Ebola and ISIS and the Psychology of Fear

October 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Ebola

There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.

Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:

Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries.   According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.

Odds of an American getting killed in a terrorist attack: 1 in 20 million (Washington Post). Odds of an American who has not traveled to western Africa getting Ebola? Virtually zero (Bloomberg.com).

Being legally executed:  What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death?  Way more probable than getting Ebola.  The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.

The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.

Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.

Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.

Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.

Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.

Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.

In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:

At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.

Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.

The Ten Favorite Books Thing

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Books

My dear friend, Angie Stiepel Case, challenged me to select my ten favorite books and then I’m supposed to nominate ten other friends to do the same- like a Facebook literary chain letter.  I adore Angie but I have a paranoid suspicion that this was invented by some fiendish Facebook employee as a means of getting us all to give up precious, marketable details about our literary tastes that will be exploited by aggressive algorithms that will populate our newsfeeds with ever more highly targeted ads designed to penetrate our very psyches.

So here are my ten, complete with humorous anecdotes and memories attached.  Considering all the books ever written, I would say my selections reveal me to be a fairly shallow individual who was basically formed in the 70’s and 80’s and never really grew up.  But I’m happy that way.

In no particular order:

The World According to Garp- John Irving: The book was better than the movie which starred Robin Williams as Garp. But the film had a great scene that lives in my memory forever.  Garp and his wife are looking to buy a house and as they step out of their car onto the driveway, a small plane crashes through the roof of the place.  Garp immediately puts an offer on the home asking what are the chances that happens again.

Little Big Man- Thomas Berger: The film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffman is the 104-year old Jack Crabb who recounts a life of “injuns,” (raised by the Cheyenne nation) and savage U.S. cavalry, with real life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer. Chief Dan George was nominated for an academy award.  Author, Thomas Berger, passed away last July and I bought the book and it is just as fantastic and touching as the movie.  He is a terrific writer.  In its day, the book and movie were considered a protest of sorts against the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era, but it stands on its own without that baggage and reads like one of the best historical novels on the American west…ever.

Contact- Carl Sagan: Another book turned into a movie starring Jodie Foster and Mathew McConaughey. They are very different works.  The movie does the best job ever of depicting the moment contact is made with intelligent life.  The audio representation of the contact is not scientifically accurate at all but the poetic license taken is totally justified.  The movie does not have what was the mind-blowing ending in Carl Sagan’s novel.  One of the best science fiction endings of all time, in my opinion.  Hidden, deep, deep in the calculation of Pi, a super computer discovers a pattern that is an undeniable message from an alien force so powerful, it can alter mathematics; a force so clever that it knows its message cannot be found until a civilization builds powerful enough computing skills to demonstrate the necessary technical proficiency and advancement.  Carl Sagan!

Lincoln- Gore Vidal: One of the best historical novels of all time. Vidal paints a vivid picture of civil war Washington, complete with its houses of ill repute, the dusty streets, the stench of the canal that ran behind the White House, spies that crossed the Long Bridge to enter Washington from Virginia.  A masterful, memorable work.

Chesapeake, Space, Alaska- James A. Michner: Ok, three books listed as one but it’s Michner.  I remember reading just about all his books on various beaches over various summers.  This trio are my favorites.

Lucifer’s Hammer- Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: One of my favorite post-apocolyptic novels. Big Meteorite hits the Earth head-on.  The build-up is terrific.  The strike itself is well-described- like the surfers who paddle into the Pacific to catch the wave of their lives- a full-fledged tsunami that leaves one of them dying spectacularly as he slams into a Los Angeles skyscraper.  Good stuff.

Rendevous with Rama- Arthur C. Clarke: Layer upon layer of imagination and mind-bending discoveries aboard a gigantic alien vessel with breath-taking detail, a master work by the greatest science fiction writer of all time.

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy- W.P. Kinsella: One of the lesser known baseball novels by the author of Field of Dreams.  A bizarre, metaphysical, mysterious journey through the prism of a baseball game that refuses to end.

The Pillars of the Earth- Ken Follet: You have to love a historical novel about the building of cathedrals that stars as its protagonist a man named Tom Builder.  The middle ages in a wonderful mix of palace intrigue, intimate character development and medieval architecture.

