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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Our neighborhood feral cat, Mr. Blackie, photographed in our back yard in October, 2017. (Photo: Tom Demerly)

Feral cats, alpha predators atop a complicated, evolving food chain in suburban neighborhood environments, may be the most exotic and remarkably adapted animals we’ll ever encounter. In most cases, we don’t even realize they are living among us or the benefits they provide to our suburban environment.

Feral cats live between being wild and domestic. They include us in their food chain as an integral part of it, usually without us even knowing. Their adaptation to a changing environment is masterful, as only an apex predator can manage. It is so complex it takes months or even years to fully understand, even as it changes right before our eyes.

Feral cats use sophisticated camouflage, mimicry, stealth and adaptation to benefit our neighborhoods and survive. They manage rodent populations, cull bird and small mammals who may carry disease and conduct a secret, covert “policing” of suburbia. They even manage to adapt and survive across wild swings in seasons, from freezing winters to blazing summers.

Most remarkably, feral cats form a dynamic evolutionary bridge between wild cats like the North American lynx, the African sand cat, the ocelot, cougars and mountain lions and domestic cats like the tabby, Maine coon and Siamese. Feral cats are smaller cats that resemble domestic cats in size and appearance and are not only predators, but highly adapted scavengers. Feral cats exploit both wild food sources, including mice, rats and varmints, and food sources shared with them by humans. Both are an integral part of their food chain.

In 1999 I traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa on safari. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the greatest natural game spotting destinations on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive natural game preserve is over 3,000 square miles in area and home to a boggling population of African wildlife, from primates, lions, hyenas, gazelles and impala to elephants, zebra, wildebeest and nearly every exotic species of land animal on the continent. We toured the crater by day from Landrovers. By night, the crater took on an entirely different life. What I learned about the food chain at night in the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, I began to recognize in my own neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan when I began watching the feral cats.

In 2002, I spent nearly a month in the high jungles of northern Vietnam, a remote, mostly untouched region left alone by the long war. I saw the difference in behavior between animals during the day in the jungle, and at night. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic change in their behavior from night to day was the presence of one of the last large land-based alpha predators on earth, the tiger. When I remarked to a local Vietnamese Hmong tribesman that I had not seen a single tiger in Vietnam during the entire month, he told me, “Ah, but they have seen you…” It is exactly the same with elusive feral cats in our neighborhoods.

 

A little more than a year ago we became aware of a feral cat in our neighborhood. The more I saw him, very late at night and early in the morning, almost always in the dark, the more fascinated I became with him. When I started to study his life and behavior, what I discovered was incredible beyond my wildest expectation. The feral cat behavior and its effect on our neighborhood was nearly identical to the influence big cats exerted on the dense jungles of Vietnam and the vast, wild game lands of Tanzania, Africa.

We soon learned there was not just one cat,  but two feral cats. We cataloged them as “Mike Charlie 1” and “Mike Charlie 2” for Mysterious Cat 1 and 2. The two are related and members of the same clan, possibly the same litter, and divide the neighborhood up into to regions from what we have observed. Our yard sits at the central border of the two regions. The night-vision video from a remote camera shown above is Mike Charlie1, the photo with the mouse at the beginning of the article, Mike Charlie 2.

The feral cats were influencing the behavior of every other animal in the neighborhood, from birds to small mammals. While other neighborhoods in Dearborn reported problems with rats and other pests, our neighborhood had no problems with pests. Our ferals kept rodent populations in check.

What I saw was not just one feral cat, but a complex nexus of several feral cats and the evolving, complex drama of their existence playing out secretly right outside our windows. The cats belong to a “clan”, or lineage of cats that is over 50 years old in this neighborhood.

Since we first became aware of the feral cats living in our neighborhood I’ve stepped up efforts to learn more about them, to help them where appropriate and to support their survival. Feral cats aren’t pets. Although some are converted to domestic cats most live their lives as some version of wild, an evolving predator in an evolving environment.

The series I am beginning here is the story of their lives and survival in our neighborhood.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”

I was stunned by this summation.

I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.

Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?

It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.

Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.

We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.

We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.

As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.

The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.

Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.

Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.

The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.

