Thursday, February 26, 2015

230. Three TV shows that annoy

Over the course of 12 years now, one thing is for certain, I am easily annoyed. Most of the time it’s politics, economics, science or the way we treat animals. However, my annoyance is widespread in society and here I share my opinions about three television shows that continue to draw my ire.

There of course is a difference between shows that I just don’t care for, or aren’t that good, and ones that actively drive me crazy. These get me talking to myself.

Let’s start with Celebrity Apprentice. Right off the top, there’s “The Donald,”—and really that’s enough to get on my list. Despite realizing that the show exists mostly to fuel his ego, I actually tolerated it in the beginning—when it was just “The Apprentice.” Back then, real life individuals, soon to be reality stars, competed in a number of challenges as kind of a “hands-on interview” to get a job with one of Trump’s businesses. It reminded me a little of our MBA program, where we frequently did group work. The show also started with two of his most trusted advisers/managers by his side to help evaluate the teams.

Although he quickly wore me down with his contradictory advice and inconsistent decisions, it took a turn for the worse when he started to regularly use “celebrities.” Apparently it wasn’t entertaining enough turning reality stars into celebrities. That took a little tie and effort by the audience.

Now the show has devolved into celebrities often trying to raise as much money as possible by calling other celebrities. The losing project manager usually gets fired—and seemingly the only entertainment value is waiting for a washed-up celebrity going off the deep end. Trump has replaced his advisors with his son and daughter. His son, while sometimes reasonable despite his privileged position, spends his free time killing large animals for fun.  The only bright spot left in the show is Trump’s daughter—who is more than quite attractive.

One of the most ridiculous shows, which I believe is still on television (it’s not worth looking up) is Undercover Boss. The repetitive plot goes something like this: The CEO of a company, who really seems more interested in making sure his high school friends know he succeeded in life, goes undercover as a new entry-level employee to learn more about his company. He spends some time learning how difficult the job is or how tough circumstances are for those employees who earn minimum wage-like money.

Then there is the punch line. With grandiosity, he reveals to the employees he worked with that he is not the bumbling idiot he portrayed himself to be, but he is actually the boss (the reveal sometimes takes place in the boss’s mansion). Ha, ha, ha, joke is on you! Then of course, now that the CEO has had his company embarrassed and the way he treats his employees exploited on television, he gets upon a white horse and pays for college or something for the lucky employee (and nothing to say about the other employees). It’s an absurd notion—really, who doesn’t know that people making low wages have tough lives?

Finally, one of my wife’s favorite genres is the home improvement/real estate shows. I can often tolerate these shows, especially Property Brothers, but it depends on the family the show is working with. There is something about a young couple buying a $500K house that drives me crazy. Where did they get all that money? Do they work for their dad, did they inherit it? But it is not just that, it’s the lack or perspective that accompanies the whining and crying to get their “dream home.” I know these shows actively set up drama, but a 24 year old complaining that a mile walk to the beach is just not acceptable, is hardly endearing.  Regardless of how they got wealthy beyond their years (dream homes are for people in their 40s and 50s), do they have to go on television to show to the world that anything beyond an open concept kitchen and granite counter tops is capable of bringing them to tears. Finally, there is the negotiating. Many couples embarrass themselves and their real estate agent when they make absurd offers on the property they desire. Annoyingly spoiled and apparently absent of perspective, they’ve lost touch with how most people live.  

I acknowledge that my annoyance is primarily based on the haves and have nots. And my bias is amplified when it seems that the haves need to flaunt it and make sure that others are entertained by their success. Sometimes enough never is.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

SPECIAL REPORT: How climate change is affecting our towns

While many acknowledge that climate change is a serious issue for the future, and on a global scale, some might be surprised that its effects are already being felt in Northeast Ohio.

To consider those effects, Case Western Reserve University held a symposium entitled “The Impacts of Northeast Ohio’s Warming Climate” to discuss this local impact from a variety of perspectives.

The six member panel included David Beach, director at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; Aparna Bole, a pediatrician at University Babies & Children’s Hospital; Bryan Stubbs, executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance; Dave Spangler, president of Lake Erie Waterkeeper and charter boat captain; Marnie Urso, senior program manager with the National Audubon Society; and Joanne Scudder, director of sustainability with the Cuyahoga County Fair.

With about 150 people in attendance, Beach got straight to the point: “I think climate change is the most important issue facing humanity. Climate change is not some hypothetical problem for some distant future. It’s real, it’s here today and it’s effecting us in Northeast Ohio today. It’s affecting our health, wildlife, agriculture, economy, infrastructure, [the] Great Lakes, and a host of other things.”

Climate change has a significant impact on our health, particularly for those with allergy and asthma problems, Bole said.

The changing climate has resulted in worsening air quality, an increase in heat waves, more droughts, higher carbon dioxide levels, and a lengthened season for ragweed pollen. Greater Cleveland was ranked as having one of the highest rates of asthma prevalence.

That makes climate change one of the most serious health threats facing our nation, yet few Americans are aware of its consequences for families, Bole said, quoting American Public Health Association director Georges Benjamin.

