A H5N1 Case Study In Fear

Sometimes my work writings crash head-on into this blog. Last week I wrote a post in CSO’s SaltedHash blog about how I thought scientists were reckless to mutate the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

While there’s the obvious security component, part of my feelings on the subject go back to my years living with fear and anxiety.

Mood music:

This isn’t a post to say I’ve changed my mind about this strain of bird flu being tweaked into a human scourge that, if released, would kill many, many people. It IS about listening to other people’s opinions and opening the possibility that I could change my mind if educated further.

This comes up after someone from the scientific and security community sent me this tweet:

“Have you seen the NYT article on the A(H5N1) yet, and does it make you re-evaluate your hasty blog post?”

My response:

“It does not make me re-evaluate my opinion. I still believe this was reckless; some things in nature shouldn’t be messed with.”

To that, she replied:

“Ahh okay, understood. I’ll cross your name off the list of people interested in the vaccinations then.”

Later, I found that she posted my SaltedHash post in her Facebook timeline with this comment:

“I really wish Bill Brenner would stick to writing about subjects he is actually knowledgeable about – like eating too much god or whatever.”

When someone throws barbs at me for something I write, I don’t get upset about it. If you don’t want to be disagreed with, you have no business writing opinion pieces. Also, when it looks like someone smart and sensible is flipping me off, I take notice, because whenever I express an opinion, I always understand that I could be wrong.

Some people change their minds about things out of political expediency or because they can’t bear the thought of someone calling them out in a public arena. But under the right circumstances, a person changes their mind because they remain open to other points of view and, after more research and soul searching, they come to believe their original, well-intentioned and honest view was wrong in hindsight.

I’m not at that point yet, because when it comes to H5N1 I simply don’t trust humans no matter how good their intentions.

I have no doubt scientists were as careful as possible and that security was paramount, as one article said. I also believe the scientists are acting with good intentions. They want to understand what makes this flu virus tick so we can be better at identifying mutations in the wild and developing vaccines that will save countless lives. I applaud those intentions.

But scientists are human like the rest of us, prone to make mistakes and fail to understand what they are toying with.

That’s the thing that makes me uneasy.

Is my view tainted by the raw fear I used to carry around? I’d be stupid if I failed to acknowledge the possibility.

As I’ve written before, fear and anxiety were byproducts of my particular brand of OCD, just like my addictions were a byproduct.

The fear meant a lot of things. Working myself into a stupor over the safety of my wife and children. An obsession with cleanliness, which was interesting since depression always meant my personal hygiene took a dive.

In 2005, I had a long panic streak over the bird flu in Asia, which was predicted to be the next great pandemic, deadlier than the one that killed off a significant segment of the population in 1918-19.

I would read every magazine and every website tracking all these world events as if my personal safety depended on it. If a hurricane was spinning in the Atlantic, I would watch with deepening worry as it edged closer to the U.S.

When did all this stop? It’s hard to pin an exact date or year on it.

I only know it stopped.

One day the anxiety attacks stopped. Then I started to crave all the experiences I once feared. Not the terror attacks, plane crashes and pandemics, mind you, but the traveling, the public speaking and more intensified writing. One day I started craving those things with the same vigor with which I craved all the junk I polluted myself with.

Therapy — years of it — and Prozac definitely played a role. So did my deepening Faith.

But while news that H5N1 was mutated in a lab didn’t send me into panic like it would have six years ago, I still remembered everything I read about what this thing could do as a human, airborn virus. The reaction resulted in that SaltedHash post I linked to at the beginning of this post.

The person who called it “hasty” and not the stuff of a knowledgeable writer is looking at this with all the potential good of the research in mind. I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

If I am wrong about this, I’ll be the happiest idiot on the planet and I’ll say so publicly.

Time will tell.

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The Sister Who Saved Her Family

My youngest sister, Shira Beth Brenner, was born 26 years ago today, sending rays of sunshine into a house that was in darkness.

Mood music:

You might think it’s hyperbole for me to say she saved the family. We were surviving after all. But we were surviving badly, reeling from the death of my brother barely two years before.

Shira helped us smile again, simply by being born.

I was a bitter 15-year-old home sick with the flu and a Crohn’s flare up the day she arrived. She was an especially adorable baby and was a welcome distraction from everything that was going on at the time.

She’s quite a kid. If not for the big chip on my shoulder, I might have been more like her in my 20s. I’m happy with how my life turned out and believe I had to go through the dark stuff to get here. But Shira has really been an inspiration to me. She crisscrosses the globe without fear and has an easygoing way about her that’s nearly impossible to crack. I know, because I’ve tried.

