?

Oddly, as an old school tech guy, my first “smartphone”-like devices were Personal Digital Assistants, devices that replaced notepads, to do lists and some gaming functions. PDAs replaced paper.

Yet, the iPhone was the first successful mainstream volley into something different and a stroke of marketing genius. Combine the popular iPod music player with a multipurpose communication device tied to a massive distribution backbone and see what happens. It worked amazingly well. The smartphone replaced more than paper or PDAs, it replaced many different devices and tools.

We use our smartphones less and less for voice communications as VOIP services take over. So much so that even cell phone companies are having difficulty in keeping up with product demand for GBs per month and how to charge for text messages (which should be free).

Rebranding them isn’t easy. It needs to be short, Tweetable, SMS-able and simple. My suggestion would use a term we use every day and grow it. It needs to be all encompassing and roll up all the many things that we do on our devices. At the end of the day, we no longer just use our smartphones to talk, we use them to communicate in a variety of ways.

My suggestion is simple. We should call our smartphones a better,, more appropriate name. After a few weeks of marketing ideas and a list of long possibilities, my suggestion would be to rebrand a “smartphone” as a “Comm.”

A Comm is one less letter than phone and six less than smartphone (alas, tweetable). And given that most of the commercial websites that we focus on every day use .com, a variation wouldn’t be hard to market. Yet, Comms aren’t just for commerce, they would stand for Community, a way to use apps and networks to create communities of individuals that create new ways to interact and communicate. And it can be Common, a way to think less about walled-in networks and build smarter, more adaptable communities through a list of common APIs, platforms and applications.

Our smartphones really aren’t phones anymore, they’re Comms, devices that allow people to communicate in traditional, novel and new ways. And while paper, emails and text messages continue, Comms remove the analog behaviors of the past and finally embrace a fully digital today. Replaced by hard drives, cloud, interconnectivity and evolving ways to communicate.

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Forget Ultrathin, I Want a 48 Hour Laptop

ultrathinConsumer laptop technology is the fine art of balancing the needs of a market with the trends they perceive as desirable. Companies put a massive amount of money into researching those trends in the hopes of finding the Holy Grail feature that will get a consumer to buy their laptop.

I’m a consumer who prefers laptops with more CPU and GPU power along with the longest amount of battery life. Yet, while companies have made great strides in creating laptops that have computing power, battery life is still a major limiting factor. That’s where the balancing happens. Want more power? Then the GPU and CPU will be mobile chips. As those mobile chips push the laws of physics with their computing power to energy sipping ratios, they’re great for basic functions and apps but not for professional level programs and intensive video games.

And I applaud Razer’s upcoming Razer Blade ultra laptop that will offer the Razer Core accessory that delivers that option when gamers return home through the power of Thunderbolt. Yet, it can’t deliver everything while on the road.

The newer MacBooks seem to show that Apple is listening to consumers. Apple shrank the logic board in its laptops and filled the remaining space with custom batteries that will let it run for up to 9 hours. While I haven’t tested one yet, that’s impressive. It shows a clear engineering decision to deliver more energy in a smaller package.

Yet, why not have a different option? While laptops get thinner and thinner, why not give people an option to order an ultrathin laptop with a 24 or 48-hour battery? Same specs but no longer ultrathin, a thin laptop that would give those who go on long flights without power cords or those who roam to places without power a different option. Or having such a modular design would allow those who want an ultrathin most of the time the option to swap out the battery base with a longer lasting one when needed.

Power users would likely pay a premium for such an option but for the throngs of people fighting over the only power socket in an airport terminal, why not give power users thin laptops with massive amounts of battery life and the CPU speed they need?

So while I  watched The Verge’s CES 2016 coverage on the latest in ultrathin laptops, I’m not looking for something thinner, I’m looking for something that’s less about a cord and more about the freedom from them. Time to get laptop makers to notice that need.

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Hoverboard 2.0 From Amazon, Tesla or Razer?

hoverboardAs CES 2016 opens its doors this week, this is a show typically dominated by appliances and mostly TVs. But one of the biggest commercial successes of 2015 (and the 2015 holiday season) was the unbranded hoverboard. Yes, those Segway-like boards that are best known for catching fire and helping toss a few potential Darwin Awards finalists.

When Amazon decided to pull the plug on hoverboard sales for its vendors, it created a vacuum where consumers ignored the warnings and bought the hoverboards elsewhere, paying hundreds of dollars for a trendy device that is admittedly far cheaper than a real Segway but with a record of danger. In fact, Amazon asked people to toss or recycle boards out of safety concerns.

