About webnerbob

A Cleveland and Ohio State sports fan who lives in Columbus, Ohio

The Alarm About Ebola

Africa seems very far away to most Americans.  In contrast to, say, Europe, we don’t know most of the names of the countries, we don’t learn much about the geography of the African continent, and we tend to hear about it only when a particularly bloodthirsty dictator or terrorist organization has committed another outrage.  The recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire in west Africa, though, is a story that should command the attention of Americans and everyone else in the world.

Ebola, which is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, is one of the most deadly diseases in the world.  It’s a virus that wreaks havoc with human blood systems and immune responses, and in this most recent outbreak it has infected more than 2,000 people and has killed more than half of them.  In fact, in past outbreaks Ebola has been so deadly that it has restricted itself:  people who were infected became symptomatic and died before they had a chance to infect other people.  This time, though, the progress of the disease seems to be slower, somehow, and infected people have more of an opportunity to infect others.  For this reason, no one is quite sure how many people have been infected with Ebola in this latest outbreak — or, more importantly, exactly where they are.  That’s one of the things that should concern everyone.

There are other points of concern, too.  The deadliness of the disease has caused a breakdown of the health care systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where this current outbreak is centered.  Due to fear of Ebola, many health care workers have fled their hospitals — which not only leaves Ebola untreated, but also opens the door to the spread of other diseases like malaria that are found in the region.  Even Doctors Without Borders is having trouble finding people to treat Ebola patients.

In addition, this latest Ebola outbreak has occurred in a place where Ebola has never been seen before.  The virus somehow traveled hundreds of miles, from central Africa to west Africa, without any human outbreaks along the way; researchers think it might have been carried by swarms of bats.  Now it is found in much more densely populated areas and — here is a key point — areas that have airports that can carry passengers to huge international airports where they can connect to flights that might carry them just about anywhere in the world.  Combine that fact with the more slow-moving nature of this strain of Ebola, and you can see how this disease could spread, uncontrolled, to a much larger geographic area. 

And here’s the last concerning thing:  this deadly disease outbreak is raging on a continent that has been home to chaos, tribal genocide, rampaging terrorist groups, and other forms of social disorder in recent times.  In Monrovia, Liberia, “looters” recently attacked a temporary holding center for Ebola patients, ransacked it, and ran off with blood-soaked sheets and mattresses.  That troubling incident raises the question of whether they weren’t “looters” at all, but rather members of a terrorist group — such as Boko Haram — who are trying to acquire a means to spread the disease as part of their savage campaign to establish control over territory and kill anyone who doesn’t adopt their religious and political views.  That is truly a frightening scenario.

So this story manages to combine an incredibly deadly disease, a mass outbreak, swarms of virus-carrying bats, health system breakdowns, and potential terrorist concerns in one appalling package.  Yes, I’d say this is a time when we all should be paying attention to news from Africa.

Braxton’s Bad Luck

Ohio State has confirmed that Braxton Miller, its very talented senior quarterback, suffered a season-ending injury yesterday.  The injury to his right shoulder — the same shoulder he injured in the Orange Bowl and that was operated on earlier this year — came when Miller was throwing a pass during a non-contact part of practice.

IMG_3091Miller, who is on track to graduate in December, now expects to redshirt this season.  He announced that he plans to stay at Ohio State, start graduate school, and play again for Ohio State next year, when he hopes to come back from the injury stronger and better than ever.

Two thoughts about Braxton Miller.  First, isn’t it encouraging that a fine athlete like Miller, who has been a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, has paid attention to his classwork and is prepared to graduate early?  Good for him!  Second, Miller’s injury is why I will never blame a gifted athlete who decides to leave school before their senior year to go pro.  Exceptional modern athletes are a carefully calibrated combination of speed, size, quickness, and strength, and an injury can wreck that careful calibration forever.  I hope that, with the assistance of all of the miracles of modern medicine, Braxton Miller can fully recover from the injury return to the exciting form he showed the last two seasons.

