January 2012

Much of the U.S. has made “great progress” in cleaning up the air, according to the American Lung Association’s annual report, The State of the Air 2011. “More than half of the country’s most-smog-polluted cities experienced their best year yet,” said researchers, although they noted there’s still a lot of work to do.

In terms of particle pollution, cities like Bakersfield, CA, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Birmingham, AL rank among the worst. Some of the cleanest cities were on the Florida peninsula and in the mountains of the West. They range from Santa Fe, NM to Bangor, ME and down the coast to cities like Fort Myers, Melbourne, FL and even Orlando.

But air pollution in one city is not confined to that city or surrounding area, unfortunately. It can spread great distances through the atmosphere. The California Environmental Protection Agency notes that air pollution in Asia is slowing the clean air process in California.

South Florida often feels the effects, usually in summer, of Saharan dust that travels across the Atlantic Ocean.

Which brings us to the issue of air pollution in China. Under pressure, the Chinese government announced this month that it would begin releasing measurements of tiny particulates in the atmosphere — particulates that measure 2.5 microns or less and therefore can penetrate deeply into the lungs. This is called the PM 2.5 reading.

You have to believe that all governments have a tendancy to under-report pollution, just like it’s in government’s best interest to over-state GDP or under-estimate unemployment. But environmentalists are particularly skeptical of pollution reports from Beijing, as well they should be in a country that has virtually complete control over the media.

By reputation, China has a lax attitude toward air pollution standards which is one reason why so much industrial production has gravitated there. Cheap labor is a reason but it’s not the only reason.

According to an article in The Economist, smog in Beijng “is often so bad that residents cannot see buildings just across the street, schools cancel outdoor activities and the airport cannot operate.”

But one of the first readings released by the government showed air quality in Beijing was at the “Good” level based on U.S. EPA standards.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has a reporting station on its roof and came up with a “moderate” particulate reading on that same day. But you can keep up with all of the readings from the Embassy which puts the data on Twitter.

As I was putting together this column, the last five Tweets on the air quality were: Unhealthy; followed by four Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. The sixth and seventh Tweets showed Moderate readings. Toward the bottom of the Twitter page, there were four readings in a row in the “Good” range.

China already has an unfair advantage over the U.S. and other Western countries with lax labor standards, low wages and an artifically low, manipulated currency. Here’s one more area where international pressure keeps falling short, and the environmental impact is global.

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The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments concerning the Affordable Health Care Act in March. The court is supposed to make decisions based on law and interpretation of the Constitution, not politics.

But a new survey shows that 60 percent of the American public believes that the justices will make their determination based on personal ideology, not legal arguments.

Twenty-eight percent insist the court members will stick to the letter of the law and ignore politics. Looks to me like more than a quarter of the country hasn’t paid much attention to the history of high court decisions.

Whether the court has leaned left or right, political issues and electoral trends may be out of sight, but never out of mind.

Photo: Air pollution on a Beijing morning (Flickr.com)

Newt Gingrich will never get a job writing for David Letterman, but he did come up with a rather piercing health care quip Friday night before the South Carolina Primary.

“Why is President Obama for young people being allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26? Because he can’t get any jobs for them to go out and buy their own insurance.

“I mean I have — I have an offer — I have an offer to the parents of America: Elect us and your kids will be able to move out because they’ll have work.”

Gingrich and colleagues believe in the trickle down theory of economics — let the economy run free and job creation will follow. Everybody who wants to work will be able to work and be able to afford their own place. Little pink houses for you and me.

Whether you buy that or not, Gingrich certainly hits a nerve on the issue of adult children moving back home. The phenomenon of “Boomerang Kids” has been going on since the start of the recession in 2007.

Among men 25-34, 19 percent were living with their parents in 2011, compared with 14 percent in 2005. Ten percent of women in that age group were living with parents, up 2 percent, according to U.S. Census data cited by CNN Money.

What’s interesting is, with pension benefits getting cut and the possibility of reductions in Social Security and Medicare, there’s an assumption that more seniors will have to move in with their kids. Looks to me like we’re getting ready to create the ultimate Sandwich Generation — middle-aged couples who have to accommodate the housing needs of their adult children and their aging parents at the same time.

And the American housing market may be in the early stages of adapting to this trend. Bloomberg published a story in November about “a growing line of new homes marketed to multigenerational families.” It’s a category that increased 30 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Home builders are offering new digs with two master bedrooms, two living rooms, and two washer-dryer sets. Built-in mother-in-law suites attractive to the 40-something buyers who can then turn around and use grandma and grandpa as built-in babysitters. Or, as they get a little older, a place for their young adult kids.