In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:

“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”

The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.

The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.

The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.

That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.

I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

1. Preserve Price.

Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels, a successful independent bike retailer in Traverse City, Michigan told me years ago: “Never discount. You will only go out of business slower.”

Price preservation and the perception of what a product is worth has been destroyed by weak-kneed and undercapitalized bike retailers who give discounts too easily.

Sometimes they give discounts in the hopes of attracting more business, but discounted business is bad business, and it only earns the retailer a reputation for being a sucker to customers who drive a hard bargain. And soon they all drive a hard bargain.

Retailers also give discounts just to keep the lights on. Don’t do that. Just close the business, declare bankruptcy and get a job. The entire industry has been dragged down by incestuous and incessant discounting that has destroyed price integrity, brand identity and even alienated customers who don’t want to negotiate.

If there is one malignant cancer that pervades the entire retail bicycle industry, it is rampant discounting. The problem is so bad most retailers who do it are in total denial of it.

Bike industry, take one tip from a guy who has both succeeded and failed for four decades in this business: Stop Discounting.

2. Don’t Play Favorites: No Sponsored Athletes, No Club Discounts. 

When retailers play favorites with some highly visible athletes and groups through “sponsorships” and discounts, they alienate the rank n’ file average customer who subsidizes the cool girl and guy by paying full price. They train the consumership that through performance and visibility they earn special pricing.

This sends a clear message: Some people are more special than others and price is flexible.

Most importantly, there is no consistent, empirical business metric in small bicycle retail that quantifies how many full-margin additional sales are added to the bottom line by sponsoring anyone. And if you can’t accurately measure a sales promotion, you shouldn’t do it.

Sponsorships of athletes and clubs sends a message of favoritism and exclusion, rewarding persistence in driving pricing down.

Even if a sports marketing campaign were run correctly, as it is at the brand level (not by retail stores) it is extremely time consuming and expensive to manage. One beverage industry metric stated that for every $1 spent on sponsorship to automotive racing, the company budgeted $10 talking about the sponsorship in paid media. No bike retailer can afford the money or time for that. And if they could, they should start a beer brand and sponsor a NASCAR driver.

The most recognizable engagement ring brand, Tiffany’s, has never given a free or discounted sparkler to a Kardashian in exchange for publicity. Instead, news media reports, “Kardashian’s Tiffany Sparkler Was $25M!”. That preserves the perception of value and makes the brand aspirational.

3. Don’t Have Too Much Inventory. 

The worst thing about the bike business is bikes, and bike brands ram inventory down retailers’ throats with a vengeance. Bike shops: less is more. It is better to have money in the bank than bikes on the floor.

Bicycle inventory is like fruit, the second it lands it begins to spoil. Something newer, cooler and better is already under development and months away from release. And with the evolution in media the word about upcoming innovations doesn’t spread fast, it spreads instantly. As soon as something new is announced, what is suddenly old (but current only hours before) is suddenly devalued.

Customers will buy new, relevant bikes sight-unseen if the retailer’s sales process is optimized to facilitate that purchase format. That preserves capital, maintains freshness and keeps prices up. It also provides customers with more options and better integrity in the purchase.

Bike shops with a lot of inventory on the floor, and a lot of invoices on their desk, are compelled to “sell what we’ve got” and that leads to an ugly paradigm of putting customers on the wrong size bike with the wrong equipment rather than ordering the right bike and adding another invoice to the pile.

Consumers should be wary of bike shops with too many bikes on the floor, they’re going to try to ram something they have in stock down your throat just to make an invoice due date instead of getting you the bike you should really have.

4. Do Have Lots of Capital.

Nearly every bicycle retailer is undercapitalized and over leveraged financially. The reason is simple: When you have $500K to invest in something, does opening a bike shop provide the highest return on that investment? No, it doesn’t. You could take that $500K to an Edward Jones office and earn a better return on it the next day with no work than if you did the heavy lifting and ditch-digging of opening, promoting and running a bicycle retail store. As a result, most bike retailers try to start a business with about $50-200K and make a go of it.

If they don’t own their own real estate free and clear, have to pay rent or a mortgage, pay at least one employee payroll (and mandatory withholding taxes and health insurance) then the math doesn’t work.

