Friday, May 01, 2015

What do I write about?

Having been a bit quiet on the blog front I thought I would write a few blogs loosely around the subject of the Care and Feeding of Journalists. Having worked the healthcare beat for about six months, one of the things that has impressed me most is the degree of engagement by healthcare public relations folk. I read that there are four or five PR people for every journalist. Well double that in healthcare and make them about ten times more efficient and you get the picture. One of the questions they ask the most is what do I write about, what I'm interested in as well as who else writes on healthcare at The Economist. I'll try and write a bit about that in this blog, and in a later blog talk about how best to contact me.

Firstly, if you work in health PR in particular can I encourage you to follow me on twitter... @natashaloder 

I'm quite active and I tend to follow people back if they are in healthcare, as this builds my expert base. I also try to engage in debates about subjects that I'm interested in--and even ask questions. On the subject of experts, I've recently been using HARO a little as a way of finding them. I will also sometimes use LinkedIn.

So what do I write about?
So the first thing to know is that the job is global and that my focus is business and science.  That means pharma, hospitals, management of healthcare, drug categories, patenting, pricing. In the science section it means medical advances and technologies. For the purposes of business and science that means that many stories are US focused--just given the size of the industry and research base. But we are always interested in an international perspective and international business stories.

If you happen to work in these areas. Stop. Do not hit send yet. Unlike daily or mostly online media, we are very selective in the stories we do--so many of the stories I end up doing would broadly be described as trend pieces tied to news. Rarely will I do the story that says company A has invented widget B which will change the world. Sorry! If I write a story about generic medicines tied to a proposed merger of generic pharma companies, chances are we will not do the story again for some time unless something huge happens. So we tend to do a considered take on different issues as the news dictates. That said, if we have some genuine piece of news to break--we also do that.

Policy gets people confused. If you know a little about The Economist there is a front half foreign part, and a back half business part. My job is very traditionally "back half", which means that sanitation in India, TB in Russia, malaria in Africa and Obamacare in America, generally end up being "front half" stories. That is not to say I don't write about policy, only that I do when it emerges from the business or science stories.

If you have a health story that concerns international policy, your best bet is to contact either Helen Joyce (International Editor) or Geoffrey Carr (Science Editor). If it concerns an individual country, then you would want to go to the editor of that particular section. At present that would be Robert Guest (US), DominicZeigler (China), AntonLeGuardia (Africa). If the policy is more tied to some emerging issue of business or science, such as gene editing, or FDA regulation, that is my area.

Selection of stories in past six months:

Generic drugs: Much ado about something. May 2nd 2015

Worries are growing about the effects of dealmaking among generics firms

THE plot is worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. Teva is in pursuit of Mylan. But Mylan dislikes its suitor and runs away to declare its love for Perrigo, while seeking a poison pill in case it is forced to marry Teva. Perrigo, though, rebuffs Mylan. With many suitors, Perrigo is holding out for a better offer—perhaps even from Teva itself. It may not be quite midsummer but the unfolding drama featuring three generic-drug makers could well run until then. [More...]

A wave of new medicines known as biologics will be good for drugmakers, but may not be so good for health budgets

IN PHARMACEUTICALS, the 20th century was the era of the small molecule. The industry thrived by identifying a steady stream of relatively simple compounds that treated lots of people, patenting them and making a fortune. In the early 21st century it has become harder for drugmakers to find new cures quickly enough to replace those on which the patents are expiring. [More...]

Health in west Africa: Help in the time of Ebola, Sep 20th 2014. 

There is a scramble to control a runaway epidemic

“WE ARE exhausted, we are angry, we are desperate,” said Sophie Delaunay, the American director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) last week, frustrated at the tardy international response to the deadly Ebola virus in west Africa. Within days of these words, the outside world was at last waking up to the danger of Ebola haemorrhagic fever—a viral disease that threatens tens of thousands of lives, health systems, economic growth and even political stability in parts of west Africa. [More...]

The hunt for Ebola medicines is being accelerated

ON SUNDAY scientists and physicians from around the world will be descending on New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), the world's leading convention on tropical diseases. The auspiciously timed gathering will include a number of high-profile sessions about Ebola, which promise to aid efforts to contain the disease. So it seems rather odd that an e-mail sent to participants only days before the event warned that anyone who has travelled to Ebola-affected countries within the past 21 days should best stay away. "We see no utility in you travelling to New Orleans to simply be confined to your room," said an e-mail from representatives of the state of Louisiana. It is one of several American states to have imposed a 21-day quarantine on anyone who has recently visited an Ebola-affected country. [More...]