There were 5.1 million households in 2010 that consisted of three generations, up from 3.9 million a decade earlier. Fifty-one million families are housing at least two generations, up from 42 million.

Great big pink houses for you and me and also ma and pa and 20-somethings Bud and Sis.

In this new vision of America, everybody pitches in. Bud brings in the firewood and grandpa is more than happy to tell stories about the olden days, while grandma teaches Sis how to cross-stitch.

Bud, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, is more than happy to contribute most of his weekly $325 paycheck from shifts at the corner 7-Eleven and grandpa, his $41.25 monthly interest payments from his 401(k).

So who has it right? Is American business ready to tap into a new multigenerational trend of extended family housing, or will Newt and his compadres come to our rescue and help us continue to live our lives of independent bliss?

Or, will both versions turn out to be a little too optimistic?

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/genista/4854034/

So many social and scientific/ health issues are interconnected. Political decisions determine access to health care, so it’s not a wild leap to say that making a trip to the voting booth is part of self-care, a sort of wellness program accomplished by filling in a little round circle with a No. 2 pencil.

Here’s another example. NASA scientists have concluded that enormous health benefits could be realized by eliminating certain common pollutants that not only directly harm personal health, but also are factors in global warming.

Research led by Drew Shindell of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York identified 14 things that could be done to control black carbon and methane. These alone would have sweeping impacts on global warming, respiratory illnesses and other diseases, and crop yields around the world, according to NASA.

Black carbon is produced by burning fossil fuels. It triggers respiratory problems and cardiovascular disease, and leaves a dark film on ice and snow, which reduces their ability to reflect heat. Methane is a greenhouse gas that damages crops and can also cause health problems.

“While carbon dioxide is the primary driver of global warming over the long term, limiting black carbon and methane are complementary actions that would have a more immediate impact because these two pollutants circulate out of the atmosphere more quickly,” NASA says.

One idea is to capture methane that would otherwise escape from coal mines, oil facilities and long-distance pipelines. Another, focusing on black carbon, is to install special filters in diesel engine vehicles and ban agricultural burning.

Instituting the changes could increase crop yields by 135 million metric tons per year by 2050, the researchers said.

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Speaking of health issues, how sick is the American political system when a handful of voters can control the entire electoral process that eventually produces the leader of the Free World?

The Christmas trees were barely out at the curb when Republicans in Iowa went out to vote in the country’s first 2012 presidential caucus. The voting at homes, schools and churches followed what seemed like dozens of debates between this year’s crop of GOP contenders.

The sifting and winnowing process has now begun — by the media, I mean.

Certainly not by the voters, since 122,255 showed up in Iowa and 248,485 turned out in New Hampshire. That’s a total of 370,740 people. Doing a little scrap paper calculation, if roughly 55.4 million Republicans voted in 2004 (39 percent of the vote total), that 370,740 represents about .67 percent of the party.

Nevertheless, New Hampshire hadn’t even finished the country’s first primary before newspapers, blogs and TV commentators were throwing around words like “inevitability” and declaring that Mitt Romney was “too far ahead to catch.”

Used to be, poiltical parties let the people have a little input before the coronation. Heck, if for no other reason, just to make it look good, like folks actually had a say. It’s still the middle of January, and the only thing left is to print the bumper stickers.

Think this is what the Framers had in mind?

Photo: DonkeyHotey/ Wikimedia Commons

A Canadian nutritionist left a fast food cheeseburger stored for a year, and its appearance remained basically unchanged, according to a Montreal newspaper.

“Obviously it makes me wonder why we choose to eat food like this when even bacteria won’t eat it,” said Melanie Hesketh, who had the plate out on her kitchen counter when journalists arrived. She said the beef patty shrank, but still looks edible. It “still smells slightly like a burger,” she told the Montreal Gazette. “It hasn’t changed much.”

I don’t know much about Hasketh’s experiment, which she conducted as a heads-up to her kids, ages 13 and 15. But I will point out that when I buy fresh bread from the bakery — not the stuff in the bread aisle of supermarkets — it starts to get mold on it in about five days, if I don’t put it into the refrigerator or freezer.

She believes that the high salt content is what preserves the sandwich.

She said: “I’m going to keep it forever — it’s a good conversation piece.”

* * *

Briefs have been filed in the Supreme Court lawsuits over the Affordable Health Care Act. The plaintiffs’ brief can be found here; and the governments brief can be found here.

