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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

At a neighborhood meeting with our Mayor last week there were questions about finding lost pets, zoning ordinances and people having too many lights on the outside of their houses.

And then there was the question of the night. The bomb dropper. The president of a large neighborhood association asked the Mayor of Dearborn, “What is the City of Dearborn doing about the coronavirus?”

The room went silent.

For just a moment, the mayor flashed a quarter of a smile across the right side of his face. He glanced down at the table top in front of him, recalibrating his response I suspect, in the way that politicians at every level must offer a substantive response to even the most inane, crackpot inquiries. Then he began, “Our emergency services have been drilling on response practices in preparation for any unlikely… ”

If you do a Google search on, “Things most likely to kill a person living in America”, you find that heart disease is our most prevalent lethal threat. This is followed by cancers. Not far down the list, the number 8 killer of Americans, is a broad category called “accidents”. Drill down into “accidents” and you learn that using a smartphone while driving is creating a great national cull of our highly mobile, highly connected population.

But nowhere on any list does “highly contagious, rapidly-proliferating, recently mutated exotic Asian viruses” appear. That is because, for the president of a neighborhood association- or anyone living in Dearborn- the threat of coronavirus is effectively nil.

In the United States, there are 1.5 million people hospitalized every year from accidents related to smartphone use. Last year the common flu killed 10,000 Americans. So far, this year the Centers for Disease Control say that, “At least 19 million people in the U.S. have experienced flu illnesses this season”. And as I type this, the acceleration of the spread of the largely non-fatal coronavirus half a world away from Dearborn, Michigan in a city most Americans couldn’t find on a globe, is decelerating.

But still, the coronavirus question came up. Why is that?

On June 1, 1980, Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network, or CNN, the first 24-hour news network. In the four decades since then, the way Americans consume news, and what is actually called “news”, has changed more than at any time in history.

Prior to 1980, the U.S. relied on predominantly 3 news networks that broadcast six hours of content each per day. Today there are at least 25 major network news media outlets in the U.S., all broadcasting across multiple outlets 24-hours, around the clock. That is a staggering 2300% increase in the amount of network news media we’re served every 24 hours in only four decades.

But it gets even more interesting. And dangerous.

In less than half the time it took for network news media to completely reinvent itself, only 16 short years ago, Mark Zuckerberg invented “participatory media”. Most people call it social media. When Zuckerberg started what was then called “The Face Book”, he did what most innovators do; he put something out there that would change the world before he invented the rules about how to use it. From edged tools to fire to printed words to nuclear weapons and instant communications, humans invent culture-changing technologies before they figure out the rules for how to best use them. We throw the new, culture-changing technologies out there and worry about figuring out how to best use them later. In the process, there is always calamity.

In the 16 years since Facebook began, the number of outlets with access to your 600 X 800 news screen went from 25 news outlets to… 1.69 billion individual users, each one vying for attention and relevance. Even more than the four-decade, 2300% proliferation of available news every 24 hours, the explosion of 1.69 billion individual broadcasters on Facebook (not to mention other social media outlets, like Twitter’s 330 million) has influenced the way we consume information, and confuse it with what is credible news.

The single deadliest thing about the coronavirus outbreak is the media frenzy that surrounds it. Coronavirus is a serious health threat, but not in Dearborn, Michigan. In the five years since it was first identified, and before this most recent outbreak, its impact on public health has been minimal compared to other health risks like cancer and distracted driving. Cancer and distracted driving just haven’t dominated social media and news media for the last seven days.

This revolution in how we consume media, and confuse it with news, is why a neighborhood association president in Dearborn, Michigan, 7,273 miles and 13 time zones away from Wuhan, China is now suddenly asking about coronavirus when the things that will likely kill her go basically ignored. And this is the very real threat.


Tom Demerly in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia with delegates from North Korea.

Tom Demerly reports on Defense and Technology stories from around the world to TheAviationist.com, BusinessInsider.com and numerous other international news outlets. 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

An expedition not unlike our own, Robert Falcon Scott’s failed ordeal in Antarctica in 1912.

 

When I was a kid I had a friend named Raymond Schuckle. He lived at the end of the block, closest to the park, from me.

Winter had come and it was harsh. We were not much older than 11 or 12. Raymond and I shared an interest in model airplanes. Boredom from the long winter had set in, and there was little to do. So, we decided to launch an expedition on foot across four miles of suburban territory to Harb’s Hobby Shop on Monroe Street in Downtown Dearborn.

I had read Maurice Herzog’s book, “Annapurna”, that I bought from Mary Fera’s Dad’s shop, Little Professor Book Store, near Harb’s. The book recounted the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas by a group of bold adventurers. To my 11-year-old mind, our expedition across Dearborn to Harb’s Hobby Shop would be exactly like Maurice Herzog’s brutally difficult expedition to climb Annapurna in the Himalayas.