The hunt for Ebola medicines is being accelerated

THE lucky ones are admitted to a health centre. They arrive bleeding, in taxis, on foot, in wheelbarrows and sometimes in ambulances. Mostly there is little help available and patients are dying alone, lying on the ground and lucky to receive even palliative care. Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical charity that has treated more than two-thirds of the known patients, says its centres are overwhelmed. [More...]

Antibodies v bacteria: Making resistance futile, Nov 22nd 2014. Gaithersburg. 

A new way to fight bacterial infections

“Our job”, says Jan Kemper, “is to make cells happy.” Ms Kemper works at MedImmune, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Her laboratory contains 40 bioreactors—fluid-filled tanks of about three litres’ capacity. Paddles within them whirl around a mixture of nutrient broth and specially engineered hamster cells that are busy making human antibodies. [More...]

Food allergies: Patching things up, December 20th 2014. Chicago.

A new treatment for allergy to peanuts is being developed

ANAPHYLAXIS, an allergic reaction that causes swellings and rashes and can thus block a person’s airways, is always unpleasant and sometimes lethal. Often, the allergen is in a specific sort of food. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soyabeans and wheat are particularly risky. Together, they account for 90% of anaphylactic incidents in America, a country in which between 4% and 8% of children are reckoned to have a food allergy, and in which a third or more of such allergies are potentially life-threatening. [More...]

Why a promising new class of cancer treatments is so hard to value

IN THE late 1800s a New York doctor noticed that getting an infection after surgery helped some cancer patients. So he began to treat cancer using infections and had a little success. But many doctors were sceptical of his work, and other treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy eventually took off. Today, however, the pharmaceutical industry understands how his treatments would have worked and has placed a sizeable bet that immuno-oncology—the treatment of cancer using the body’s immune system—will yield breakthrough drugs. [More...]

The Ebola crisis: Much worse to come, Oct 18th 2014. 

The Ebola epidemic in west Africa poses a catastrophic threat to the region, and could yet spread further

ON MARCH 25th the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a rash of cases of Ebola in Guinea, the first such ever seen in west Africa. As of then there had been 86 suspected cases, and there were reports of suspected cases in the neighbouring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia as well. The death toll was 60. [More...]

You can do a lot of damage with just seven genes

EBOLA is a simple virus, but also a subtle one. The stringy looking particles consist of a genome wrapped up in two layers of protein (see diagram). This long, thin package, along with a large protein called a polymerase, is packed into a membrane that is studded with a glycoproteins—that is, proteins with sugar stuck to them. [More...]

To win it requires a much larger effort in west Africa than the outside world has so far pledged

IN SEPTEMBER 1976 scientists in Antwerp received a Thermos out of Yambuku, in what was then Zaire, with two samples from a nun who was fatally ill. One of the vials had smashed, but after scooping the other out of a pool of icy water, blood and broken glass, they discovered that they were handling a deadly and unknown virus. To spare Yambuku from infamy, they named the infection after a local river, the Ebola. [More...]


Saturday, August 02, 2014

Top tips for the Kidzapalooza 2014

Ear defenders are essential if you are close to the stage.  Here watching the wonderful Portugal. The Man

Grant Park, Chicago

So we took the children to the Lollapalooza yesterday. This is Chicago's big music festival. Within the festival is a mini-children's music festival the Kidzapalooza.

The Kidzapalooza is in a great location, beneath a shady grove of trees and there was plenty of space for the children to run around, play or watch the bands.

There is plenty to fill an afternoon until the children are exhausted. We've had a long afternoon on Friday and are looking forward to a second one today.  Yesterday, there were bands that specially cater for children, one included child-songstress-superstar Laura Doherty, and Portugal. The Man. also performed specially for the children (there was even a special kids only VIP area at the front because this act attracted lots of regular festival go-ers). All the bands seem to be really into playing for kids, which made it a wonderful experience.

We relied on credit cards and the Lolla cashless band, and took minimal cash, which turned out to be a mistake. Many places we tried were only taking cash--either because they were too small to do so or their facilities to accept cards and bands were not working. Take cash.

A few points in no particular order....