Breakfast of Champions- Kurt Vonnegut: The favorite author of my youth.  I read everything he wrote and then wrote like him.  And thought like him.  Biting satire; humor with meaning.  He was my literary hero.  Breakfast of Champions is notable in my life for the following weird reason.  I had a final paper due in college- a dense book review due at 8am.  At 10pm, I had not written a word.  But I had just read Breakfast of Champions.  I plopped a coffee and a bottle of no-doz on the 7-11 counter.  The cashier must have sensed I was a young college student preparing for a cram session and magically produced a couple of amphetamines.  It was destiny. I swear, it’s the only time I ever took white crosses.  But that was 1975 and the statute of limitations has surely run out by now.

Anyway, the journey that followed was a spirited creative frenzy, to say the least. For those who may not have read the book, Kurt Vonnegut himself makes an appearance in the novel and totally freaks out his own main character by revealing himself as his creator.  I drew up a three-tiered chart explaining each reality-within-reality that Vonnegut constructed.  I wrote whimsically about the hilarious diagrams Vonnegut sprinkled throughout the book like the thing that looked pretty much like an asterisk * – which was Vonnegut’s representation of an asshole.  I’m sure I wrote other much more intelligent things that I’ve since forgotten because I really was on quite a roll.

I think I may have also written a review of Welcome to the Monkey House.  That was a collection of Vonnegut short stories that features my all-time favorite- Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog.  The famous inventor creates a head-phone-like device that can measure intelligence.  He notices his dog looking a little nervous.  Edison puts the headphones on the dog and sure enough, the IQ level is three times that of his own.  The dog admits the great scam that has been perpetrated on the human race and later has to pay the price, attacked by all the neighborhood dogs who caught wind that he had betrayed the ancient secret.

I drove to school, turned the paper in at precisely 8am drove back home and passed out. The following week I got an A+.  On my final.  Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.  Always and forever.

I am currently refraining from naming the ten others I would challenge for their favorite books in case this really is a ruse by evil algorithm creators.  I will revisit the matter at a later time.  I trust this is not like breaking a chain letter and that I now have 7 years of bad luck or something. 

 

 

 

This Summer of Horrible News- Get Away From It If You Can

GLOOMBERG-NEWS-222x300

- The 7-year-old son of an Australian member of ISIS is pictured holding the decapitated head of a soldier, a photo distributed on social media by his father.

- A white towel drapes the corpse of 18 year old, Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, two days from starting his first day at college, shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend.

- Far-ranging rockets fly into the night, aimed at Israeli citizens while shells land in “safe” places housing Palestinian refugees, wounding and killing women and children.

- Another 135 people die in a single day from the deadly Ebola virus, now spreading through West Africa.

- An actor and comedian who captured our hearts for over three decades with his obvious love and passion for life, kills himself- the victim of a deep depression.

- An airliner with 300 innocents aboard gets shot out of the sky over Ukraine and it is days before repatriation of the bodies and burials can take place as armed insurgents keep even investigators from reaching the scene.

- Thousands of Central American children who survive a 1,300 mile trek to the American border escaping violent gangs in their home countries, are dispersed throughout towns and villages in the U.S. while the government decides what do with them. In many of those towns, angry protestors demand the children leave and let it be known they are not welcome.

- American politicians forget the art of compromise and the business of governing grinds to a halt as partisan gridlock leaves our Congress as one of the least respected institutions in the nation, unable to address any of the country’s problems.

These eight news stories have one thing in common. These are the headlines of our summer of 2014. I am not alone in remarking about how bleak and horrible the world seems right now. Certainly, for those of us who work in the news business, where these dismal stories are part of our normal routine, it is hard to take. And for those not in the media or journalism worlds, it is all equally appalling and sad.

There is only one answer to this as far as I can tell. The world, despite our best efforts, is not going to fix itself. But you do have the power, mostly, of determining what information you receive. So unplug. Just disconnect every now and then. Don’t watch the news. Stay away from news web sites. Go outside. Breath clean air. Go for a walk. Take in a comedy club. Go to a baseball game. Rediscover your partner.

We all need to take a break from this horrid summer of news. For our own mental health.