To make bike retail profitable you have to have deep pockets and a deeper work ethic. You have to love hard work and business, not bikes and bike rides.

In its current iteration, the bicycle retail business model is a rotten investment. But, a new, emerging business model long on service and profit margin and short on inventory and overhead is promising and will be the bike shop of tomorrow.

5. Manage Costs.

This doesn’t mean go cheap. If your biggest overhead item is marketing then you are doing it right. If your customers arrive at your store and consistently say, “I thought this place would be a lot bigger”, you’re doing it right.

If you’re biggest overhead item is inventory, you are already in trouble.

Starting and maintaining a bike shop can be done very cheaply. Never buy new fixtures, so many used fixtures from other retailers that have been closed are available they can be had for pennies on the dollar. Never pay for extraneous and non-paying expenses like alarm systems (they won’t prevent or deter theft anyway) and subscriptions to POS software systems. Those don’t add to the bottom line.

Use low-cost, streamlined, highly adaptive and simple systems to combat the asymmetrical retail war the little bike shop has to fight against the big box e-commerce giants. Think of how the Afghan Guerillas used crude weapons to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, and still give the Americans fits in rural Afghanistan. Be a retail guerilla, a retail Taliban. Keep your costs low, adaptable and maintain a large amount of liquid capital.

6. Invest in Star Employees.

The online retailer you compete against is a faceless enemy. You can defeat him with a friendly face. If you have a star employee whom customers consistently ask for, reward them before anything else. Give them raises before you buy more bikes, pay them first and well and craft a set of “golden handcuffs” that makes it tough for them to go anywhere else. They are your brand, and if you lose them, you will have to rebuild your brand around another star employee. Worse yet, if you lose your star employee to another bicycle retailer across town or if your star opens their own shop, guess what happens, their customers follow them.

For a small bicycle retailer, the star employee is the single most important business tool. Develop them, value them, reward them, retain them.

7. Participate in the Sport. 

Instead of sponsoring the local hotshot, be the local hotshot. This doesn’t mean you have to do a nine-hour Ironman (but it helps) it just means you have to be present at events and participate credibly. This is a part of your business. It is work.

Set up the hours of your store so you can train. Close on key race weekends so you can be where the action is, as a part of the action. Ride the nicest bike you sell and show it off everywhere. Be an aspirational figurehead so when people see you on social media and in the store you have become “That Guy who Knows Everything and is Everywhere”.

If you build your hours correctly and manage your staff correctly the time you spend in the sport will directly and measurably bring full-price buyers into your store and keep them offline.

8. Differentiate Yourself. 

Build a voice, a brand and an identity. If your identity is so lifeless and generic that people confuse your business with others, you haven’t done that.

Understand that you will not please everyone. Nor is that the goal. If you talk about a donation to a wounded veteran’s charity in social media an anti-war activist may stop shopping with you. Fine. You can’t be everything to everyone.

Build your brand with clear vision and narrow focus. Don’t be generic. Don’t appeal to the masses. Keep your brand message narrow, unique and focused and be true to who you are.

If you are gay, fly the rainbow flag in front of your store and sponsor “Pride Rides”. If you are a veteran, have benefits for veteran’s organizations. If you are an animal rights activist, broadcast your donations to the local animal shelter and host an adoption day at your store. If you are an environmentalist, show your commitment to renewable energy and talk about how bikes preserve the environment.

Have the courage and identity to stand for something, be someone different and special. Brand yourself visibly and distinctly.

9. Be Highly Adaptive.

 Small bicycle retail is asymmetrical warfare: A small opponent taking on a much larger, better capitalized foe. Take a page from the teachings of Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Osama Bin Laden’s play book: Never fight fair.

Change your floorplan frequently. Bring in small, low-priced, easily purchased new products first. Seek out niche brands the big-box guys don’t have and use the equalizing power of social media to partner with the brand to promote them.

Build a reputation as a brutal buyer who torments sales reps and sales managers with non-adherence to “program” buying. If the biggest brands’ credit manager loves you but the sales manager hates you, you are doing it right.