One of the big expectations in 2016 is that a “hoverboard leader” will finally emerge with safer battery technology and remove the fire danger of its batteries. Given Amazon’s push to create itself as a consumer electronics maker and considering the PR backlash from removing hoverboard sales from Amazon.com, it seems that Amazon could make an interesting PR pivot from banning sales to creating a new market for itself by working with its Chinese manufacturing partners to engineer safer hoverboards. Of course, given that the company’s consumer devices have incendiary names like Fire and Kindle, it would need to come up with a different naming scheme.

Another potential hoverboard 2.0 leader might come from Tesla Motors. The Tesla is a tech-minded person’s car and the company has engineering teams that already specialize in getting the most out of batteries and designing consumer experiences around its vehicles. Plus, Tesla’s shopping mall showrooms could offer an elite “Tesla Board” at those locations to increase revenue and interest, it’s a great way to build a safer board and massive brand awareness. Who wouldn’t want a “Tesla Board” vs. a brand-less board?

Another outlier is Razer. It’s a high tech brand that was featured in April 2015’s Fortune as “This gaming company is worth $1 billion, and you’ve probably never heard of it“. While the company is still a peripheral maker for gaming consoles, PCs and the growing list of wearables, Razer could easily apply its dark black, male-centric brand to a Razer Board. Given the company’s deep roots in gaming culture tournaments and gaming culture’s love of hoverboards, Razer has the relationships and engineering to potentially lead or innovate hoverboards into the 2.0 phase.

Of course, this is all speculation. Given the dangers and the legalities of creating a safer hoverboard 2.0, many big tech companies might simply wait for the fires to die down before they decide to enter the hoverboard market. While it might be too soon for hoverboard 2.0 to emerge at CES 2016, it is going to be a topic that’s bound to be discussed.

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Nintendo’s Unlikely Savior — Amazon

Nintendo is not dead, despite all reports. Yet, after three consecutive years of loss, it does appear that Nintendo’s leadership is finally willing to admit that all is not well in the house of Mario.

nin-ama2Wii U is not selling and while the DS line of handheld gaming devices continues to sell, Nintendo’s reliance on branded hardware, limited first party releases and a denial of market trends may be the three things that end its reign. When tech companies have troubles, tech journalists suggest that the biggest competition will gobble them up whole through acquisition. I have a completely different idea. One that might help it return to profitability in two years or less. Yet, it has to admit several problems before it can do it.

The Software Problem: Nintendo is a for-profit company that needs to maintain its IP, earn revenue from that IP and while it might make more money by creating more titles based on that IP, it doesn’t. My suggestion would be to create a program where Nintendo approached game studios with a proposition. Create a stellar game on any IP in the Nintendo library. Nintendo would still need to approve of the IP use but giving a license to any game developer to create the next Mario, Donkey Kong or Wario game would be welcome.

On the same idea, developing a program where Nintendo allowed up and coming (or indie) game makers to use its IP would help add new titles to the small online libraries it has. Nintendo would still maintain the distribution but these solutions would do something that Nintendo fans would embrace, a wealth of choice.

The Single Purpose Problem: The Wii can’t play DVDs. The Wii U can’t either. You can’t use the DS to Skype. Sure, you can use Netflix (finally) but adoption of Netflix on those devices can’t be high.  The Wii U is a powerful device that simply does one thing – it plays a limited amount of games.  Players invest in products to use in their everyday lives that have more than one purpose. The phone in your pocket plays games, plays music, plays videos, monitor stocks, watch sports scores… Nintendo needs to finally embrace its Japanese culture. A culture that is addicted to technology because its culture has helped innovate technology worldwide. Now it needs to embrace what its fans want and deliver a device that does more than just play games.

The Hardware Problem: Developing hardware is not a cheap activity and while it helps Nintendo maintain its exclusivity, it hurts distribution. While I am a big proponent of broad releases (like Sega’s post-Dreamcast strategy), Nintendo would never go for it. Yet, it would need an innovative, global partner who had the means to stay ahead of the industry, had an already established product line to use as a platform and wasn’t Sony or Samsung. While the Wii U has problems, I do think that the Wii U’s GamePad is where Nintendo’s future will head. It’s a smart way to let the less profitable Wii line lessen, move DS gamers to a new platform on a bigger screen and still maintain its exclusivity. Yet, with extremely limited power supply, the GamePad isn’t able to keep itself going very long.