As to much more mundane matters:  quarterback was the one position Ohio State coaches didn’t have to worry about; now they do.  Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett and redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones are next on the depth chart, and the coaches will have to decide which one starts when the Buckeyes play Navy on August 30 — less than two weeks away.  The upcoming season just got a lot more unpredictable for Buckeye Nation,

Another Browns National TV Debacle

The Cleveland Browns were on national TV last night, taking on the Washington Redskins on ESPN.  Why not check out my team?  After all, they’ve got a new coach (an annual occurrence), lots of new players (ditto), there’s a quarterback controversy (ditto ditto), and there’s hope for the future (the horrible, crippling curse of all deluded Cleveland sports fans).  Russell and I had our cell phones handy, ready to text our thoughts on the game and share some positive vibes.

Alas — as is always the case with Cleveland sports — it was not to be.  The Browns defense, at least, looked like an NFL-quality team.  Other than the fact that they were mysteriously penalized on every play, the D got decent pressure on the quarterback, forced some turnovers, and had a nice little goal-line stand.  There seems to be some depth there, too.  When the regular season arrives and the refs swallow their whistles a bit, the defense might even be good.

ESPN photoThe offense was another story.  It started with a botched snap count, a blocking breakdown, and an uncontested sack on the first play, followed by a penalty on the second.  At that point, how many Browns fans thought:  “Uh oh, same old Browns”?  And they were right.  Words like putrid, awful, and embarrassing don’t begin to describe the futility the Browns starters showed in the first half last night.  Brian Hoyer, the quarterback who is coming back from surgery last year, was 2-6 for 16 yards, blew an easy TD throw, and was off on almost every pass.  Johnny Manziel was 7-16 for 65 yards, but even those lame stats were padded by a second-half series against second-teamers.  The Browns eked out a miserable 3 points after a turnover.

Fortunately for me, I decided not to watch the second half when the scrubs took over.  I therefore didn’t have to watch Manziel distinguish himself by flipping off the Redskins bench on national TV.  So, Johnny Football looked like Johnny Asshole.  Browns teammates say Manziel takes a terrible riding from opposing players and fans.  No surprise there!  Manziel is just a kid — people tend to forget that — but his antics on draft day, and his insistence on acting like a big shot when he hasn’t proven himself at the pro level, are bound to attract that kind of attention.  If he can’t keep his cool in a meaningless preseason game, how is he going to stay level-headed during a crucial play with an important game on the line?  Manziel’s stupid middle-finger salute tells us something about him, and it isn’t good news.

There’s some value in a game like this.  It was such a colossal failure that it’s bound to crush any lingering optimism that the Browns have turned a corner and smash the rose-colored glasses of the glass-half-full fans.  The rest of us Browns Backers will approach the start of the regular season with a wary attitude, like a cornered animal with its foot caught in a trap, and grimly determined to bear the impending pain for as long as we possibly can.

Sad About Pops

Recently SiriuxXM cancelled its over-the-air Pops channel that I listened to in my car.  That channel played a steady, commercial-free selection of terrific popular classical music selections.  That decision sucks in more ways than one.

I listened to the Pops channel regularly.  In fact, it was my favorite SiriusXM channel, and part of the crucial classical music rotation that I could quickly shift through to find something I really liked.  That included SiriusXM 74 (Met Opera Radio), 75 (Pops), and 76 (Symphony Hall), as well as WOSU-FM, the local classical music outlet.  Sure, the Pops channel self-promotions were kind of mindless and irritating (“Bassoons and oboes and cymbals, oh my!”), but it was a reliable refuge that could be counted on to play some baroque or Strauss when Symphony Hall was playing an interminable Brahms piece or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when I felt like listening to something other than the theme music for a United Air Lines commercial.

It’s pathetic that SiriusXM has only one real classical music channel, as well as the Met channel.  After all, this is a satellite radio service that has dozens of pop and rock stations, each specifically devoted to a particular kind of music — say, music from the ’60s, or acoustic stuff, or heavy metal.  They’ve even had a station devoted to Billy Joel.  Billy Joel!  I think Piano Man is a perfectly good pop song, but how about some actual piano music from Beethoven or Mozart?

Can it really be that there are so few classical music fans out there that classical music is less in demand than Billy Joel?  My God!  What does that tell you about the state of our country?

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

When A Dog Gets Annoying

-6Sometimes Penny just wants some attention, and sometimes she really just wants some attention.  When that mood strikes, and you’re more interested in reading a book than attending to her insistent desires, she employs two equally annoying techniques.  One is to use her paw to scratch your arm until you get up and give her what she wants — which usually involves food — and the other is to shove her face so close to yours that you can see every fur follicle on her muzzle.  Her breath doesn’t smell like roses, either.

