Thursday, October 31, 2013

Arturo Gatti - Micky Ward: A Lifelong Friendship that Started in the Ring

Fighting brought Ward and Gatti closer together.  Photo:
Hugging between opponents is ubiquitous in professional sports -- especially boxing, football, and basketball -- where athletes have often competed with or against each other in the past. But the embraces of  Arturo "Thunder" Gatti and "Irish" Micky Ward after their three legendary fights belied something far more unique. The two didn't just share mutual respect; they loved each other.

As told in a touching documentary on HBO, their trilogy of fights brought them closer together. Ward won the first bout on May 18, 2002 in a majority decision, after which the two hugged and ended up recuperating in the same hospital together. Gatti won the second fight in November, after which the two got to know each other while still feeling the pain from the fight. In a 2010 story in Esquire, writer Chris Jones captured that moment beautifully:
They had struck up their first real conversation in the hospital waiting room after their second fight, when Ward couldn't hear out of his left ear and Gatti couldn't feel his right hand. In each other, they had found that rare man who could withstand ridiculous levels of punishment, who could see hope even through rivers of his own blood. The lumps and burns and titanium plates only reminded each man of the other's love. One day, they decided, they would do things like golf together.
Their last fight -- in June of the following year -- went the distance, with Gatti winning again by decision. The competition was fierce with both giving and taking a barrage of hits. But it was not their fight that people remember; it's their friendship that developed afterward. Gatti continued to fight and take multiple beatings, and Ward stood by his friend, working in his corner and training him for his last fight in 2007. 

In 2009, Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil while on vacation with his wife and their 10 month old son. His wife was initially arrested by police and charged with first-degree murder after police said she choked him to death with her purse strap. Less than a month later, Brazilian authorities announced the death was a suicide and released her. Among the questions raised was whether his courage and 49 fights had taken a toll on his mind.

More autopsies and investigations have been completed and the debate over whether it was a suicide or homicide continues. Ward is among those still hoping Brazilian authorities will reopen the case. But no matter what happens, their iconic rivalry and enduring friendship will live on as a testament to the power of sports and the character of two historic champions .

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Opening the Marketplace: The Next Steps for Healthcare

Buying fruit is far simpler than choosing a doctor.
But as a patient, you still need to be an educated shopper.
Whether or not you believe in the new Health Insurance Exchange, it's hard to argue against the economic principle behind it: an open marketplace encourages competition, better products, and lower prices. The problem is that the the exchanges don't go far enough. The issue is not about how much you pay, but about how much others pay for the same service.

Most insurance plans only partially cover the price of a medical procedure and often, doctors will require patients to pay whatever their insurance doesn't cover. These extra costs can vary widely, and together with copayments and deductibles, leave many patients with medical bills they can't afford. We don't want to be cheap when it comes to our health, and asking for prices upfront somehow seems a little uncomfortable.

So how do we solve this problem? Obviously, there's no panacea. But here are two concepts that I think need to be part of the solution:

Reviews: Patients need to rely on more than just referrals to decide on their doctors. They need honest recommendations and facts. The website already provides physician reviews and allows patients to book appointments online; but to be effective, reviews need to be more widespread. There are privacy concerns for sure. Many patients don't want to talk about their medical struggles online. Still, to make healthcare more affordable, patients must be able to evaluate the quality of the doctors available.

Price Lists: Patients need to know the prices of procedures. Obviously, cost is not the only factor in deciding which doctor to see. But it is a factor and needs to be addressed. There are ways for people who can look up insurance and have a lot of time to research prices, but that is not practical for most patients. There are also websites that provide average rates for procedures by area, including Healthcare Blue Book and FAIR Health. But they don't tell you which doctor in your area has the best price. Customers need to be able to comparison shop and evaluate the quality of the available products to make educated decisions.

These are just a couple of ideas, and I would love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below or on social media.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Will Happen When All Newspapers Die?

The fact that print journalism is dying is not news anymore. People read less, look at pictures more, love listicles, and rattle off witticisms online as soon they pop into their heads. News executives are talking about "engagement" and "metrics", using staff to create advertorials, and redesigning their websites to remain relevant. The only question is: how will these changes affect what we know about the world?

For starters, we'll be far less informed. Aside from crime, sports events, and "who wore it best?" polls, news is still broken mostly by reporters at local newspapers and wire services. And it is often these reporters that supply the material for the more popular media. (For a funny example, just check out this clip with news reports about Mike Myers' new baby. Could they all have the same news writer on staff?)

survey this year by the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of adults have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they want. Of those deserters, more than 60 percent said less complete stories were the most noticeable change in news today. The reason is simple: reporting actually does require skill and talent. Staff writers at a daily paper have to quickly find news to report and figure out how they will complete their stories in only a few hours. They have to interview both sides in a dispute, and present each of the perspectives accurately and fairly. And on tight daily deadlines, they have to distill the most important facts and quotes into a tight and compelling narrative that will both inform readers and keep their attention.

Don't get me wrong: citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, and social listening have enhanced journalism, providing reporters with a faster and far richer view of what readers think and feel. But given a choice of a one-sided rant and shaky cell phone video, or a short and structured story that represents all sides, what would most people pick? I would think the latter. There is simply no amount of packaging and marketing that can replace the value of old-fashioned reporting.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Finding the Empty and Bringing it Back to Life

A mother of four from Ecuador collects bottles and cans in the film Redemption.
Their bounty rattles down the streets of New York in clear garbage bags flowing over the sides of shopping carts. Their success depends on their efficiency and endurance, as they track down trash and hunt for bottles and cans once filled with things sweet and delicious.