Tough Guy Putin Not Looking So Great

Putin Tough Guy

Shortly after the Winter Olympics, back when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and was making moves into eastern Ukraine, he seemed to become the darling of some of the administration’s harshest foreign policy critics.

After the action in Crimea, former New York Mayor, Rudi Giuliani, seemed to admire how the Russian leader was so decisive, telling Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, “[H]e makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader,” Giuliani said.

In March, Sarah Palin, said this to Sean Hannity:

Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s — the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.

Rush Limbaugh weighed in too:

Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up? That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.

Michigan Congressman, Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee:

Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.

You get the drift.

Regrettably for the man who would wrestle bears and drill for oil, it would appear that the luster is now off the big crush. Being connected to the downing of a civilian airliner has that effect. But now it’s getting even worse. Even Europe, deathly afraid of imposing serious sanctions against the Russians for fear of hurting their economies, is beginning to stir. The leaders of Britain, Germany and France had a telephone conference over the weekend and appear to be heading for more substantive actions against Putin.

The Dutch, who suffered more fatalities than any other nation in the downing of the Malaysian airliner, were described at first, as being in a deep state of shock and mourning. But now, after the Russian separatists who control the accident site continue to reportedly restrict access to international investigators; after the disturbingly callous and incompetent handling of the remains of the dead becomes more and more evident- they are described as furious.

Turns out, or so it seems, that Mr. Putin was not playing chess very well. That would require one to look several steps ahead. He doesn’t appear to be the “long-view,” strategic type, to say the least. In fact, I’d say he’s been revealed to be playing a game of one-dimensional checkers all along.

He also strikes me as the type who, when sensing he’s on the losing side, will never give in, and instead of losing graciously, is more likely to upend the entire checker board and stalk off, blaming it all on a sudden gust of wind. Very manly, indeed.

Cleveland- The New Epicenter of the Universe: LeBron, the GOP, Johnny Football

July 11, 2014 1 comment
He's baaaaack...

He’s baaaaack…

They were spurned almost four years ago to the day. It was on ESPN’s special program, “The Decision,” one of the oddest blends ever of marketing, entertainment and sports “journalism,” that LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland and taking his talents to Miami and in an instant became one of the most vilified athletes in pro sports, despised not just in Cleveland but especially in Cleveland (and greater Ohio in general).

But the dream of a half dozen straight NBA titles was emphatically silenced by the San Antonio Spurs who demolished the Miami Heat in the finals and now LeBron tells Sports Illustrated- he’s going back home. This is a way worst Cleveland team than he left so it’s not a bid for immediate glory. It seems to be entirely because it really is home. Home for LeBron (he’s a native of Akron). Home for his wife and family.

Is all forgiven? It seems so. Clevelanders who were burning his jersey four years ago will now be greeting him at the airport with flowers. The Cleveland basketball team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, has even taken down the letter he wrote four years ago calling LeBron a coward. One Cleveland fan tweeted, “It’s pretty amazing how much one man can economically change this city…I just bought a headband for no reason.”

Cleveland, if you haven’t heard, is a hard luck town. No Cleveland team has won a title in any sport in half a century. They come close a lot, which makes it all the more painful. They’ve had great athletes, like LeBron and NFL running back, Jim Brown and former slugger Manny Ramirez. But Cleveland teams have a long and tortured history of leaving their fans just short of euphoria.

The decline of the manufacturing economy has not been kind to Cleveland or Ohio either. Granted, it was not an official Chamber of Commerce video, but I remember not that long ago, watching a hilarious promotional film about Cleveland that ended with “And hey, we’re not Detroit!”

And didn’t they used to be known as “the mistake by the lake?” Or was that Municipal Stadium? I forget. Well, no longer, people. Cleveland is way more now than just the home of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, the Republicans announced they were holding their 2016 Presidential convention in Cleveland. Earlier in the year the Cleveland Browns signed Texas A&M Quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. He’s currently slotted as the #2 Quarterback though he’s quickly established himself as the #1 hardest drinking and partying NFL QB since Joe Namath.

So here’s to you Cleveland! Not sure there are any titles in your immediate future, but you sure as hell will be getting a lot of attention. For now, anyway, you are the center of the news universe. Congrats, or something.

