Thursday, February 23, 2017

I fear heights.

I was leading a climb up Mt Baker two years ago when we came to a snow bridge spanning a glacial crevasse so deep I could smell chinese food cooking. I scurried across then took up the slack to protect the next climber on our rope team, an ER Doc with no previous climbing experience. He paused before starting, looked down into the blackness and drew a long whiff of chow mien. His feet shuffled back and forth but his body did not advance. I’d seen this before. 
“The bridge will hold,” I shouted. “I just crossed it. Super solid. Totally bomber.” He leaned forward, then straightened and tried again yet remained immobile. “There’s no shame in crawling across,” I offered, though actually there is a lot of shame in it. He dropped to hands and knees, proceeding at a speed so cautious as to amplify the risk of collapse by ten fold. 

Like most fears, a fear of heights originates from our catalogue of self preservation measures. It activates a valuable sense of caution when the risk of injury or death is present. In and of itself, a fear of heights is not a bad thing. But for some this fear can manifest in an irrational form, like being afraid to ride an escalator or to meet a friend at her office on the ninth floor. For most of the Sardine Safety nation this is not a problem, but one reader confessed this affliction recently and so, for the sake of all who suffer silently, I will take it on.

Do something about it.
First off, those who suffer from a severe fear of heights should do something about it. A lot of joy is robbed from a person’s life as they miss out on various activities which in fact present little or no risk at all. What’s worse, the regular presentation of fear can have real psychological and physical costs. So here are some do’s and don’ts offered by the folks who treat this disorder. 

Don’t try a self-imposed shock therapy by forcing yourself to do something that scares the hell out of you, like sky diving or riding a roller coaster. Though you will survive the experience the people who talked you into it won’t, and it is likely your phobia will end up worse than ever. 

Do try to understand your triggers. Do you experience this fear in situations not involving heights? You may just suffer from a general anxiety disorder. Is the context consistent with a bad experience? For instance, did your older brother talk you into jumping off the carport roof using a common umbrella as a parachute when you were 6 and now you feel fearful every time you stand at the edge of a carport roof? 

Do consider the actual likelihood of your feared event. Those with milder forms of a phobia can sometimes be helped by fact-based considerations. The Insurance Industry Table of Mortality Risk sheds a bit of light on this topic. Lets take one specific example; death by falling from a ladder or scaffolding. In America, your odds of dying by this means is 1 in 752,000 for any given year. That’s about the same likelihood as drowning in your bathtub. Do you ride a motorcycle? You are five times more likely to die in a motorcycle crash. If logic has any say in the matter you should either stop fearing falling from a ladder or start fearing your bathtub  …and a long list of other things.

Do consider the probable outcome of the feared event. The vast majority of falls off a ladder end up with a bruise, not death. You can handle that. 

Do practice safety. With proper use there is no reason to fear falling. Remember, as with boating and sex, three points of contact should be maintained at all times.

Do relax. Mindfulness exercises like meditation or yoga help to quiet the niggling voices of neurosis.

Do consider cutting down on caffeine. High levels of caffeine consumption have been shown to aggravate people’s acrophobia. 

Do experience your fear …in tiny escalating increments. You might chose a tall building and see how close you can get to the first floor window before your fear engages. Take one step back, practice your relaxation technique for five minutes, then see if you can manage to move one step forward. In this fashion you may be able to move up, floor by floor, chasing your fear skyward. 
Virtual reality has opened up promising therapies in the treatment of various phobias, allowing patients to experience visual stimuli that might otherwise trigger their fear while knowing they are in no real danger and enjoy the coaching voice of a trusted support person. Click here for a great article on this. 

Do consider seeing a Therapist. You don’t have to feel this way. Many like you have been cured by the careful guidance of a trained therapist. Here is an article on acrophobia on the Good Therapy site. You will see a search feature on the right hand side that allows you to enter your zip code and find a list of credentialed therapists in your area. 

You can beat this thing! I promise! I am so confident that I will wager $100 on it. That’s right. If you do all of the above and die having still not shed your fear of heights I will pay you $100. No one has yet come to collect. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

I fear Fake News.