The Solution: Nintendo needs a global partner who can take over its hardware development, improve its current hardware, offer security to limit piracy, products that it wants to sell, no gaming competition and access to a high-powered cloud infrastructure and distribution engine. The answer seems obvious….

Amazon. With its Kindle HD line of tablets, the company has a solid platform of tablet devices, a third generation all-digital distribution engine, global marketing and, I believe, would love to have exclusive rights to having Nintendo games on its devices. Amazon has recently been dabbling in the gaming universe but a super-exclusive deal with Nintendo would make Amazon a global player overnight and would allow Nintendo to be creative powerhouse it has always been. And, I think that with Amazon’s drive, it could develop that platform in less than two years.

That device, which might be based on parts of the Wii U GamePad design, would get games on the day they released, offer new ways for gamers to communicate, more access to potential add-ons, create an engine for MMO-like titles for games like Pokemon and might help developers come back to Nintendo.

Bash if you must but I think that Nintendo isn’t dead. And I think that a deal with Amazon gives Nintendo an unprecedented opportunity to push itself to the forefront of gaming on tablets.

Mr. Iwata, it’s time to give Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a call.

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Resurrecting Your Dead Site With Content Marketing

Business owners typically feel pretty good about their sites. They’ve spent the money to develop their site, see that it’s working, view a list of pictures of the executive staff, display current products and services and a way to contact you “for more information.” And without any complaint, those business owners assume that all is well.

I call these graveyard sites because, despite any money used to create them, they serve as a way to tell customers when your business died.  Name, catchy phrase, date born, date died and a mound. Take a moment to look at your site.

When did you last update your site? Are there old products still listed? Have you made announcements that aren’t displayed? Did you move? And, my favorite, is the date on your copyright this year? I term active sites as “gardens” that show that your business is alive, well and ready to work. Which one is your site?

The bad news for graveyard sites is found in the numbers. These sites usually offer a trickle of customers who seek general information about the company, its products, sales and support. Average sites generally have 5-14 pages. Site metrics show a steady monthly number with a few seasonal or holiday dips but generally average views.

So say a small business had a site with 14 pages (a rough average) created and designed for $5,000. Over the course of a year, there were 5,000 visitors who viewed 1 page. Your acquisition cost for the reader would be $1. Sounds ok, right?

This is where content strategy can change things. Say over the course of that year, you launched a blog with four pieces that helped better position your company as an expert. Smaller companies might have quality writers amongst their ranks but hiring an outside content expert is often a better investment because they can investigate what you do, find where you’re not marketing well and offer strategies for better web searches. The better the expert, the higher potential for creating blog posts that will outperform all the other content on the site. Say this costs $1,000.

Your site now has 18 pages with only four blog pieces live. This is where business owners begin to see the value of content.  Reviewing web site performance at the end of the year will reveal several things. First, those four pieces will likely be the most viewed stories on your site. Second, your total pageviews will increase. Third, your pages viewed per session rises.

Now say we go with a fairly conservative 7,500 pageviews per year success. Pages per session increases to two pages and the path that happens is often predictable, old customers still use the site for information (for the most part) but new customers use the blog as a way to enter your site and then click on your contact information. These new readers found you because they were searching for a solution, one that you might know how to fix. With the right information, that reader might buy your product or service. Readers who read more than one page are more likely to contact or remember your company when they need it. So at 7,500 pageviews, your cost per reader goes down to $0.80.  A lower cost for your website cost and you increased your company’s marketability for 20 cents less per reader.

This is simple overview about what content marketing can do for your site that doesn’t take into account the potential for people linking to your posts, commenting on them, sharing those links to broadcast your expertise. With those additions, cost per viewer decreases, knowledge about your expertise is raised and your business will improve.

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Why Sony Should Make the PS4’s DualShock 4 Compatible with PS3

ps3-ds4In the upcoming PS4 vs. Xbox One console war, many gamers haven’t decided which console they will buy.  And the group of gamers that decided on one console have shifted a few times as more information about each platform comes to light (based on conversations that I’ve had with industry friends). Powered by powerful yet similar platforms, their final decision will come down to the games, not the hardware.

Yet there’s a hidden opportunity to sell hardware here. Making the PlayStation 4’s new DualShock 4 controllers compatible with PlayStation 3. Both use Bluetooth and reviewers have already shown that the DualShock 4 controller does work with PS3 but not wirelessly. In retrospect, adding Bluetooth functionality to the PS3 was a brilliant idea, one that Sony can capitalize on.