Free painting at Kidzapalooza

  • the drinks were expensive and they didn't accept either the Lolla cashless band or credit cards. $6 for a small lemonade which is mostly ice and water. You'll want to bring either sealed water in, or a plastic bottle you can fill up when you arrive.
  • you can't bring outside food in. I understand why but it is pretty useful when you have children to be able to carry a snack so you can give them a handful of something when they announce they are hungry. We were able to stave off some mid-afternoon hunger pangs thanks to some free fro-yo ice cream and packets of pretzels. There is a cafe-style shop near the fountain, a short walk away, but they were, again, only taking cash. There was a small snack stand next to the lemonade stand but this looked like it only took cash as well. 
  • The queues to get into Grant Park are lengthy. Best thing is to have one person go in through the bag check line, and someone else take the children through the Express, no bags, lane. You can then meet up at the relatively uncrowded Kidzapalooza. There is a giant yellow inflatable sign at the entrance to this mini-festival....this is a good meetup spot. (The Lost and Found, right by the main entrance, is also a good location for meeting up.)
  • Long distances to get to things for little feet. Wagons are not allowed. Strollers are. Be prepared.
  • take hand sanitizer and many baby wipes! You will probably want to use it on the toilet seats. Porta-potties were OK--as these things go. Although there were stands with hand sanitizer these did run out.
  • The Kidzapalooza appeared to be smoke free, outside in the main park is not. 
  • It is perfectly possible to take the kids to watch one of the big bands, with smaller children you'll obviously want to hang near the back where there are open lawns. You can spread out a blanket and listen there. Older ones can go further in but there will be people drinking and smoking and generally having a very good time at close quarters. You know the scene. 
  • In the Kidzapalooza. If it rains there are a few places to shelter. But it wasn't particularly crowded yesterday. There was a brief shower yesterday and it was fine. But come prepared for rain or hot weather. 
  • Ear defenders (these go over the ear) are essential if you want to take the children up close to the music. They are sold at the Kidzapalooza store for $20 each. If you don't want to pay this then don't take the kids too close to the amplification. It just isn't safe for their ears.

Near the main children's stage was an instrument petting zoo (i.e. play with instruments), hip hop lessons (great fun, the boys who did this were awesome), punk hairdos (a must), spray on tatoos and a very popular painting station. There were tumbling and dancing acts on between the bands.

Lots of great fun. Do bring the kids. We had a sitter in the evening and were able to make it back for the headline act last night.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What is Planetary Health?

On the shores of Lake Como in Italy, among fragrant jasmine and wild thyme, a new discipline was born this week. Its parents--in the fields of health and the environment--are not quite sure yet what to call it. Some say it should be called Planetary Health. Others are not so sure. But what everyone knows for certain here is that it is important. Critical even, because human health is at great risk from forces that remain largely invisible to society. And so a pioneering group of scientists, entrepreneurs, public health experts and folks from business, government and public health have come together to assist at its birth.

The world needs to understand planetary health to develop sustainably. In a nutshell, many human activities damage the environment and with it human health. Some of the links are obvious and direct such as pollution in lakes and rivers. Others are not. For example, there is growing awareness of the link between biodiversity damage and disease risk. Most scary of all is the rise in new human diseases that come from animals. So called zoonotic diseases whether from birds, pigs or camels are on the rise. We know that our environment provides us fish, clean water, medicines and resilience from natural disasters. We have not accounted for all that it gives us, and possibly never will. We certainly need to do more to understand it.  

But the beauty of the surroundings of Lake Como are deceptive because ugly difficulties lay ahead. Firstly, forging a new discipline is less easy than it might sound. Here you must first marry the parents. Combine ideas, research, and information from environment and public health two fields that have lived entirely separately until now and rarely spoken to one another. Yet when everyone goes home from their workshop for the most part people will fall comfortably back into their old ways of doing things and concerns and hope that someone else does the child rearing.

The second problem is that a new science is not enough--even as scientists demand more of it. There is another ingredient that is missing. A secret sauce. At the end of last year, Europe banned for a trial period the use of three pesticides suspected to damage bee populations. There isn’t hard evidence here. Yet the same collection of nations have failed to rein in overfishing where the science is perfectly clear.  

At the same time, we know that corporations and other NGOs are happy to put their thumbs on the scale in a way that suits them. In China KFC and MacDonalds and Dunkin donuts have moved into the cities and are winning the locals over to their largely unhealthy foods by arguing that they are safe to eat. Where are the advocates for putting sustainable health agenda onto the table? The individuals who are willing to stand up and say why what they are doing matters and this is important to you. But this leads us to our third problem is human nature. We all want someone else to solve our problems to recognise the importance of what we believe to be true.

The fundamental issue is that supporters of Planetary Health need to bring their ideas down to earth, they need to come from the bottom up from humanity itself and its needs. Because in truth rich countries have mostly discovered already the nature of the problem in many ways. Environmental agencies regularly consider the impact on human health when they look at the impact of new projects. And as the science grows, showing for example that green space in cities improves health, we can imagine the rich world will respond with further measures. But elsewhere there needs to be a far stronger effort to forge a relationship between human health and the environment that sustains it.