I recently asked my Facebook community what they fear. One of the friends who wrote back said “I fear fake news; not for its contents, but for its effects on the population.” True dat. Though some still deny the impact of fake news in the recent presidential election (really?!) there is no question it has real life consequences. The clearest example of this came on Dec 4, 2016 when Edgar Welch walked into a D.C. pizzeria and lit the place up with an AR 15. The hacked emails of John Podesta included a mention of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, which conspiracy theorists somehow interpreted to be code for a child sex trafficking organization run by Bill and Hillary Clinton in the back room of that restaurant. Here is an article published the month before the shooting. It is alarming to read the comments following it and observe first hand the conviction displayed by those who believed the premise.  Certainly no half intelligent person would believe such a crazy tale (and you can bet the purveyors of these articles will claim so in their defense. “The fault does not lie in our spreading of ridiculous stories, your honor, but in the stupidity of the people who actually believe them”) but the continuum of intellect runs a broad spectrum in any population and there will always be those who believe everything they read. “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way,” Edgar Welch, 28, told a reporter from the New York Times, adding: “I regret how I handled the situation.” In other words “My bad.”

A brief history of Fake News. 
There are three unrelated developments that came together in recent years to create what will surely be known as the golden age of fake news. Separately they are the Iron, carbon, and manganese of everyday life. But collectively these elements resulted in a metal so precious it could give an Alchemist a wet dream. Fake news. 

The first trend was the political segmentation of America. Though we have always been a people of differing views, it has never been so easy to silence the voice of those with whom you disagree. Once voting districts were gerrymandered into clubs of political purity the candidates for those districts no longer had to cheat their way toward middle ground. Indeed, voters insisted that these candidates represent the farthest point of their respective doctrine, believing such rigidity was the only answer to the extreme representatives elected by the opposing party. Moderates were vaporized and from their smoke emerged a league of unblinking certainty merchants. Before long the news channels split off into left or right-leaning perspectives, which allowed viewers to only hear the ideas they already agreed with. Then social media helped people form up in groups, further insulating themselves by booting dissenters in a McCarthy-like purge. As a result, the two political extremes came to know very little about one another …which made it easy to sell a lie about one party to members of the other. And we gobbled it up, happy to accept any information that reinforced our white-hot hatred. 

Meanwhile, the business of the internet was evolving. Content became the name of the game because providers could get paid for every click their article generated. At first it was cute cat videos and people doing dumb stunts. The ads that appeared in these features paid the freight. Next the news outlets joined the game, posting a short clip of their best story or article each day. Then non-news people started posting headlines that promised much more than the article delivered, purely for the sake of getting readers to click on it—-what came to be known as “click bait”. From there fake news was just a few steps away, featuring provocative headlines and a story that delivered on its promise, even if it was entirely made up. 

The final trend involved a slow devaluation of facts, leading President Obama at one point to exclaim “facts just don’t seem to matter anymore.” Concerted efforts were exercised to block or deny scientific testimony in Congress, the CDC was forbidden from studying gun-related deaths, and “agree to disagree” became the settling point wherever truth met ignorance. Opinions gathered like cream at the top of each bucket of truth, and reality was crushed beneath the weight of personal liberty. 

So there you have it; An easily targeted group could be exploited for profit and they really didn’t mind the exploitation. Fake news. 

Here is a link to an excellent podcast done by Planet Money of NPR  Finding the fake news king.  In this 15 minute piece they actually track down one of the guys who created much of the fake news circulated throughout the presidential election. He made over $30,000 a month pumping that crap out and doesn’t feel an ounce of remorse. 

What we can do.
Back to the fear. Sardine Safety is all about pushing back against fear and my Facebook friend is fearful of fake news and the existential threats it represents. I think we can agree this threat is real and, unchecked, will lead us all down a very dark path. So the next question is “What can we do about it?”  

Learn to recognize fake news. You might think you’re already good at this. You might be wrong. Click here to take a 10 question quiz including both true and fake stories that saw wide readership during the election. See if you can sort them out. 

Here is a list, compiled by Professor Melissa  Zimdars of Merrimack College in Massachusetts , of known purveyors of fake news. Zimdars subsequently received threats for publishing this. Such are the power and money at stake. 

4 Politicops (aka Newslo, Politicalo) 
5 (Also includes intentional satire)
6 (Includes a mix of conspiracy theories and real news)
7 (Appears to have stopped publishing in December)
8 (Hasn't updated in over a year)
12 (Appears to have stopped publishing in November)
13 (Includes fake news and satire)
18 Associated Media Coverage (aka the Seattle Tribune)

24 Nutbar Factor (Includes mix of real news)
25 Trump Insurrection (Includes mix of real news)

Check the source!  
Before you click on a headline, before you allow your blood pressure to start rising, and absolutely before you share something——CHECK THE SOURCE! The source is usually featured in the lower left corner of the headline (just below the photo) in faded font. If any of the above listed sites appear you know the article is complete bullshit. Then go back up stream to whomever shared the article and, in the kindest way possible, point out that they have been duped and frankly you thought they were smarter than this. If there is no source listed you are absolutely looking at fake news. Credible sources always list themselves on their pieces. It’s how they garner readership and thus how they make money. No source? No read. 