We prepared. I had a crude, blue, nylon anorak and a pair of mittens made of some kind of cheap shearling that came from a flea market. I also had a gray wool balaclava, that I got from K-Mart specifically after reading about them in “Annapurna”. It was $3.97. I had inexpensive vinyl “moon boots” insulated with foam. We wore blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters as our technical base layers. I was careful to wear two pairs of sweat socks. Raymond Shuckle, my lieutenant, was better equipped. He wore an impressive snorkel jacket and snowmobile boots with special felt liners. He also had covertly reapportioned a pair of genuine skiing gloves from his older brother. He wore a bright red knit stocking cap, useful for signaling in the event we would need rescue.

We had plotted our navigation and ranging based on car trips we had made over previous months and years in the region. We knew the route, up Cherry Hill, then to Outer Drive, and eventually a long slog along Michigan Avenue to Monroe over piles of frozen, plowed snow. These massive ice and snow formations were our version of Herzog’s crevasses and sastrugi on Annapurna. There was a secondary route we could take through Ford Field, but that meant a dangerous descent of the icy sled hill and grueling climb up the steep gradient of Monroe Street toward Michigan Ave. This, however, was the most direct route, although it was significantly more rigorous and involved greater risk.

After sunset, we set out.

Our first obstacle was crossing the open, wind-blown snow field of Levagood Park. This could have become an immediate disaster, as blowing snow limited our visibility. Luckily, being only a block from our houses, we were familiar with the terrain and able to effectively navigate to our first landmark, Sea Shore Pool. It was bitingly cold and the snow was deep, perhaps six inches, with a hard-frozen crust on top. After our successful trial-by-fire crossing of the Levagood ice fields, we pressed on.

Crossing Telegraph Road was a risk. Passing cars threw torrents of salty slush on us as we waited for our chance to dart across the lethal passage. It was our analogy of crossing deadly crevasses. We continued undaunted by the risks and managed to cross as a pair, making it to the other side. This is where we entered untraveled territory. In no uncertain terms, Telegraph Road marked the outer boundary of our neighborhood, and the entrance to the hinterlands.

We charted a course through side streets, abandoning the sidewalks as they were largely impassable and, instead, took to the streets themselves. This meant increased risk, but we were willing to accept it in exchange for greater speed. At one point, we came across a group of kids we had never seen before, dressed similarly to us in moon boots and snorkel jackets, but older. They were a rough looking bunch, standing at the edges of the street. Their plot was to wait until a car slip-slid down the street, then run behind it with the hope of grabbing the bumper. This would give them a wild, careening ride, sliding on the soles of their boots, until the speed became too great or the distance too far, at which point they would let go and tumble to a stop. We stopped to watch them for a while but judged that this unknown group of older indigenous kids could become dangerous at any moment and engage us with tightly packed ice-balls. We pressed on.

47 years later, I return to the scene of the Levagood ice field crossing from the original 1973 expedition.

Schuckle, for his part, was an excellent lieutenant. He seemed largely non-plussed by the ordeal, pressing on with neither complaint nor rancor. That is, until I looked at his face, drawn in discomfort and the agony from the biting wind. Although he said nothing, he was clearly near his limit.

We had made it to the open expanse next to the Dearborn High School athletic field. This was the gateway to the Rouge River basin. There were rescue facilities there in the form of a fire station where we could, presumably, surrender to the elements, declare our mission a failure, and turn ourselves in to the firemen at the station for what would be a humiliating defeat at the hands of mother nature and human endurance. They would offer rescue but at the cost of humiliating repatriation to our parents. Whatever sanctions accompanied that were too horrible to imagine.

So, we pressed on.

Despite our condition, we were resolved to our fate under our own destiny. Ice spicules blew from east to west, assailing our bare skin around our eyes like frozen wind-borne razors. Our endurance was waning. We had both spent the day at school and would have to return tomorrow, so it was necessary to manage our physical resources. Exhaustion from our adventure, no matter how bold and heroic, would not grant clemency from a day of school.

It was at this point, in the open ice fields just north of the fire station along Outer Drive, that I took matters into my own hands and regretfully signaled retreat. I remember, to this day, the exact moment I admitted defeat. This capitulation was at least better than surrendering to the firemen for rescue, as we could return home- if we survived- covertly manage our maladies from the ordeal, and equip ourselves for another attempt as conditions improved.

I don’t remember much from the trip back. Humiliation, the harsh elements and fatigue must have blocked my recollection as with any trauma.

I do remember getting home. My boots and socks were heavy and soaked. My rag-wool balaclava had likely meant the difference between survival and oblivion, as it was encrusted with ice around the breathing hole and covered in snow. My mittens were sodden, and my hands bright blue from cold, the skin wrinkled from immersion in the damp mitts. I stripped from my jeans and T-shirt in the bathroom, and ran a steaming bath. I remember that bath. I remember it well. Plucked from the arctic hell-storm and immersed in opulent, hot water in the safe haven of my house was such a bizarrely polarized juxtaposition of fate that I could hardly wrap my young mind around it. We had survived, our dramatic failure remained undiscovered, and we had gathered valuable information to try again. Despite our failure, there was a meager inventory of success from the ordeal. It was on this I chose to focus as I made plans to check the weather forecast and begin preparations for another attempt.