Within your brand identity continue to change and adapt. Use every social media platform. Embrace new media. Use video. Never stop changing, evolving and promoting. There are two types of businesses on the retail battlefield: the quick and the dead. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

10. Have An Exit Strategy.

One day, this will all end. What will you have to show for it? Did you squirrel away money in an offshore account? Did you buy real estate? Is your brand developed enough to have some sales value? And, if you begin to fail, and chances are overwhelming that you will, do you have a viable safety net?

It’s a pipe dream to sell a small bicycle retail business. Frankly, they aren’t worth anything. The inventory is usually older than six months, the fixtures are stale, the employees may not come with the deal and rest can be reinvented elsewhere better and cheaper. As a result, you have to have a viable exit strategy.

What is yours? What is your end game? When do you cry “Uncle” and walk away? Know those answers in advance and you can sleep more soundly at night as a bike retailer.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It’s Saturday at Motor City Powersports in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Their large parking lot is blocked off to cars. A half dozen new motorcycle owners negotiate a series of traffic cones and practice skills under the watchful eye of a certified motorcycle instructor who teaches the new riders the skills they need to survive in traffic and to get their Michigan Driver’s License motorcycle endorsement.

It’s Saturday at Motor City SCUBA in Novi, Michigan. Students sit in the dedicated classroom at the SCUBA retailer taking a written test to earn their basic open water diver certification so they can be SCUBA divers. Before they can buy their own regulator or SCUBA tank, before they can rent equipment and before they can go out on a boat to SCUBA dive while on vacation, they must pass this written test and the practical pool examination of underwater skills.

It’s Thursday night at Target Sports in Royal Oak, Michigan. A crowd of people is in a classroom near an indoor shooting range learning basic firearms safety before they are given instruction in practical firearms handling with unloaded weapons. Before any of the people can carry a firearm in public they must past a Concealed Carry License written test and practical firearms safety instruction course.

The motorcycle, SCUBA and shooting sports industries have all taken proactive responsibility for teaching and certifying their customers for competence and safety before they allow them to use their products. Each of these three industries also has some type of state or commercially mandated licensure that tests competence prior to practice and collects revenue to provide for safer end user experiences through advocacy.

Each of these three industries also incurs significant risk to users. Each has proactively managed the user-risk experience. As a result, business in each category is doing well.

And then there is the bike industry. We just sell you a bike and turn you loose. As a result, the road cycling industry is tanking.

The bike industry’s answer to sagging road bike sales has been to introduce more bike categories. That creates more sales and marketing expense within the industry. It also relies heavily on non-paved riding areas to continue to grow when, in fact, gravel roads used for automotive travel are usually destined to be paved when populations and traffic in their region inevitably become large enough. As it is, cyclists are squeezed into a smaller and smaller artificially sustained environment of rails-to-trails and bike path/park settings that cost big money to maintain, require travel to access and, while growing in some regions, aren’t yet reliable enough to sustain the sport and likely never will be without some organized contribution from the bike industry.

Rather than working to sell what we already have and support that end-user experience through responsible instruction, the bike industry just keeps trying to sell a new category every few years. The recent contraction in bicycle sales suggest this approach is not working. But in SCUBA, motorsports and shooting sports, selling what they have through responsible instruction and advocacy has worked.

The bicycle industry has not been proactive in offering even basic cycling instruction to new cyclists buying performance-oriented road and triathlon bikes. Set against the backdrop of a recent influx of brand new cyclists entering the sport mostly as a result of triathlons, the bike industry has done an abysmal job of leveraging rider instruction as a safety benefit and a sales tool.

Motorsports, SCUBA diving and shooting sports have all had success with that marketing script. In fact, in the case of shooting sports, it helped keep that sport alive in the face of a divisive national argument over firearms ownership rights. What if cycling had an industry and user lobby as powerful as the NRA?

The impetus for teaching new cyclists how to use their bike safely has been on cycling clubs and national governing bodies like USA Triathlon and USA Cycling. But in a click-to-own culture it is a big leap to expect a new bike buyer to buy a bike on Saturday and seek out 3rd party instruction and certification before using their new bike.