Fake News sites frequently abandon their names once the word gets out and pop up under a new moniker. So look for these clues
-A legitimate name with a little something extra in the address like Politico is a well regarded news source that publishes Pulitzer Prize winning journalism at Fake news merchants like to hitchhike on someone else’s credibility, and by adding usa to the title they direct readers to their own site full of rat crap. 
-Something extra in the address. #3 on the above list is That co changes everything! The same is true for uk , us, or any number of other letters added to the end of an otherwise legitimate site address. You might be thinking “Hey, 90% of that title is legit so most of what I read there is solid.” You are an idiot. 
- A surprising headline that somehow hasn’t been covered by the mainstream media. If there is breaking news to be had you can bet it won’t be scooped by some 7th grader clicking away during study hall. Just google a few key words from the title and include a reliable source ( i.e. Pope endorses NRA birth control ABC News). If the only thing that comes up is the same site that published the piece on your FB news feed then you’ve got a total corn dog. 
An author who clearly wants to hide his identity. I was checking out a fake news site a moment ago and found numerous features penned by someone named Dirtdawg. Unless he was born into a biker clan I seriously doubt you would find that name on his birth certificate. True journalists are proud to associate themselves with their work. 
- Verify the story. is a site dedicated to outing fake news, regardless of political target. Just type the title of your questionable article in the search bar of the snopes home page and wait for the truth bomb. 

Be that guy. 
By now we all know fake news is a problem and most of us, myself included, have made the mistake of sharing a fake news article before properly vetting it. Some of us will start checking the articles shared among our friend groups while others can’t be bothered. But all it takes is one person within each FB group willing to call it out. Be that guy. Everyone will appreciate that you are making their group a safe space for truth. If you do your vetting properly the cumulative effect of your mounding credibility will lead to calls that you run for public office and ultimately…

Thursday, February 9, 2017


Prefering the use of nuance, I have delayed discussing how politicians use fear as a means to their ends until such time that it wasn't so G-damn obvious. But alas, Scaramouche, someone has loosed the monkeys and we will not soon be rid of their menace. So here goes. 

Let us begin with the understanding that happy people, content and comfortable with their station, are very hard to lead. Their indifference to your pleas are only exceeded by the ease with which their attention is stolen by that piece of spinach clinging to your teeth. So the first rule of leadership is to remove their comfort. This is why coaches tell their teams they are underdogs, and anything said to senior citizens must somehow imply that their social security benefits are at risk. From there a person is typically cast into one of two visceral emotions; fear or anger. It is important that people be moved into an emotional state, as opposed to heightened intellectual engagement, because nothing sniffs out bullshit quicker than rational thought and you might need your charge to jump some logical chasm. 

Though anger works well, it tends to have a short life. The gravity of comfort is too great for most folks to break loose for more than two or three furious orbits. This is why anger must be used sparingly, and only in the final moments before the call to action. But fear is cumulative, and Politicians know that regular installments of it will guide your voting choices in the direction of their choosing. Incumbants will pick apart the platforms of their rivals, casting doubt and uncertainty like chicken feed in a barn yard. Challengers will, in every single case, insist that you are unhappy with the status quo, providing miriad reasons, both real and imagined, why this is the case. Both are using various paths to fear and discomfort. Then, in the final weeks before voting, they will push the anger button and hope for the best. 

I have this theory that people tend to repeat actions that work for them. Like a rat that gets a treat every time it pushes a lever, we come back again and again. Politicians use fear and anger because it works. It's just that simple. And the closer the race, the more they will lean on those emotions. This is why so little time is spent actually talking about what they will do, how their vision of a wonderful tomorrow can be brought to life, and what is already good about the place we find ourselves in. 

But the Sardine Safety nation rejects fear, and is inherently suspicious of those who use it. Ours is an intelligent school, which is why we cannot be driven to the surface and ravaged by predators.  We thrive and grow stronger by summoning our collective intellect to cut through the bullshit. We know that the only way to improve society is to elect sound, thoughtful, genuine public servants, and those of us who allow themselves to be pulled into battles of negativity are incapable of doing so. How many people can claim pride in putting an American on the moon because they didn't vote for Nixon in 1960? When the nation saw those first steps on the moon, was anybody thinking about all the reasons they were fearful of Nixon's proposals? No. And the same can be said of every other great moment in our history. No amount of disbelief in one choice equals believing in the other. They are separate processes. As such, the Sardine Safety Nation only gives energy to that they can believe in. They vest in it, talk about it, and invite others to join them. 