“For me as a pediatrician, the impact on children is of particular concern. Children represent a particularly vulnerable group that is likely to suffer from the direct and indirect adverse health effects of climate change,” she said.

A common concern among the panelists was the effect climate change has on one of the area’s most precious resources — Lake Erie.

Spangler, who is in his 23rd season running charters, said heavy rains that have resulted in nutrient runoff into the rivers are creating an algae situation in the lake.

Algae systems only need phosphorus and warm water, and when they thrive it enables more undesirable fish to flourish, he said. That has created a dead zone under the thermocline in the Great Lakes that is over 3,000 square miles and getting bigger every year.

“Lake Erie is the walleye capital of the world. Just sport fishing in Lake Erie is a billion-dollar industry and supports 20,000 jobs. It is also the most valuable commercial fresh water fishery in the world. The lake water temperature is staying warmer longer, well into October. I cannot find clean water to catch the fish,” Spangler said.

Algae blooms also affect drinking water and have resulted in local water bans.

“In 2013 we were told for the first time, ‘Do not drink the water.’ I’m shocked, upset. Are you kidding me? I can ‘t drink my water — how can that happen in this day and age?” asked Spangler.

Stubbs said water is an under-appreciated asset to the area and a significant driver to our gross economic product.

Heavy rains associated with climate change have resulted in more basement and street flooding. The rains are becoming more frequent, with three “100 year” storms in the last 10 years.

Warmer atmospheric temperatures can hold more moisture in heavy rain events and is one of the most measurable changes of climate in Northeast Ohio, said Bole.

“Way back when, one inch of rainfall was a biggie, today we get five to six inch rainfalls all the time,” Spangler added.

Climate change is also responsible for colder temperatures and heavy snowfall, which is counter-intuitive. But don’t confuse weather with climate.

Bole pointed to research that has indicated the melting of Arctic ice can destabilize the polar jet stream, allowing cold air to wonder south. And when Lake Erie doesn’t freeze, it loses water through evaporation, which results in more lake effect snow.

Agriculture also has a vested interest and reliance on local climatic conditions. Paradoxically, it is also a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.

Scudder reported that conventional farming and food production accounts for one-third of all environmental pollution originating in human activity.

“The accelerated pace and the intensity of projecting climate change require major adjustments worldwide. For years we’ve been saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming.’ Now it is time to stand up and take notice,” she said.

Climate change affects which crops can be grown locally, dependent upon temperature, rainfall, frequency of drought, length of growing season, and insects.

“Related to the livestock issue one of the most important personal choices we can all make to reduce our personal carbon emission is to eat a more vegetarian diet,” Beach said.

The event was sponsored by the National Audubon Society, who has for years been tracking the impact of climate change on birds, with annual counts in Wellington and other areas of Lorain County. Changes include migrating birds arriving earlier, wintering birds shifting north, and the potential extinction of local species.

“Birds are finely tuned to a set of environmental conditions. Everything about its physiology, behavior, and genetics allows it to be successful in that environment. A changing habitat means new competition for food and resources as well as new predators,” Urso said.

Climate models by the Society indicate that those in danger include the bald eagle, burrowing owl, common loon, and Baltimore oriole.

Civic involvement was a consistent recommendation of the panelists for those who want to institute change.

“It’s a matter of choice. We can choose a more sustainable world if we want to, we can imagine it and we can demand it from our elected officials. All we need is to be more political. We have the technology, we know how to fix things, we know how to design a society that is in sync and harmony with the rest of biosphere — it’s the old fossil fuel politics that is transforming the society,” Beach said

“Talk to your elective officials. Keep the politics out of it. The lake doesn’t know blue from red, it just doesn’t want to be green,” Spangler said.

229. The health care system is broke

The American healthcare is so overwhelming and so polarizing that it is a difficult subject to tackle in a short column. However, it is so awful that it needs discussion and cannot be ignored.

It doesn’t matter how you look at it—before Obamacare, after Obamacare, or maybe even after the repeal of Obamacare—our healthcare system is a mess. It’s confusing, expensive, profit-driven, unorganized and political. Despite the hard work of many healthcare professionals, the system itself is about everything other than humanity.

A good place to start is an article I’ve had on my bookshelf for a couple of years entitled “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” by Steven Brill. The article caused such a stir that he recently finished a book with a similar title, “America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.”

It’s a must read and considers the simply ridiculous billing practices and medical costs of medical providers. From $83,900 for a cancer treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy to $1.50 for a single Advil or $74 for a roll of gauze, we’ve probably all looked with disbelief at the billing detail and are thankful that we have insurance.  It’s absurd to the point that almost everyone must have health insurance—which is dedicated to negotiating a “reasonable” rate.

You’ve probably noticed that medical providers won’t even give you a glancing smile until you’ve turned over your medical insurance card. Next, they have to update your information—they need to know where to find you to pay what insurance doesn’t.

Medical decisions are made in conjunction with insurance providers who make those decisions from behind a desk and according to the patient’s health insurance plan. It’s not always whether a patient needs a test or procedure, it’s whether an insurance company will approve it.