It's hard to imagine these "canners" don't feel the pity, disgust, and fear from those more fortunate, from those who can't understand why anyone would collect that many recyclables. But the canners do what they have to survive. The documentary Redemption -- produced by Downtown Community Television Center and available on HBO on Demand -- shares the stories of a few of them. There's Susan from the Bronx, a former IBM saleswoman who needs more than social security to make ends meet; Walter, a former bouncer at the Chelsea Hotel, who's been living under the West Side Highway for 25 years; and there's Nuve, a mother of four from Ecuador who collects empties every day to support her family.

The film is quite understated: in 35 minutes, it depicts the typical day of canners and gives them a chance to talk about their lives. For me, it was tough to make sense of the canning phenomenon. Why are our taxes paying for each can or bottle redeemed? Why can't the money be used to provide jobs to some of these canners and give them a second chance at life?

I know it's complicated. The New York City Sanitation Department has enough employees; replacing them with canners will only make the problem worse. But like the canners, we have to be creative and work hard to find solutions. I don't know the answer, but I do know one thing: we won't find the solution in a bag full of empties.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

If You See Something Missing, Say Something

Less than a month ago, I reported a tree near my home that seemed to be on its last legs. It had all the tell-tale signs: scant leaves, brittle bark, and broken branches. But its most prominent and curious attribute were two small branches full of leaves, rising up straight to the sky.

My apartment building was built in 1941, and as I passed this tree every day, I couldn't help wondering what those two branches signified. Were they towers of life, guarding the tree from its own mortality? Were they symbols of rebirth, sprouting from the earth? Or were they some strange mutation beyond explanation? I'd love to say I found an answer, but as the great Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy would have said: "Damn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not an arborist." (By the way, if there are any arborists reading this, I would love to understand why those branches grow vertically. So please feel free to comment on this post or send me a link).

Still, the reality is that dead trees fall and kill people. So I went online and contacted New York City 311. Within a month, the tree was gone.

That troubled tree reminds me of when I was on the subway this year, only a few feet from a man who had gone commando, his wet pants sitting right beside him. Passengers took turns staring, rolling their eyes, and laughing to themselves. I exited at the next stop and notified an MTA employee. Within a couple of minutes, an announcement was made: the trains had been delayed for police activity and would resume shortly. The delay only lasted a couple of minutes, but the lesson was clear: if you see something missing something -- leaves, pants, whatever -- say something. There are people ready to help.

Monday, October 7, 2013

If Life's Not Fair, Does Justice Matter?

Read enough blogs and e-books about leadership and success, and you'll see one bit of advice that overshadows all others: don't be a loser. Or, to be more precise: don't let a few losses keep you from winning in the end. This concept has created an endless number of platitudes that offer little comfort to the aggrieved: focus on wars instead of battles, be resilient in the face of adversity, and remember how long it took to build Rome. But embracing failure seems to deny one of our basic traits: a desire for justice.

If people are hardworking, kind, and generous, we want to see them rewarded with success; if they are hurtful or lazy, we want to see them punished. Our desires often don't become reality, leaving us with the conventional wisdom: "life's not fair" and "business is business." But the reality is that no matter how much we try to shake off this concept of justice,  we can't. Fairness is a part of us.

In a blog post today on the Harvard Business Review website, N.  Taylor Thompson, a fellow at Harvard University's Forum for Growth & Innovation, writes about how fairness is an integral factor in consumers' decisions. When Netflix decided to split its DVD and video streaming subscriptions two years ago from $10 total to $8 each, they expected to attract some customers interested in just one of the services eager to pay less for renting movies. But what happened? Many Netflix users considered the split an unfair price increase for the services and more than a million of them cancelled their subscriptions. What should Netflix have done? Explain why it had to raise prices. Maybe the company should have said how movie rights are more expensive on streaming video than on DVD, and that it wanted to provide as many movies as possible to its members? Or maybe it should have talked about the new costs associated with developing original content for subscribers, like the popular show House of Cards? No matter what, providing a reason would have been far better than telling people nothing. By sharing their rationale, Netflix executives would have shown that they wanted to be fair.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

If You Can't Give Buskers Money, Give Them a Hand

Of the many careers suffering in our new economy, one seems to have the worst prognosis: music. It's not just because digital music is more accessible and affordable than ever before. Or, that in the age of sampling and rap-pop songs, there seem to be fewer original hits and more forgettable one-hit wonders. But rather, it's that most people who perform live music don't attract admiration; they generate sympathy.

You're not supposed to give money to people on the subway, and for good reason. It only encourages those in need to ask for more and avoid the many non-profit and government organizations that provide far more food and better services with your money. But at the same time, the fact that most riders ignore these buskers reflects our changing values. A bunch of kids breakdancing and hanging upside down in the subway may not seem like art -- but it does require creativity and practice. Three guys in ponchos and sombreros singing "Guantanamera" may seem a bit dated -- but it's still a beautiful way for Mariachi singers to share their talent with the world. The truth is that those crowded platforms and dark subway tunnels where we crush candy on our phones, read paperbacks and kindles, and curse about train delays -- they may be the only places where live music and dance will survive.

You can't stop progress, and that includes the fast-moving world of mobile communications. But I do hope that no matter how many distractions the future throws our way, we'll always find time to look up and appreciate the enormous talent riding right in front of us.