Now go forth, my little fishys, be fearless, thoughtful and believing.  Be generous with that energy, and swim swim swim. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cable News = Entertainment

The above image is classic cable news strategy; Say something really frightening, anything at all, even if it makes no damn sense (like the notion that a virus would share the same intent as ISIS) , but put a question mark at the end of your statement. They do this just before cutting to commercial so you'll stay hooked. Let's give it a try. If you wanted to really shock someone what would you say? How about this: Japan is killing Americans!  Not bad, but it has to be a question so we can later say "Hey, I didn't say Japan is killing Americans. I just asked the question." Let's go with Is Japan killing Americans? Nice. On a slow news day people would gobble this up. Better yet, we should use it on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack! Now we are tapping into all kinds dormant fear. Fear fear fear. Lovely. And while no reasonable person would think such a thing is factual, our query suggests there must be some actual possibility or else we wouldn't be asking the question. Quickly, let's cash in on this by selling some Chevys, teeth whitening strips, and a promo for our other program that we call news but is just a handful of nobodys talking out of their a##'s. Cha Ching $$$$$$$$! Back to our broadcast and the story of how nuclear waste from the Fukashima reactor has been detected in the waters off California.  An "expert" will attest to this fact then let us down easy by saying "trace levels of radiation do not pose a serious threat at this point." Then, to keep the story alive, he will warn that this could take a turn for the worse at any time so he will be back with updates. Viewers will feel a little duped, of course, because they imagined Japanese firing squads or long lost POWs being cast down a volcano, but hey, that was their mind at work. We didn't say any of that. Now, let's hit 'em with a colorful graphic and ominus music to lead into our next story before they change the channel.

We must begin by recognizing that televised news is a business. These programs make money by selling the advertising sprinkled throughout their broadcast. The more viewers a news program garners, the more money it can demand from advertisers. That part is pretty straight forward; produce a fact-filled news cast, well researched, clearly explained, and people will tune in. Protect the integrity of your work and viewers will come back again and again as you earn their trust. This was the model throughout the golden years of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, and it worked beautifully.

But several things changed with the advent of cable news, rendering the old model obsolete. Instead of the news being a one hour broadcast, we suddenly had channels pumping news out 24 hours a day. Yet the world was still producing the same amount of newsworthy items. So a lot of junk that would have never made the cut in the Walter Cronkite era now finds its way into prime time broadcasts. But cable news knows it has to really sell that crap to convince viewers that it is meaningful to them so queue the flashy graphics, bold music and obscure "experts" drug before the camera like some wide-eyed nocturnal animal. Then, when real news does happen, the cable news outlets run the story over and over, speculating recklessly while facts are still forming. I watched Wolf Blitzer fill ten minutes of air time the other day by simply restating the same sentence over and over until some new insight was pumped through his ear piece. The man is a master -- not at news --he asks very few hard questions--but at keeping viewers engaged while the minutes count down to the next commercial break. THAT, dear readers, is what Wolf is paid to do, which is a completly different job than the one occupied by Dan Rather.

But the offense goes far beyond poor reporting and the dressing up of news that isn't really news. Consider the tone of what you see on cable news. The vast majority of stories are designed to make you feel either fear or anger. Try watching a cable news program sometime and just ask yourself after each story what emotion it left you with. They will give you just enough happy to keep you from slitting your wrists (dead viewers are of little value) but otherwise it's a steady diet of fear and anger, garnished with sadness. In fact, the negative bias of the news media is so well understood that the people in that industry would be the last to refute this claim. Why is this so? Because it works.

I'll save for another article the psycological explanation for why we are more attentive to bad news than good, and simply state for now that such a propensity is most certainly hard-wired into our being. Think about it: If the opening story of a news cast talked about how things are pretty much O.K. in the world you would reach for the remote and be watching Naked and afaid before they cut to weather. So it's not surprising the news hits you right between the eyes at the start. Have you ever heard the expression "If it bleeds it leads"? That's what's going on.

All of this, combined with a sensationalism normally reserved for 14 year old girls, adds up to a city tour through the alleys of anxiety. And yet, asking cable news to change this would be like demanding that Jack Daniels remove the alcohol from its whiskey. In both cases we choose to consume. Herein, however, lies the critical distinction. We all know shitty news is bad for us, but we haven't yet figured out that is what we are watching. It is as if someone swapped our kool aid for a high ball and now we're too drunk to know it.