I’ve always been the teasing sort of brother. I tell everyone who will listen that I remember when I could fit Shira in a beer mug. I remember once, when she was about 4 or 5, she told me to stop teasing. 

“I can’t help it,” I said. “I tease you cause I love you.”

“Then don’t love me,” she shot back.

Naturally, I told everyone about that exchange, and with more than a little glee.

Around the same time, I was having a lot of parties in the basement of the Revere house. The morning after, Shira would often make the rounds, stopping at the various friends who would be passed out asleep on my bed, on the couch or on the floor.

Even back then, no matter how much I drank the night before, I would always wake up early so I could sneak cigarettes without being seen.

I’d always enjoyed watching her make the rounds. My guests didn’t always enjoy it, but that was fine with me.

In more recent years, as she traveled and I got absorbed with work, marriage and parenthood, we didn’t see much of each other, save for some holidays and a couple birthday dinners.

But I’ve seen a lot of her this year, as my father’s stroke forced us all closer together.

We siblings have worked in shifts, helping to keep Dad out of trouble. He may have trouble seeing, swallowing and walking, but he still likes to keep everyone busy. Shira usually gets the task of sleeping over on Saturday nights. If my father wants to count coins, move furniture or look up stock quotes, Shira gets to be his eyes, hands and legs in the evening, after a day of hectic activity (she’s been dancing and doing a lot of performances. There’s nothing this kid can’t do).

She never complains and always smiles.

I’ve heard it said that a kid like her lives life on a rainbow, always in a zen-like state despite all the hard reality around her.

In Shira’s case I think that’s true. And it’s something we can all learn from. She’s not oblivious to the reality around her. She just handles it with a lot more grace than the rest of us.

You could say she’s doing for the family today what she did the day she was born — giving the family color and light at a time when we need it most.

Happy Birthday, kid.

Strep Will Trigger OCD, And The Beatles White Album Will Make You Kill

An interesting news clip caught my eye this morning about how strep infections can trigger OCD. Thanks to my friend Traci Foust for sharing. Now for my skepticism.

Mood music:

As a clinical OCD case, I always have an eye out for articles on how OCD works and what the triggers are. I’m several years into managing my case, but you’re never past the point of learning new things.

First, the news that brings me to this post, courtesy of NBC affiliate WMGT-TV:

When Jason Dudinec suddenly started washing his hands and touching things ritually, his parents knew something wasn’t right.

The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms came on suddenly and seemed to worsen.

A neurologist diagnosed Jason with a condition called PANDAS, short for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections.

Jason’s strep infection affected a part of his brain that “turned on” OCD and other behavioral issues.

His mother, Jennifer, says when her son received penicillin for a sinus infection shortly after, the symptoms subsided.

When he received a steroid boost for his asthma they stopped all together.

Now they only reappear when he’s exposed to strep.

According to Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, PANDAS can cause behaviors such as:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Tourettes
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Sensory Issues
Mood Swings
Separation Anxiety

The catch is the symptoms come on suddenly and must be associated with a strep infection.

It affects children between 3 and 10 years old and in some cases may fade once they reach adulthood.

Dr. Wiznitzer says PANDAS is extremely rare, and while most people have been exposed to strep, few have the biology to contract PANDAS.

He adds, that while the National Institutes of Mental Health recognize PANDAS, not all scientists agree that it’s an actual condition.

I don’t doubt the science and reality behind this. It’s good information to have. But for those who are inclined to freak out over the possibility that their loved will “catch” OCD, consider this: If you have any hint of mental disorder within you, just about anything can be the trigger. You need to be aware of that, but you shouldn’t panic over it, either.

The following is my opinion, based on a life of experience and observation. It is not built on any scientific research, just so you read on with the proper perspective:

One consistent takeaway I get from everything I read: If you have a disorder buried inside you, just about anything will trigger it. Just like anything can trigger you if you have it in you to commit murder.

I’ve heard that Chron’s Disease can trigger OCD. That got my attention because I’ve suffered from that disease, too. I’ve heard that the drug Prednisone, which I took for the Chron’s, is connected to mental illness.

I think there are shards of truth in all of this. But I think the reasons are more simple than the things you might find under a microscope in the lab.

I think the biggest and most brutal triggers for any mental disorder go back to personal history.