Cruising The Dream Cruise

-5This weekend was the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, when thousands of the cars Detroit has produced over the years cruise up and down Woodward Avenue.  It’s a serious dip into the world of chrome and leather, mag wheels and shiny grilles, candy-colored paint and engines with horsepower to spare.  Russell went, had a great time, and sent along the photo above.

Cars are interesting devices.  At bottom, they’re just a transportation mechanism, but they also can become so much more.  Who doesn’t remember the first car that they truly loved?  Mine was a bright red Mustang Ghia, circa 1974, with a fake pebbled leather top that was bright white, and bucket seats.  I thought I was the King of the Road in that car.

The (Positive?) Lessons Of Gambling Saturation

In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the newest and largest casino — a $2.4 billion ultra-modern complex called Revel — is closing after operating for less than three years and never turning a profit.  Two other casinos, the Showboat and the Trump Plaza, will be closing later this year, and a fourth casino closed at the beginning of 2014. 

In Ohio, revenues from the state-licensed casinos are down at five of the six casinos that have been open for more than a year.  Casino operators, always on the lookout for that extra shekel, are hoping to win approval for plans to make up for a bit of that lost revenue by putting slot machines in smoking areas so smokers can feed the one-armed bandits while puffing away.

IMG_2931In both places, the cause for the decline in revenue is the same:  competition.  Atlantic City casinos were hurt by the opening of a number of small casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania.  In Ohio, new “racinos” — race tracks that are licensed to operate row after row of slot machines — are coming on line so that by the end of the year the state will have four casinos and seven racinos to compete for the gambling dollar.  Ohio now has gambling outlets throughout the state and in four neighboring states, and casinos can be found in cities and on native American reservations up and down the east coast.

The falling casino revenues and closures are bad news for employees who lose their jobs — Revel had more than 3,000 employees who will need to find new employment — and for government planners who adopted rosy casino tax revenues in their budgets, but it’s not necessarily bad news for the rest of the country.  The struggling fiscal performance of all of the new casinos clearly indicates that there is a finite population of gamblers in the United States, and that pie is not growing.  Perhaps the data means that most Americans would rather get and keep a job, save their hard-earned wages rather than risking them at games of chance, and achieve financial independence the old-fashioned way?  If so, such a show of prudence is encouraging.  Now, if only governmental leaders who are all too happy to adopt budgets bloated with pie-in-the-sky casino revenue projections would begin to exercise the same kind of restraint . . . .

Mixing Bowl Asian Grill

IMG_2861At the Columbus Food Truck Festival yesterday, the four of us looked long and hard at the dozens of food truck options.  Finally, we settled on the Mixing Bowl Asian Grill.  It’s a testament to the food this place offers that a committed meat-eater (me), a vegetarian (the Rising Star), a person who boasts incessantly about her California excursions and California cuisine (the Origamist), and a person committed to eating a taco at all costs (the Investor) were able to agree on a single food truck.

The MBAG was a good choice on two levels.  First and foremost, the food was great.  Second, the MBAG had a two-person bowl-building operation underway that caused its waiting line to be the fastest moving line at the Food Truck Festival, which is incredibly important if you are really, really hungry and can’t bear to smell the mouth-watering scents for one more second. 

IMG_2863The MBAG follows a customer choice approach that appeals to me.  You figure out whether you want a rice bowl, a noodle bowl, a salad bowl, a burrito, or a taco.  Then you order your protein, hot toppings, cold toppings, sauces, and crunch from a menu that offers multiple choices.  I got a rice noodle bowl with grilled chicken (including the “extra protein” option), sauteed bean sprouts, egg, some daikon and carrot slaw, and ginger soy vinaigrette sauce.  One window starts the creation process and the other finishes it and rings you up.  Prices are reasonable (the basic chicken noodle bowl is only $8, and the extra protein is an additional $3), as shown by the fact that the MBAG would have charged only $1 for bottled water where the Columbus Commons folks were charging $3. 