So I ask you, my fellow sardines, what use is it for you to know on day four of the Malaysian Air  370 disappearance that it still has not been found? Are you going to go look for it? Are you going to write your senators and ask them to go look for it? Did you send money to the families of the passengers? I just heard three "no"s. You found the whole incident sad and it made you that much more fearful of both flying and Malaysia. In the mean time Fox News or CNN made a wad of cash in exchange. Are you better off? Are the passengers of that plane better off? Cable news is the only winner here, and they won big.

If you still hunger to know all the world's sadness I suggest you either purchase your news content (Rueters is an excellent source and The Economist has a great app for $2.99/month) or listen to NPR. Your information will be void of drama and hyperbole. As well, local network news (which still clings to dignity) offers information that may directly affect you by way of proximity. That said, it's hard to imagine the consumption of any news without accumulating fear on some level. So my advice to the Sardine Safety nation is that you opt out entirely. Don't watch, read, or listen to the news. If something truly relevant should arise you will hear about it from your barber or some lady in the checkout isle. In the mean time keep swimming.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sardine Safety - because fear is a choice.

I was imagining recently what it would be like to work as a Coroner in the sardine world. Aside from there being no remains to examine, every single death certificate would show the cause of death as "Eaten". Eaten eaten eaten... Sardines don't fall off ladders or get struck by lightening. They aren't gunned down by an ex-lover or succumb to the effects of obesity. If a sardine gets a little sick he might swim slower and, as a result, become a prime target for a predator. He will die of barracuda long before the common cold takes him. Life. Death. Not much in between.

So there it is. The sardine goes about his business, swimming with his school, right up to the moment he becomes lunch. He probably doesn't even see it coming. In the dense schools that sardines travel, each fish is reacting to the fish beside him in an instant chain reaction moving inward from the outter-most fish. Any given sardine in the middle is just thinking OK, we're turning left now. More left. Sharp right turn. What the hell?! I'm eaten! Shit! Right up to that point the sardine's life was pretty good. He just hung out with his friends, feeding on zooplankton without a care in the world. The main reason the sardine lived without fear is that he knew he was protected by the greatest form of safety one could ever choose, what I call Sardine Safety.

Sardine Safety is the principal that you are but one fish in a vast school. If a dolphin dashes in to eat a sardine it is very unlikley it will be you. The larger your school, the less likely still. Even if the dolphin trys to target you specifically he will starve to death during the chase as you easily disappear, again and again, into the camoflage of a million identical sardines.

The Lion Fish swims alone. He is protected by venomous tenticles and, being a rugged individualist, he likes things that way. But the major short-coming of this is that whenever trouble comes it is coming for him. He might be handy with his weapons, but any predator worth his sushi will take the sting as fair trade for an easy lunch and move on.

Us humans enjoy sardine safety. There are billions of us. Just counting the United States, our school adds up to 320 million sardine. But somewhere along the way we forgot about this. We are told on a daily basis about some new threat we should fear like home invasions or a roller coaster crash, and the telling is done with such personal concern that we come to feel vulnerable, certain that it is just a matter of time before we too perish in a carnival accident. Little surprise that most of us see ourselves more as Lion fish, dreading the inevitable and just hoping to get in a few good licks on our way to the digestive tract.

On a personal scale this introduces a host of anxieties to our lives which are often neutralized by sardine safety, but no one mentions that part. Just as often, we are told to fear fish that don't even swim in our waters. This robs a great deal of joy from our lives while doing nothing to make us safer. There are whole industies that profit from telling us to be afraid. The insurance industry, politicians and the various forms of media are prime offenders. There is a great deal of money to be made in telling people to be afraid and, for reasons we will explore later, there is zero profit in telling them not to be. So no one bothers. Until now.  Sardine Safety will serve as a counter voice to these forces, and to assure the integrity of what it is written here, Sardine Safety will not accept donations or sell advertising of any kind (O.K., a nice bottle of wine would not be unwelcome). All Sardine Safety wants is to reduce the anxiety in your life by way of facts, logic, and humor so you can get back to being a happy sardine. swim swim swim.

On a collective scale Sardine Safety hopes to influence the choices we make in the allocation of public funds. Too often our elected officials spend money on things they know we already perceive to be a risk because it has been covered extensively in the news cycle, like terrorism or Ebola. Who could ever fault them for spending on such obvious threats to our safety? Yet, the actual risk is quite small when compared to lightening strikes, which kill about 1,000 americans per year, and the flu, which kills over 30,000 americans annually. If 2% of the budget for fighting terrorism, which kills 300 americans per year, were used to provide free flu shots to every man, woman, and child in the U.S. we might easily save 15,000 lives. There should be a conversation about these choices. Sardine Safety hopes to be a part of that dialogue.