In fact, most cyclists and triathlete revel in fact that buying a racing bicycle is one of the few things a person can do that is free from licensure, formal instruction or user certification. Think about this: what if you loved airplanes or high performance race cars and could just show up and buy one then use it that afternoon without instruction or certification? That analogy isn’t a stretch since going from a decrepit hybrid in your first triathlon to a narrow-tire, performance oriented bike in your next one is tantamount to transitioning from a passenger car to a NASCAR.

Here Is What The Bike Industry Could Do:

As an industry, cycling needs to organize. As with SCUBA, shooting sports and the motorsports industry, both the retailer and the brand level, need to shoulder the burden- and opportunity- to sustain the sport and take responsibility for the cyclists’ end user competence and experience.

The bike industry, bike brands and bike shops, needs to start teaching cycling, including bike handling skills, safe routes for cyclists, basic maintenance and other skills that build a safe, sustainable, responsible culture of new cyclists. It is likely this single opportunity, simple in proposal but labor-intensive and significant in execution, is cycling’s greatest hope not just from prosperity and growth, but survival.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

What will be the eventual outcome of the current perceived brinkmanship between the United States and North Korea?

For students of history in the region the answer is conspicuous. The outcome will rise from the historical template of national evolution in the region. This history is among the most ancient of civilized man. As a result of this deep historical context and precedent, the script is likely already written, but the acts will unfold on a new stage of hyper-fast media that can exert a dangerous influence.

To the laymen and popular media consumer there will continue to be a forward facing game of media sensationalized military brinkmanship played out above a very subtle, quiet and deliberate process of diplomacy. The likely outcome will be an asymmetrical win-win that will benefit all parties in the broad spectrum, but more so North Korea than any other party. Part of this asymmetry in benefit is earned by North Korea’s increased tolerance for risk in this era.

North Korea finally realizes a need to enter the “Functioning Core” of the world community. Unencumbered by a radical religious mantra their only divinity is servitude to state. They are long overdue from becoming a modern nation state in nearly every way.

Author and scholar Thomas P.M. Barnett broadly divided the nations and governing ideologies of the world into two categories; the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrated Gap”. Barnett’s theory was presented into a now-famous Powerpoint delivered at the Pentagon called “The Pentagon’s New Map”. In his thesis Barnett describes how nations and cultures of the Non-Integrated Gap who are not perverted by idealogical distortion eventually realize they could have things better; they could have easy access to clean water, they could have dependable electricity, safe and abundant food and adequate clothing and shelter. In the greater evolution they could have access to the world community via the Internet. Once that social evolution is complete the citizenry can cross borders at the speed of the Internet, unencumbered by national dogma and censorship. This is their express ticket to the world economy.

North Korea realizes the pitfalls of the Arab Spring.  They are smart enough to have learned from the Middle East, where most countries are worse off following the Arab Spring. Russia and the U.S. are mostly the only ones to benefit during the near term in the Middle East and left with the lion’s share of plunder- albeit at great cost. But the countries and people in the Arab Spring are left destitute, trapped in a vacuum that is a breeding ground for messy, infectious radicalism as difficult to kill as a stubborn mold in a dank cellar. Kim Jung Un has been quiet witness to this phenomenon, and seeks to avoid becoming the next Syria, Libya or Iraq.

There is a subtle, brutal genius to Kim Jung Un’s strategy. He has avoided coups, subverted military conflict and expertly wielded nuclear brinkmanship to his advantage. He has everything to gain, and gain he will. When this is over a year or two from now, North Korea will be substantially more integrated into the global economy. The big losers in the near term will be the North Korean people. They have been subject to poverty and oppression on a titanic scale, unprecedented almost anywhere in the world today except North Africa. Their march into the modern world, from the non-integrated gap to the Functioning Core will take a decade at least, and it will be a grinding procession lubricated by more North Korean peasant blood. But war on a pan-Pacific scale will be subverted.

In the media this evolution will look and feel like brinkmanship, but on the back channels of old-world Asian diplomacy it will be business as usual, not far removed from the age of Niccolò Polo and Maffeo Polo as chronicled by their famous son, Marco Polo.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

Author Peter Benchley’s marginally successful novel “Jaws” was released as a movie 42 years ago today. The film shattered box office records, rewrote the rules on movie release methods and touched off a succession of progressively awful sequels and occasionally credible documentaries that continue to fuel fascination- and mostly unreasonable fear of sharks- to this day.