The resulting noodle bowl was excellent, with just the right combination of heat, coolness, and crunch.  I used chopsticks to eat every morsel, and even when looking longingly at the empty bowl felt a certain pride at my role in its creation.  The Rising Star got some appalling tofu-oriented noodle bowl, the Origamist got a noodle bowl that included kimchi with a spicy kick that made her yearn for a beverage, and the Investor got, well, a taco.  The MBAG somehow satisfied us all, and that is what Food Truck Summer is all about.

Another Really Great Story

Richard continues to hit it out of the park in his internship for the Chicago Tribune this summer.  His most recent story is a really great piece about how the recession hit the South Side of Chicago especially hard and that, years later, the development efforts in South Side neighborhoods still have not recovered.  The piece includes a well-done and easy to use interactive map that allows you to look at the impact of the recession on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

IMG_2349This kind of story is really good reporting for two reasons.  First, it addresses a topic — the status of rich neighborhoods versus poor neighborhoods in America, with the impact of crime and teetering city finances thrown in for good measure — that is not frequently addressed in the media. It’s not a pleasant, or easy, story to report, but it’s essential to cover if we are to get a true sense of economic reality.

Second, it involves real shoe-leather reporting, which often involves digging into public records like construction permits and figuring out boring topics like tax increment financing districts.  It’s easy to call the head of a development agency, get his or her spin in a pre-packaged quote, and stop there; it’s much more challenging and time-consuming to sift through documents obtained from a municipal office and do the kinds of painstaking, but powerful and irrefutable, comparisons that Richard has done in this piece.  People might pitch things to advance their agendas, but the construction permits don’t lie, because without the permits nothing gets built.

Forgive me for a little proud bragging — although what’s a family blog for if not for a little parental boasting? — but I greatly admire Richard’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and tackle some of the tough and challenging issues found in the urban areas of America.  He has become a really fine reporter.

Still Summer

IMG_2886It’s been a remarkably cool summer — on this August morning’s walk, patches of frost were visible on the ground (!) — but it’s still summer, as these kid bikes left on the curb attest.  When you’re a kid and it’s summer, you squeeze every minute out of the experience, and that means riding your bike until it’s too dark to see, then getting up the next morning and doing it again.

Alas, the days of true summer are waning fast.  For the kids in our neighborhood the first day of school is next Monday.

Columbus Food Truck Festival, 2014

IMG_2878What’s Food Truck Summer without a trip to the Columbus Food Truck Festival?  That cornucopia of local food entrepreneurs and tasty grub is this today and tomorrow at the Columbus Commons.  The Origamist, the Rising Star, and the Investor and I decided to leg it over there for lunch today and check out the offerings.

It was a beautiful day, weatherwise — bright sunshine, blue sky, and temperatures topping out in the mid-70s — but it was an even more beautiful day for foodies.  I’m not sure how many dozens of food trucks were there, but it was enough to make choosing what to get almost impossible.  Ultimately we made our selection, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, but in the meantime we couldn’t help but be impressed at the number, and cuisine diversity, of Columbus food trucks peddling their wares.  BBQ, Asian, tacos, Greek, colossal sausages, noodle bowls, high-end grilled cheese, and just about every other kind of food you can think of is there, waiting to be wolfed down on the grassy plain just south of the center of downtown.  It’s a nice setting, and at today’s lunch hour it drew a big crowd.

IMG_2883It was, perhaps, unexpectedly big, because there weren’t enough tables and chairs to go around.  We ended up using an empty water stand as an ersatz table, and as we walked around we saw people perched on little chairs intended for toddlers.  We managed, but for some of the dishes being sold you really need to be able to sit down and dig in.  Next year, maybe the Festival organizers could put a row of picnic tables or two on the Commons?  It would make eating a noodle bowl with chopsticks a more feasible.

Two other items of constructive criticism.  First, all beverages have to be purchased from the city of Columbus beverage stands, and the price for a bottle of water is set at gouging levels — $3 a bottle.  $3 for bottled water?!?  That’s bogus, and self-defeating.  If you want people to enjoy the great food truck culture in Columbus, or to frequent the Commons for other events, price the water (and beer, which I think was $6 a bottle) at more reasonable levels. 

Second, crank down the volume on the music acts to a lower decibel level.  It’s nice to have music and it contributes to a fun and festive atmosphere, but I think most people are there with friends or colleagues and would like to have a conversation over lunch without having to raise their voices.