Sony’s decision to enable a DualShock 4 on a PS3 would be a software and administrative debate. A basic set of drivers, delivered to PS3 owners before the PS4 launch would allow gamers to start getting used to the new controller. It helps PS3 owners refresh their existing machine. Those drivers might not make features like the Share, Touchpad, Lightbar or headset jack work (although the last would be greatly appreciated) but new is always a desire, especially if a gamer can’t afford the new PS4 yet.

Then my marketing side asks, “Why would Sony do this?”

Sony has always supported its older platforms as the newer platforms arrive. Plus, it would also allow Sony to increase sales of the newer controller SKUs as the older controllers become less desirable.

Next, it’s about the long tail. If I buy a DualShock 4 controller today, I’m more likely to buy a PlayStation 4 tomorrow as my hands get accustomed to the new design and my technophile brain asks, “I wonder what these non-functional buttons do.” Plus, I (as a cheap gamer) want to get more for my $59.99 DualShock 4 investment.
The Plan

On PlayStation 4’s launch day, Sony could cause a riot by dropping the price of DualShock 3 controllers by $10 to $49.99 and announce that the DualShock 4 is compatible with PS3. This will get PS3 fans to go to retail and get a new controller on launch day (hint, hint: when Sony would have the most marketing behind the PS4). A percentile of controller purchasers would also buy a new PS4 in the first few weeks anyways but for those on the fence, this would be a good long tail strategy for giving gamers a taste of PS4 via their PS3 and seeding a future console purchase near the holidays.

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How Microsoft Could Win E3 Without Halo

xboxoneThe first time I reported on Halo, I sat in a room at GameSpot, watched the Bungie team set up for a demo, one that we were told would be great. As fans of the Marathon and Myth series, we anxiously piled into a room to see what Bungie had planned.

We were shown an early scene that looked like a high-resolution photograph. What Bungie’s Doug Zartman did next was one of the funniest moments I had seen in gaming; Doug moved the mouse and the ships started moving. The room, a tough room of gaming pros with short attention spans and a long history of being “not-so-wowed” by such demos, stopped talking. The game? Halo.

That was August 6, 1999 (my proof) and that demo was on a Mac. That same demo, not long after, was the darling of the Apple fanbase and a way around Apple’s confusing game strategy (cough… Pippen and GameSprockets). And then the impossible happened. Microsoft bought Bungie. Might the impossible be just the thing that gets gamers to the Xbox One and not the PlayStation 4?

The Point

Microsoft’s recent showing of the Xbox One failed to connect with gamers. I suspected, and had already written, that the intent of the event was to connect with dads (read Xbox One: The All-In-One Dad Box), a group with the disposable capital, a need for fast-switching media features, integrated business features like Skype, access to a new Madden and a new kid-friendly Kinect. CNET’s Dan Ackerman agreed.

Gamers, in a word, were pissed. Where’s Halo 5? And yet, it gave a hint that was missed by many, Microsoft is investing $1 billion dollars in 15 new games, several of those being new IP. While some of that money will go to the internal studios, it is also an investment in studios that might create the next Halo. This, I suspect is just a part of what Microsoft might be planning for its next media event at E3 2013.

Yet, Microsoft needs to make the right investment, pen the right deals and ensure that it curates Xbox One-only games. Games that will get gamers to leap to Xbox One on day one, despite price. Two names, though controversial, stand out.  And while I haven’t been part of the global gaming industry for a while, either option would win.

The Options

Option 1: Epic. Given the recent departure of Cliff Bleszinski, Epic is in transition. Epic’s still a formidable force with the Xbox-exclusive Gears of War series and the broadly used Unreal game engine. Purchasing Epic would give Microsoft the Gears of War IP, one that it might merge into the media empire that it has been building for Halo under 343 Industries.

Making the Unreal engine Microsoft exclusive would ease current Unreal engine game makers to the new console and would give Microsoft massive strategic leverage in its licensing deals as well. It would take years for developers to create competition for Unreal, years that would make Xbox One huge.

Option 2: Valve. Nothing screams more hardcore than Valve, a company that owns its own IP, IP that would sell consoles. While the company is branching out in a new direction with its upcoming hardware platform (although more reserved now), gamers have been extremely vocal in their need for a new iteration in the Half-Life series. With Microsoft ownership, Valve (founded by former Microsoft employee Gabe Newell) might be asked to create Half-Life 3, a new Left 4 Dead Counter-Strike, and Portal 3 (and hopefully Dota). And Valve’s gaming services and distribution engine, Steam, would bring loads of core gamers to Microsoft’s console in droves, a clear way to differentiate cores from casuals.