Since “Jaws” every shark attack makes headlines. Nearly everyone remembers seeing the film with its shocking surprise visuals and its oddly floppy fake rubber robot shark. But most terrifyingly, everyone remembers the scenes in the water when you can see… nothing.

Director Steven Spielberg did an incredible job of building tension and terror in the unknown with soundtrack, lighting, foreshadowing and a looming sense of unseen menace. And of course, those two low notes of music that now universally signal impending doom: “duh…DUH.”

Speilberg’s skill was so effective it has created several generations of people with an irrational fear of the water, absurd notions about sharks as wanton maneaters and a general and wholly unwarranted misconception about the sea.

My girlfriend was afraid of the water. Not just what was in it, but even putting her face in it. Eight weeks later she swam unprotected at 70-feet depth off Roatan Island in Honduras in a school of 10-foot sharks in a feeding frenzy while I photographed her. Her only anxiety stemmed from my penchant to swim too far away from her to try to photograph, and pet, the swirling mass of “man eaters” as they swam around us.

My girlfriend Jan at 80-feet depth in a school of nice-sized reef sharks.

The truth is, sharks aren’t really that dangerous. In fact, I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars in travel and equipment just to find them for the chance to swim with them. And when I have been successful, which takes time, money and work. I have always been rewarded. They are beautiful and majestic. Often they are even gentle and playful.

I have swum in schools of sharks, petted sharks, fed sharks, and photographed sharks while in the water with them. No cages. Not one has ever tried to bite me. One shark in Curaçao demonstrated aggressive behavior toward me, she may have been playing with me, but she was big and she and I did not speak the same language so I simply swam away from her. She left.

Sharks are not wanton killing machines as Peter Benchley’s fictional novel suggests. Benchley’s novel is based loosely on a real life incident that took place between July 1 and July 12 in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline and, oddly, far up a small, brackish water rivulet named Matawan Creek. Sharks, or a single shark, attacked five people. Four of the victims died, more from poor first aid in 1916 than the severity of their wounds. One survived their attack.

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened as American news media was growing and people were on summer holiday. It made for sensational (and grossly embellished) headlines. It sold newspapers, pamphlets and books. And it created an absurd level of hysteria and fear so vast it continues today. Talk to any modern triathlon competitor about their biggest fear, and they will tell you it is swimming in the open ocean.

While the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks were terrifying, they were a bizarre anomaly likely attributable to a unique happenstance in shark behavior. A large shark was likely confused by the moon phase that influenced the tide and accidentally swam upriver as the water salinity (salt levels in sea water) increased in the usually fresh water. As the shark became increasingly distressed, it became increasingly aggressive and panicked. And it bit people. The same behavior is common from a squirrel, a house cat or a panicked dog. But a medium size shark can inflict a larger bite than a dog.

Since Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s movie was released conservationists have had to wage war on the terror-driven misconceptions that have caused unreasonable fear and wanton killing of sharks. To this day the unwarranted fear continues, not only of sharks, but of the ocean in general.

Could a shark bite you? It could. But the chances are more than remote. They’re astronomical, even when you are in the water with sharks. Think about this, if you were on a street with three strange dogs would you be panicked about them attacking you? Common sense dictates you observe their behavior and go about your business. The exact same is true of sharks. Even the rarest of sharks, the holy grail of shark spotting, the great white shark, is relatively placid when not feeding. If you are ever lucky enough to actually find one it will likely swim away in disinterest.

Our fear of sharks and the ocean is like nearly all fears. It is founded in lore and ignorance. The remedy is learning and understanding while developing a strong respect for this vast remaining wilderness and the marvelous creatures that live in it.

 

Author Tom Demerly will pet just about anything, even sharks, but never catches any fish. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It’s common for people who finish an Ironman™ brand race to get a tattoo with the recognizable “M-Dot” Ironman™ logo.

Tattoos are an interesting cultural hot point. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield quipped, “Marriage? Yes! But get a tattoo? No way, they are way too permanent.”