The court will hear three days of testimony starting March 26. A ruling is due in June.

The pivotol questions are whether the government can require Americans to purchase health insurance and if not, does that negate the entire Obama Administration initiative?

The court could also kick the can down the road, to 2015, by falling back on a Civil War era law that requires tax implications to be involved before a court ruling. Americans could be penalized in 2015 if they declined to purchase health insurance.

There are several ways of looking at the issue. One is that Americans have been required to purchase retirement insurance for years: Social Security. They have also been required to purchase senior (65-plus) health insurance: Medicare.

Another viewpoint surfaced at a press conference last week. On Friday, an administration official was asked “the broccoli question” originally posed by a New York Times story.

The question is whether the government, if they can mandate health insurance, can also require people to eat broccoli.

The official said the question is “wildly unrealistic,” which is true. Then he went to say that federal law already requires people to make some purchases. “If you buy a car you have to buy the seat belts, too,” he said.

This where the administration errors, and I hope it comes up with better anologies in its presentation to the Supreme Court. Because nobody is required to buy a car. You can bike it, walk it, or take public transportation. But all adults would be required to purchase a health insurance policy. Apples and oranges.

I’d like to see health care become accessible to everyone, will the administration’s argument really hold water?

On a plane from South Florida to Baltimore before Christmas, I sat in the row in front of a guy who was a hard-core Ravens fan. He struck up a conversation with his seat-mate, another Ravens fan, and bemoaned the fact that he had left in a rush that morning and forgot to pack his Ravens jersey.

Sure, he could wear another one that Saturday when the Ravens played the Cleveland Browns. But the one left behind, he said, was the lucky jersey because every time he’d worn it, the Ravens won. When we landed, he got on his cell phone and told the other party: “Unfortunately I forgot to bring my jersey ….”

I understood because I’m an NFL fan — although with a few reservations. Growing up in Wisconsin in the ’60s, Green Bay Packers worship was mandatory. (There was a rough 20-year run from 1970 to 1990.)

I have to admit however, watching all the hoopla over the last weekend of the NFL season, wondering exactly why people get so fired up about a bunch of multi-millionaire hot-shots who have precious little loyalty to their franchise and can’t wait for free agency.

It’s showbiz, I know. Strictly entertainment, but much harder on the budget than going to the movies to see the latest Tom Cruise flick.

Try taking a family to a football game and you’re apt to run up a bill that comes to hundreds of dollars just for tickets alone, plus a hefty parking fee and wildly inflated prices on snacks and drinks. Still, even with the hobbled economy the stands are filled for almost every game, no matter what day of the week.

Researchers have studied this stuff. They found that loyalty to a sports team is much stronger than consumer brand loyalty and that many people will stick with a team that loses season after season. That’s not terribly surprising although Florida fans are notorious for only hopping on to the bandwagon for winning teams. (This doesn’t apply to college sports.)

What I did find interesting though is that baseball apparently inspires far more blind loyalty than football. And football isn’t even in second place — basketball is.

A “Fan Loyalty Index” was developed in 1997 based on a survey of major league baseball fans. The mean index was 100, meaning that fan support was average. That applied to the Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates, for example.

At the top of the scale were the Chicago Cubs at 132. And ironically, the White Sox staked out the bottom of the list at 73. This, even though the White Sox have put together some World Series teams and the Cubs haven’t mustered a championship run since 1945.

I was stunned a few years ago, when I visited Boston for a convention, at the level of enthusiasm for the Red Sox. They are as serious about their baseball in Boston as they are on the North Side of Chicago.

After an early season losing streak, the Boston Globe looked at this issue last spring. They quoted Kevin Quinn, a professor at St. Norbert College, who pointed out: “Humans are inherently tribal creatures, and this is a way to have a tribe.”

Also, people are looking for drama, something sporting events tend to offer over the course of a season. Broadcasting teams are focused on storylines, constantly reminding viewers what’s at stake with every play. And a big part of that is the role of the underdog.

“For a team to be lovable, it helps not to be great or too great, but rather to have a chance to win or get lucky,” Lawrence Wenner, of Loyola Marymount University, told The Globe.

So. Don’t expect to see a lot of general fan passion for a Green Bay return to the Super Bowl. If the Broncos and the Lions can make it past the first round of the playoffs, watch for sales of Detroit and Denver team jerseys to spike.

Even in professional sports, everybody loves a Cinderella story.

Photo: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of the Feb. 5 Super Bowl. Via Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicballphotography/3065261493/