Hospital CEOs often make seven figure salaries, with a conscious that somehow reconciles the humanity of healthcare and those in need, and the well-being of their employees, with their own greed. They whine about uncompensated care, while protesting Obamacare provisions that require everyone to carry health insurance.

If you have good insurance and can afford to pay your premiums and deductibles, the insurance system is manageable providing that nothing really serious goes wrong. However, for the poor and underinsured trying to navigate the health care systems can be devastating. The Brill article notes that medical bills are responsible for a significant portion of personal bankruptcies.

I had two relatively small medical procedures late year that combined were billed for over $5,000. In addition, physical therapy was billed at a ridiculous $185 per session. Insurance companies negotiated a rate at about 80% of that and my costs were a few hundred. The uninsured, however, would have been on the hook for the entire bill, close to $7,000. Few can afford that.

Brill also journeys through the healthcare system from a “follow the money,” perspective. Ridiculous medical costs are a result of profit-driven system supported by lobbyists and political interest. Healthcare lobbies, such as those for pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and insurance companies pollute the system at the expense of sensible, affordable healthcare.

This cost trickle down to employers, who have now have a legal responsibility—depending on size and revenue—to provide health insurance to employees. Obamacare makes it more difficult to dodge this responsibility, despite the threat from employers.

However, just as car insurance is not meant to pay for oil changes, healthcare insurance was never meant to pay for every blood test. But the out-of-control costs of medical services have left this burden on employers as the only feasible payer source for the majority of Americans. Healthcare costs are out of control.

In its current state, it’s an unsustainable system. If everyone played fairly, and was willing to earn a modest living, there would be no need for Obamacare. However, there is not enough money to protect everyone’s financial interest. Employers cannot afford to pay rising insurance premiums—neither can average citizens. Employees are not receiving raises; that money is going to cover the cost of health insurance premiums. Hospitals, doctors, insurance providers, medical equipment manufactures and pharmaceutical companies are absorbing employee raises.

The only reasonable solution is national healthcare. One insurance system, with profit largely removed from the equation—with reasonable salaries, consistent and fair services and fewer burdens on employers. For many countries, it works just fine.

Conversely, the scariest future is the obsessive Republican intent to repeal Obamacare. And then what—back to what was even worse?

I have long favored national healthcare. It’s about people and being there for each other. If I were so blessed to never need my medical insurance, I would be glad to continue to pay my premiums to help others. That’s the way insurance is supposed to work.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

228. There's no "team" in these sports

As football fans settle in to watch the Super Bowl in a few weeks, they will be watching not only one of the most popular sports, but also the most popular team sport.

We love our teams, and beyond sports many other professions, particularly businesses, have taken to the team approach. We need team players, they always say. We need people who are willing to do not only their part, but also make personal sacrifices for the betterment of the team. It’s “next man up,” when a teammate suffers a setback. There are many values that we can learn from the team environment, whether it is sports or business. We are all familiar with the lessons.

A while ago, I had a conversation with a very successful high school and college wrestler who I was working out with. We talked about the similarities we shared in our experiences when it comes to competing in individual sports.

Individual sports are dynamic in that it is you out there alone. And while there is nothing worse than feeling like you let down the team, there is something different about knowing that success or failure is completely up to you. It is both liberating and terrifying.

Individual sports reveal character. There is not a team to hide behind, to blame, or to ride the coat tails. In individual sports, you are accountable for your performance. If you lose, it can be humbling and you know you need to work harder. If you win, you get to celebrate your effort and the accolades are yours alone. If you quit, you quit on yourself—and you know it.

Individual sports also build character. It is not easy losing, and it is not easy losing to friends or foes—or in front of your fans.  It teaches you how to be a good winner—there is far less “showboating” in individual sports. Sure, there are cocky players and athletes, but usually there is also great respect between competitors—and a shared love of the game. If you act like an idiot each time you win or lose, you will lose that respect and will be shunned by other players. Win or lose, you learn how to shake hands at the end of the contest.

I also think that individual sports build work ethic. In individual sports, the competition is the field—you against everyone else. There is a tremendous burden to work harder than all of the other athletes. In other words, if you know that one competitor is working out three hours a day, then there is pressure to work out three and a half hours a day. If your competitor is running five miles a day, then you have to run five and a half miles a day.

You also learn how to deal with expectations. Most athletes in individual sports start on the bottom and work their way up. They start as an underdog or unknown—without expectation. However, with success comes expectation and for those that make it to the highest level, the pressure can be difficult. Not only do friends, family and fans expect a certain level of performance, but your opponent is able to compete without anything to lose—and everything to gain.

Individual sports are a lot like the “real” world, in which you are on your own—and you are competing against others for jobs, spouses, etc. To get a job, you have to be better than every other candidate that applied—sort of like winning a golf or tennis tournament. There is only one winner. Of course, once you get the job, then you become part of team.

These tribulations can really help prepare teens and young adults for some of the challenges they might face in life. It takes real commitment—and while it can be “all about me,” it can also be the antidote to narcissism. Not everybody gets a trophy.

There is perhaps no better feeling than winning as a team and sharing that success with teammates. But being the best is pretty cool too.