All in all, though, a very nice and well-attended event that confirmed, again, that Columbus is really starting to get there as a big city.  I’d encourage anybody interested in getting a taste (pun intended) of the Capital City food truck world to drop by tomorrow and check it out.  Just be sure to bring your own bottle of water!

We Are Not Sheep To Be Herded

Fortunately, things seemed to calm down last night in Ferguson, Missouri, where people have been protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager Saturday night.  A change in police tactics — which basically avoided the shows of overwhelming force police had exhibited on prior nights — seems to have eased tensions.

The Ferguson situation raises serious questions about the “militarization” of police forces and their responses to protests.  That issue, in turn, raises bigger questions about police accountability and whether officers have an unnecessarily confrontational “us vs. them” attitude that promotes clashes with a citizenry that is simply trying to exercise its constitutional right to assemble and protest.

ABC News image of police in FergusonThe weaponry police displayed in Ferguson — armored vehicles, army-style helmets and uniforms and tactical equipment, even sharpshooters — was astonishing.  (Why the need for sharpshooters in these circumstances?  Who were they targeting?)  It’s legitimate to ask why municipal police need such equipment in the first place, and politicians from across the political spectrum are doing so.  Separate and apart from the cost of purchasing and maintaining such equipment in times when many cities are strapped for cash, the reality is that once such equipment is acquired the impulse to deploy it will become irresistible.  In Ferguson, it seems pretty clear that the use of the military equipment, tear gas, and rubber bullets unnecessarily fanned the flames.

Police have a tough job, and the vast majority of Americans understand and support them as they perform it.  The police role, however, is a limited one — to enforce laws and apprehend criminals.  When a protest occurs, police of course may properly arrest anyone who throws a brick through a window or who assaults a police officer.  But police are public servants, and when there is a question about whether police have overstepped their authority by engaging in improper use of lethal force, as in this case, citizens have every right to question, and protest, and take photographs of police as they perform their jobs.  When police are arresting journalists in a McDonald’s, tear-gassing news crews, and firing rubber bullets randomly to try to disperse crowds, as happened in Ferguson, it’s fair to conclude that police have overstepped their role

We are not sheep to be herded, and police officials need to understand that.  Law enforcement authorities must respect the fact that Americans have the right to protest and question police activities.  I’m hoping that the Ferguson situation causes municipal authorities across the country to reassess their need for military equipment and their tactics when protests occur.

Big Board

IMG_2538Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to Hen Island this year, for a number of reasons.  That’s sad, but it also means that I haven’t had a serious cribbage fix for a very long while.  It eased the pain to see that the former ship captain’s house where we stayed in Tamworth, New Hampshire featured a cribbage board — and not just any cribbage board.  This Brobdingnagian construct, with titanic pegs to match, was the biggest cribbage board I’ve ever seen.

Fixing Meet The Press

Today NBC announced that Chuck Todd would replace David Gregory as the host of Meet The Press.  The ratings for that venerable program have plummeted recently, with the show falling to third place among the Sunday morning talk shows.

I don’t know whether NBC thinks that Todd, by himself, can cure the ratings problem; the Politico story linked above suggests that other personality and ego-related issues might have been at play in the decision to dump Gregory.  If NBC does think that Todd can boost the show’s ratings, however, color me skeptical.

I don’t think the problem with Meet The Press was David Gregory.  I think the problem is that the show has stopped trying to engage in legitimate journalism and instead tries to set up phony verbal sparring and conflict about political issues because the producers think it makes better TV.

The Meet The Press of my youth was a sober program where a panel of three journalists asked questions of a figure who was involved in some notable issue of the day.  There wasn’t any grandstanding.  Now Meet The Press and every other Sunday morning public affairs program has a “roundtable” discussion section where two of the “panelists” are point-of-view advocates who spew their competing talking points and interrupt each other as they are doing so.  It’s a waste of time to listen to the blather, and everybody knows it.

There are a lot of people who will never watch a Sunday morning news program no matter how glitzy and contentious it is.  Why not just recognize that fact and return Meet The Press to what it was, and at least avoid offending thoughtful people who are interested in hearing what actual newsmakers have to say in response to legitimate questions?