I’ve written much about my own history. Some relatives aren’t happy about that, but I’ve done it for good reason: Everything I remember — whether things played out exactly as I remember or whether the years distorted some memories — affected how my OCD manifested itself.

For me, the childhood disease, loss of a sibling to asthma and best friend to suicide, the nasty divorce of my parents, etc., filled me with a worldview and fears that eventually hardened into my own brand of OCD. 

I think it’s the same for someone who grows up to be a serial killer. Charles Manson‘s mother abandoned him repeatedly and was a bad seed herself, robbing banks and going through men like tissues. Ronald DeFeo was convicted of murdering his entire family in the case that inspired “The Amityville Horror,” and by many accounts his was a household of vicious abuse, particularly at the hands of his father.

History is the cause that triggers the effect. The action that triggers the reaction. And with the seeds planted, just about anything can bring it to the surface.

If you’re inclined to be an obsessive, paranoid person, catching strep will bring out all your germ-based fears and actions. The article that inspired this post is based on  more chemical and biological factors, but it all fits into the larger puzzle.

If you grow up to be like Charles Manson, just about anything — in his case, The Beatles White Album — will compel you to do murderous things. 

Music has often been blamed for inspiring murder. AC/DC and Ricardo “Richard” Muñoz Ramírez come to mind.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can blame the music. They had the evil in them and something was going to bring it out sooner or later.

I thank God that it was OCD embedded in me and not something more sinister. OCD makes me do things compulsively and causes worry that spins out of control. But it’s never compelled me to kill anyone. That’s never been in me.

The examples I’ve mentioned are extreme when stacked next to the article about strep and OCD. But these are the things the article made me think of all the same.

Call me crazy. But at least I’m harmless.

‘No Man Is A Failure Who Has Friends’

Part of the holiday tradition around here is a viewing of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The ending used to make me sad, because it seemed to sum up what was missing in my life.

For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had any friends. It was nobody’s fault. I had crawled so far inside myself that I chose dozing off on the couch with the TV remote in my hand over going outside and dealing with people.

I was terrified of my own shadow and too absorbed in OCD-driven thoughts to reach out to real people outside the closest family.

The Christmas season always seemed to amplify the feeling that I was pretty much alone. I never was alone. But some days I felt like a ghost nobody noticed. Funny how even when you’re down on yourself, the freight-train ego takes over, making you wonder why nobody notices you.

But that’s what insanity does to you. You think all the shit that’s untrue is real and, in the process, you miss the very real beauty that’s right in front of your face.

But I’ve done a lot of mental healing in the last few years. I’ve written about it at length here — more than some folks think I should. But the facts are ironclad:

–I’m much better at living in the moment than I used to be.

–I’m not afraid of much these days. My still-new fearlessness gets me into trouble sometimes, but it beats hiding from life.

–Once I learned to get out of my own way, I realized that I do have a lot of friends; way more than I can count. That’s a big deal, because in my late teens I used to be so insecure about how many friends I had that I would try to count them all. They never went away. I did.

That last scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life” — where George Bailey finds a copy of “Tom Sawyer” from his guardian angel, Clarence, with a message inside the cover that says “No man is a failure who has friends” — is so true.

I have armies of friends from the different facets of my life — the hacker-security crowd, the metalhead crowd, the church community crowd — and they prop me up every day.

If my mood goes black and I fail to keep it to myself, friends come out of the woodwork and try to make me feel better. They always do.

Friends have stuck by me even when I’ve been the biggest of assholes.

Some friends have gotten angry as hell at me for various reasons. But they haven’t deserted me.

I thank them for that. And I thank everyone in my complicated but wonderful life.

Clarence was right. When friends are there to save you from your darker instincts, you simply cannot fail. Even if you deserve to.

Much love and thanks to all of you. I hope you had a Merry Christmas. We did.

Regarding Mike Dahn And The BSides Controversy

This is really an issue for my security blog, but this week’s blow-up over alleged mismanagement of Security B-Sides connects with me on a personal level best expressed here.

Mood music:

A couple days ago, a Security Errata article appeared detailing financial mismanagement of the Security B-Sides events. It singled out Mike Dahn, one of BSides’ founders, for mismanaging things and lying about it. Dahn published a response in his blog yesterday.

I’ll let the security community chew over who is right and who is wrong. I’ve had my say in the security blog here and here.

I just want to make a few personal observations here.