And after Newell’s announcement that he was working with J. J. Abrams on transforming Portal or Half-Life onto the silver screen, this might also make it interesting for Microsoft’s 343 Industries’ growing media power.

I’ll admit that either option is wildly speculative. Yet, Microsoft has pulled such a move before. Every company has a price. I first played Halo on a Mac, what console did you play it on?

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Xbox One: The All-In-One Dad Entertainment Device

Curious about how marketing to dads is different? Check out this free “25 Tips & Trends for Modern Dad Marketing” guide that I wrote with Next Impulse Media. 

xboxoneMicrosoft’s Xbox One, the company’s next iteration in its gaming console series, did two things today. First, it got hardcore gamers angry about not showing 20 games that will take Sony, its competitor, to the races. Second, it got dads 20-40 excited.

It all began with the first video, Microsoft’s Ed Fries and Bill Gates, along with former Epic founder Cliff Bleszinski, Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima and movie gods JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Men, older, successful and known, nearly all with gray or salt and pepper hair graced the screen in support of the new gaming console.  Not those f-bombing crazy-haired 20-somethings looking to get more bleeps out than substance. Safe.

The console itself is unremarkable to look at but as always, features matter and this is where dads got excited. The new high def Kinect, which will be included with every Xbox One allows dads to be more lazy by yelling at the TV to change channels while doing more analysis, including heart rate. The biggest feature, which lasted several minutes, was the ability to actively switch from live game to live TV. Name a dad who wouldn’t kill for that. And it will feature a Blu-ray drive.

While the details were thin, there was enough there to build a foundation. Even when the built-in Skype was used to call Xbox Live’s David Jurenka, the goal wasn’t to showcase Mr. Jurenka but to show a feature that dads might use.

As always, EA SPORTS took to the stage with a highly polished video to tout Madden NFL 25, FIFA 14 and UFC games including a video with the Washington Redskins’ RGIII. Nothing controversial. ESPN features were shown so that fantasy football players could get live updates of their fantasy feeds. Again, dad feature.

The equally safe Forza 5 Motorsports showcased a new engine that looked impressive based on the pre-rendered video (despite no dirt being kicked up around the tires during the closeup) and the best example of catering to dad was Remedy’s next game called Quantum Break. The video footage shows a family leaving a house and a dad asking the girl to hurry up. The mother asks her young daughter, “What is it about you that makes you so different?” The girl extends her hand, touches her mother’s neck and shows her a future disaster where a ship crashes into a bridge and the world turns upside down. Total. Dad. Fodder.

Then onto Halo, an older series, one IP that Microsoft owns outright. Its head of entertainment, Nancy Tellem, a former CBS exec, who touted having a part in shows like CSI and Survivor (shows that dads like) announced that Microsoft was creating a new live-action show based on Halo and being created with Steven Spielberg.

And finally, these was Call of Duty: Ghosts. Apart from a new graphical engine that shows soldiers skin tones better than ever before and how the new game would embrace the use of dogs, the one thing that was really missing was a lot of details about multiplayer. Why? Most dads don’t care about multiplayer because we get killed but they love dogs. Meh feature? Yup, for non-dads.

Now, test your friends and see which ones most enjoyed the Xbox One unveiling. I’ll bet you’ll see the trend too. Thanks Microsoft for delivering what we needed. Love, Dads.

 

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Hope and Poverty in Ethiopia

Poverty shocks. And it should. As people, we hope the best for our neighbors, we wish them well and we hope that the fates decide to impart good will and prosperity. Americans don’t really know poverty. After my third recent trip to Ethiopia, I know what poverty looks like.

Back in the United States, we have “the poverty line” and Americans below it might go to bed with food in the bellies, a roof over their heads and a light to beat back the night. Here, all three of those things would be viewed as luxuries.

In Ethiopia, poverty makes its own line, a line that’s often obvious, visual and shocking. And while chanting “this is how many live” in your mind, your eyes open to the vision of beautiful children who come to greet you, hands outstretched, smiles gleaming like the summer sun and a nice strong hug like that from a niece, nephew or grandchild. Loving, strong, happy to see you there.