The Iraq Muddle

map_of_iraq

So let’s get this straight. Somehow, unbeknown to U.S. intelligence agencies, a major army constitutes out of thin air and in the space of about ten days captures huge Iraqi metropolitan areas and now threatens the Iraqi capital.

In the north, Kurds take over a major city they’ve been eyeing for about a thousand years. Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers also fold like tents leaving millions of dollars of munitions, tanks and helicopters in the hands of an advancing army so extreme in its beliefs of Sharia law and a hardline Islamic state that, they have actually been disowned by Al Qaeda.

The only thing standing in the way of ISIS (Iraq/Syria Islamic State) and Baghdad are volunteers formed after Friday prayers- oh- and our good friends, the Iranians, who have pledged to help defend the capital.

Who’s to blame for the possible collapse of Iraq into complete and utter chaos?

Here’s a possible list of suspects:

1) The British. They’re the ones who sat in some fancy room after the end of World War I and drew up the boundaries of Iraq with apparently zero thought given to the politics of the various ethnic and religious groups in the country; the Kurds to the north, the Sunni and the Shiites.

2) The Bush administration. Not the first one, the second one. The first Bush White House never completed its invasion of Iraq or toppled Saddam Hussein because of the uncertainties of what might occur if a sudden power vacuum were to open up smack in the heart of the Middle East. Plus, we had no interest in accidentally starting and getting involved in a bitter civil war. The second Bush administration did what it did, and praise them or scold them, the fact is the war and its aftermath ended up putting a Shiite leader in place who has spent the last 8 years taking out several centuries worth of anger against the minority Sunni population that had previously lorded over the majority Shiites.

3) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Not only has he alienated the Sunnis, but it is reported his government is corrupt as the day is long; so corrupt, in fact, that in Mosul, a city of about 2 million people that just got taken over by ISIS, the violent invaders have actually improved city services by, among other things, ending frequent power outages. Of course, in the decree they made public upon their takeover, women are not allowed to leave their homes and anyone in violation of their strict interpretation of Sharia law will be hung or have their feet or hands cut off. But they do get air conditioning.

4) The Obama administration. Responding to an electorate weary of war, and now the victim of what his defenders call disingenuous and hypocritical attacks from those who started the war- his administration has, nevertheless, presided over a national security and intelligence apparatus that has pretty much missed one of the biggest developments in modern Middle East history.

Nice work everybody!

Students at UC Santa Barbara Bravely Tell Media to Go Home

(Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

(Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

It is one of the staples of 20th and 21st century life that wherever calamity strikes, the media soon follows with microwave and satellite trucks, camera and audio people, producers and reporters. They take over entire towns or city blocks, create parking headaches and traffic jams and manage to intrude on communities that probably would prefer to suffer, grieve and eventually heal- in silence. All of this is mostly for television and it’s all to give the background scene for the all-important TV stand-up reporters need to do to deliver that definitive air of authenticity.

No sireee, this ain’t no live shot from the in-studio satellite news desk with a reporter reading from barely edited wire-service copy; no- this is where the Channel 11 Action News Team proves there’s no disaster too distant that they cannot intrude on any given community’s pain- instantly and live.

By the way, it’s the immediate suffering and grieving that provides the money shots. We never actually get to the healing part because by then the micro-wave and satellite trucks have left and no one cares much or even remembers the given tragedy that occurred some six months earlier.

At UC Santa Barbara, the students decided to revolt and good for them. Turns out that before taking his own life, Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic 22-year-old who shot, stabbed and rammed six of the students to death, and wounded 13 others in his bloody rampage, killed his final victim at a little shop called the I.V. Deli Mart. It was the perfect place for the media circus to invade and encamp for the next 4 or 5 days that the story still had legs.

But the students started intruding back. They got in the background of the reporter stand-ups and they waved signs. “Our tragedy is not your commodity,” read one. “Stop filming our tears,” read another. “Remembrance not Ratings,” read a third. “Let us Heal!” and “News Crews Go Home!” rounded out the sudden anti-media protests.

Bravo to the UC Santa Barbara students and community. And the next time it happens and the anchorman/woman asks the reporter what that ruckus is in the background, for once I’d like to hear something like this: “Well, those are residents of the devastated community repulsed by the fact we are exploiting their grief and suffering. Back to you, Jim.”

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