First, I’ve read Security Errata and Attrition.org for a long time and trust these guys. They do their homework and serve a critical role in the security community: Keeping the rest of us honest. When I saw their article about Dahn, I wasn’t happy for two reasons:

1. I consider Dahn a friend.

2. The folks who write the Security Errata material have an ironclad reputation and when they point a finger, it’s hard to dismiss.

This is one of those cases where you want to believe both sides. But you can’t really take both sides when someone suggests financial mismanagement, can you? And yet I’m going to try anyway.

I think the truth here lies in the middle. Security B-Sides got really popular really fast. I can’t keep up with financial and legal administravia on my best days. If I were one of the B-Sides founders, I probably would have had all the finances screwed up midway through the first day. But then that’s why I don’t get involved with planning these things.

Still, given the freakish growth of B-Sides, it’s not difficult to see how things could go haywire even if you’re a master at finances and legal documentation.

That’s the problem with anything run by humans. Humans are flawed to the core, and so is everything they touch. The hope is that somewhere in all the screwing up, you get something good that benefits a lot of people. In this case, I think Security B-Sides has been good for a lot of us. It has offered the security community fresh perspective in an industry where conferences offer too much bling and not enough substance. I’ve forged relationships at BSides events that have helped me do my job better. That’s for certain.

In this story, I’m not interested in where the blame belongs. I just want those involved to come clean and explain the steps they are taking to fix what needs fixing.

Whatever happens going forward, just try to remember:

We all fuck up, all the time.

Maybe our failure is in mismanaged funds.

Or maybe it’s an addiction we can’t shake that’s destroying everything good about our lives.

Or maybe we just have a habit of thinking we’re better than the next guy when we know nothing about the next guy’s situation.

You know my faults. I’ve covered them in this blog at length in an effort to show that I’ve learned from my mistakes and that there’s a better life to be had if you simply own your weaknesses and face them down. As you’ve seen, despite my progress, I still make mistakes on a regular basis.

None of us are damaged beyond repair.

Neither are our works.

That includes BSides.

Readings From The Book Of Crap: Christmas Edition

I’m coming around to the idea that Christmas isn’t the problem. It’s that this time of year amplifies human stupidity as much as it does human goodness.

To a brain starving for more daylight, the stupidity will dwarf the goodness every time. So please indulge me while I point out a few things…

Mood music:

Principal Lorene Marx of Molin Upper Elementary School in Newburyport, Mass., isn’t letting her students get into the giving spirit because it might offend a few of the kids who don’t celebrate Christmas. This is stupid of her because instead of celebrating diversity and promoting all the different cultural festivities of the season she is teaching kids to be narrow-minded and blowing an opportunity to teach kids that it’s better to give than receive.

Hey, Principal Marx: Kindly review my post from a couple week’s ago: “Take Your ‘War on Christmas’ Talk and Shove It.” You’ll notice that while it’s mostly about the judgmental nature of my fellow Catholics this time of year, it’s also about people like you, who keep kids culturally ignorant in an attempt to not offend anyone.

While we’re on the subject of education, what is it about this season that makes people so harsh toward kids who are simply being kids? It’s a funny thing about kids — they have a habit of speaking their minds and there’s not a thing the parents can do because they’re not right there, standing over their children at the critical moment where they say the wrong thing — like talking to their friends about same-sex couples or the existence of Santa.

True, it would be better if these kids saved the gay marriage talk for high school and it would be brilliant if those who don’t believe in Santa would keep their traps shut for the sake of peers who still believe. But all that texting and bus stop gossiping between parents, making the offending kid out to be a demon seed? That kind of judgmental bullshit hurts the kids more than it helps. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.

Meanwhile, there’s a guy in my Facebook family who is on a crusade against all Muslims, everywhere. He posts articles from obscure websites and blogs about all the evils Muslims do.

There’s the Muslim who chopped off his wife’s fingers because she was getting an education behind his back. There were the Muslims who gang-raped a 14-year-old girl and chopped her into kebab meat. If true, these are terrible, terrible things and the perpetrators need to be punished.

The problem with this guy is that in running these articles — mixed with a variety of pro-Christian articles and sayings — he’s painting every Muslim on the planet with the same brush and spreading hate.

Christians are supposed to spread love, not hate. I say this as someone who grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity.

There are good people and evil people in this world and they have a diverse set of beliefs, some well-meaning but distorted and some just rotten to the core.

There are also many, many Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. who practice an abundance of kindness toward their fellow man every day. Maybe you should be fair about it and mention them once in a while.

Some people will unfriend me over this post because they’ll know I’m talking about them.

To that I say go ahead, and Merry Christmas!

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