Not many people who get a tattoo will look you in face after they got it and say, “I regret getting this tattoo. It was a mistake.”

I was curious about people who get tattoos, and more specifically, people who have Ironman™ brand tattoos. So I did some reading, asked some questions and did more than a bit of thinking.

Pay close attention to how I’ve typed the term “Ironman™ brand”, not “ironman triathlon” or “long distance triathlon”. There is a legal distinction between these terms. The term “Ironman™” is a registered trademark, along with another 45 terms related to “Ironman™” that include the phrase “Anything is Possible™” and, somewhat curiously, the single word “Grace™”. The M-Dot™ logo is also trademarked by Ironman™.

In the strictest interpretation of the law a person with an Ironman™ brand M-Dot™ tattoo has committed trademark violation if they did not get permission from the Ironman™ organization and presumably pay a licensing fee. It is stipulated right here on the Ironman™ webpage:

“If you are a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use an IRONMAN, IRONMAN 70.3, IRON GIRL or IRONKIDS trademark, service mark or logo (the “Marks”), please follow the specific usage guidelines provided as a part of your sponsorship or license agreement.  If you have questions regarding your use as is outlined in your specific agreement, please contact your WTC Account Manager.”

And also:

“If you are not a Sponsor or Licensee of WTC that is contractually entitled to use the Marks, please be advised that WTC normally does not grant third party use of its Marks.  After you have carefully reviewed this entire document and feel that extraordinary special circumstances may apply to your request, please contact the Trademark Permissions Center at trademarks@ironman.com.  Permissions are granted solely at the discretion of WTC as owner of the Marks.”

But those are technicalities, and people get Harley-Davidson and Metallica tattoos all the time, so those facts seem removed from the central question of why people get Ironman™ brand tattoos. But these ideas did cloud my understanding of the behavior.

After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the real question is not, “Why do people get Ironman tattoos?” but more accurately, “Why do I care what other people do?”

I had an epiphany. While I like to think of myself as open minded, I was actually being shortsighted in even trying to render judgment about other people getting tattoos. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I wasn’t sincerely trying to understand the reasons people get Ironman™ tattoos; I was trying to form an opinion about why- before truly understanding why. And why was I trying to form an opinion about getting an Ironman™ tattoo in the first place?

To better understand the motives behind Ironman™ brand tattoos I visited the Facebook group “IronMan Tats” and posted the question, “Why did you get an Ironman™ tattoo?”

The answers I got had a little to do with showing other people that someone accomplished a goal. But more people in the Facebook group told me their tattoos serve as a reminder of what they accomplished to themselves. This reminder does not just memorialize their Ironman™ race, but more significantly the hard work and change that was required to even get to the start line. The tattoo is a conspicuous reminder that lives on their skin and says, “Anything is Possible™”. The tattoo reminds them that they can accomplish anything if they put in enough work.

The bigger question was, why was I so judgmental about peoples’ motives for getting an Ironman™ tattoo? I chalk my initial questioning up to a learned set of cognitive biases that, according to the famous Cognitive Bias chart says that; “We favor simple looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options.”

One thing I’ve learned about triathletes themselves is that there are as many motives for participating as there are athletes, each one slightly nuanced by personal values and experiences. To make matters even more complex I have seen the motives for participation in triathlons actually evolve over time, especially for people who have been in the sport for decades.

I wanted to understand something I did not, and tried to find the answer with already established internal concepts of my own. That didn’t work. I didn’t set out to sincerely learn external motives.

This changed my concept of M-Dot™ tattoos and their owners, but more importantly it illustrated a dangerous slippery slope that I think we are sometimes subject to: judging through our own lens before learning to view an experience through someone else’s. Once I set out to sincerely learn why people get these tattoos then I could actually learn something new rather than comparing something I already believed to something I was seeing and trying to make the two fit together.

This is likely not a very sensational thesis if you’ve read the preceding 900 words, but it is a solid, if not thrilling one. To me it is worth remembering when I experience something I have difficulty understanding: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

 

Tom Demerly has done six Ironmans including Hawaii, but has no tattoos mostly because, while he likes triathlons, he doesn’t like needles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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