Despite every warning and the loads of Purell swirling in my bag, hugging every one you can greet, kissing their heads and drawing them close is just so instinctual, it’s primal. And it comes with its own reward, your heart lifts, your arms spin from child to child, they kiss in return, greet you in beautifully broken English with childlike syllables…  until the second part of this meeting begins.

When the children step back, that poverty line draws itself. First, their clothes are dirty, filthy, tattered with holes. Holes that often give not-so-tiny glimpses of a frail body and tell the tales of many wearers before this one. They live in these clothes until they inherit another. Step back again, many lack pants so kids just run around with a shirt, hopefully one that will cover them from the waist down, often they don’t.

Second, bellies jut out like those after a healthy American steak dinner. But those bellies aren’t full; they’re empty. So empty that a lack of protein has begun to break down muscle in an anaerobic process that produces gas and inflates the belly, leaving a signature and yet false impression of nutrition. Over the course of time, that gas and the other processes associated with the condition will balloon back on the body’s vital organs, causing them to harden, swell and potentially fail.

Third, it’s the marks on the body and the gray ghosts in the eyes of kids that hit you the most. While many of these kids are loved, their environment hardens them and the marks given to them by parents, other kids or even neighbors present themselves readily as scars that should have had stitches, cuts that healed but could have been better if there were access to medical care. And then you see the ghosts in the darkest of beautiful of nearly black and earthy brown eyes. Cataracts are common here. You see it in the eyes of the elderly, faint specks of whitened contrast stitched into the proud, sun-wrinkled faces of many. Yet, seeing those ghosts in the eyes of kids, ghosts that appear through genetics or poor drinking water, and knowing that those ghosts will only grow without medical intervention makes it hard not to help.

Despite all the hardship, these are a proud people, a people who know their history and love to share their tales with an open ear. In such conditions, you’d be amazed that the one thing Ethiopians have in abundance is smiles. At first, smiling seems absurd, like laughing at a funeral. Then you come to understand that they have accepted this as life, and while they might get enjoyment from having more, they’ve come to accept their lives as is. So they smile. Eventually, you begin to smile to.

And yet, I saw many glimmers of hope too. I attended a school run by FOVC Ethiopia where I met kids who were allowed to rise above their potential paths for a time, learning about a different road and given the opportunity to one day run down it.

I watched as they learned not only English, they learned Amharic (one of Ethiopia’s major languages) as well as learning to improve their own native tongue, Wolotygna along with math, science, anatomy and other topics. Entering any room, you saw each class run by a teacher who probably felt momentary fear by the foreigners, only to then watch her pride of students recite their lessons, breath in and know that she’s done her best.

Between classes, children were allowed to run around before they reentered their classrooms. We brought a soccer ball, two volleyballs and two basketballs and the kids were overjoyed to get the brand new equipment. Yet, when class was about to begin, they return to their rooms, ready to learn, although still wildly curious about the ferengi (foreigners) running around their campus – especially our blond-haired nine-year-old son who was happy to play soccer with the boys and appears to have also gained a small and vibrant female following.

At lunchtime, we discovered that the children here are an active part of the campus, each with assignments and responsibilities. We watched as some helped cook injera (the staple bread of nearly every Ethiopian diet) and a protein-rich shiro wat (a spicy bean stew that tastes better than it sounds).  Another kid placed the injera on a plate, another poured a ladle of shiro on the injera, another walked it out of the room, another in the room passed it to a fellow classmate. Unlike American lunchrooms, this one was quiet, orderly and respectful. These kids get two square meals a day, five days a week. Food is a privilege, not something to ignore.

So why this school? My family sponsors one boy who’s a student here. Several of our friends and family members also sponsor children and they were overjoyed to receive gifts from their sponsors.  We discovered that our sponsored son happens to be best friends with our friend’s sponsored son and it was great to hear them in person as we gave them gifts. We brought six bags, over 300 lbs. of donated clothes, soccer cleats, socks and books as well… gifts that the rest of the school population will soon get as gifts for Ethiopian Easter. Gifts that we would have never have brought without the generosity of our friends, their friends, their kids and local organizations. During the three times I visited the school, only one child asked me for something, our sponsored son. I guess he really does view me as a dad.

We’re tied to this area for life. Our daughter was born not far away. These kids are her people and while we took her from here to walk a new road in America, this is where her road began. Hopefully we inspired them to make new roads to improve their lives, one tiny step forward every day. For we were deeply inspired by them and we’re already working to get several unsponsored kids sponsored. If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, I’d be happy to make the introduction.

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