Those who wish to forge ahead in Planetary Health need find the human dimension to the problems that are out there. The stories, the people, the places, the meaning and the messages.  And who is going to knock on the doors and stand up and make the pitch to NGOs, politicians, bureaucrats and to anyone who will listen? International organisations will help eventually, and so will innovation in many unexpected ways. But at the heart of every decision we take are humans.  

In Washington they call it lobbying. The soft science of persuasion. Does anyone in the field of planetary health have the guts to do this--potentially in the face of resistance? Many people and companies make good money from environmental destruction. And our economic system is one that values products and services greatly and the quality of life barely at all.

Traditionally environmental change has been set squarely against human development. Very often we argue to cut down forests, drain rivers, use pesticides and fertilisers, belch pollution into the atmosphere to aid humans to improve development. We are unapologetic in saying that our traditional form of development is good for humans. We say that when people get rich then they will take care of the environment. But what if the environment does not continue to take care of us? And is it really necessary for the developing world to repeat the model of development that caused so much human and environmental sickness? China has a thriving economy. But can a country whose people and environment are so burdened with pollution really rich. Do we need a new vision of what prosperity means?

During the World Cup, everyone saw in Brazil what happens when two key components of a system are taken out, there was a catastrophic failure. This is exactly what has happened in ecosystems. For a hundred years our technology has largely protected us, delivering globally unprecedented gains in human health. But the worry is that as the planet comes close to its boundaries, this is now at risk.

Scientists will weakly suggest the precautionary principle. It is true much more science is needed to understand the connections. But perhaps what we need is an idea that goes beyond all of this, a vision of better human health from sustainable development.

The wealthiest in society live in idylls such as is found on the slopes of Lake Como. If we do not embrace a sustainable vision of health, not only will our chances of having everyone live this way vanish--there is a risk to the sustainability of many of our societies around the world. If this sounds too dramatic consider those in Bangladesh, or in Fiji, threatened by climate change or in communities challenged by reckless development such as the Maldives. The sad truth is that the world needs a science of Planetary Health, or whatever it is called, whether it realises it or not. We need its insight and assistance to develop sustainably and protect the future. But is the field ready to meet this need?


This piece was written during a meeting held by the Rockefeller Foundation and The Economist Intelligence Unit, and was intended as a view by an Economist journalist on a project to create a new field that connects human and environmental health. It has been slightly edited since delivered.

Views, as ever, are my own and not that of The Economist. But they should be. NL, Bellagio, July 2014.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My news...

It is with a little sadness, and some excitement, that I shall be moving to a new beat in September for The Economist. I'm sad because I've had such a terribly wonderful time covering the Midwest with all its warm, funny, sometimes crazy people and my family has thrived in Chicago. I'm happy though because I will be the new healthcare correspondent. I'll be focusing on business and technology, and what it means.

I'll be based in Chicago until autumn 2015, when I will return to London.

What this means
From August, Rosemarie Ward in New York will be covering my beat for a few months--and she will also take over the national education beat. Sometime in the late autumn I will look forward to welcoming the new Midwest correspondent: Vendeline von Bredow.

More news...
The best way of keeping up with what is going on is through Twitter @natashaloder, please do follow me there. I post all sorts of useful things including my pick of the top news from The Economist, journalism jobs and internships, and other useful information and opportunities.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Saving Chicago: Can Rahm Emanuel save the country's third largest city?

IN MAY 2011 the city of Chicago swore in its first new mayor in 22 years. The new boss, Rahm Emanuel, was a local man but natives liked to quibble that his family moved to a plush suburb when he was nine. To outsiders Mr Emanuel is as authentically Chicagoan as they come. His resume was impressive too. He had just returned from a spell as President Barack Obama's chief of staff, had represented Illinois's 5th district as a congressman, and had served as an aide under President Clinton. But Mr Emanuel was finished with Washington, calling it "dysfunctional and broken". He was looking for a role where he could get things done. One of the non-profane remarks that Mr Emanuel is famous for making is, "you never want a serious crisis go to waste". In Chicago, Mr Emanuel had found both crisis and opportunity. 

Two months earlier, a local financial watchdog The Civic Federation warned that the city had been running a structural budget deficit for each of the last ten years. These had been filled with non-recurring revenue sources--such as the $1 billion privatisation of the city's parking meters. The problem had been growing, and in 2011 the shortfall was expected to run to $655m--about 11% of the city budget. All the while, the city's debt had grown alarmingly, its credit ratings had been sliding and the funding ratios of its pension funds had been plummeting. At the time unfunded liabilities were around $26.8 billion. More recently this was calculated at $19 billion—more than five times the city’s operating budget.

More trouble lay on the horizon. While the mayoral race was underway, a new state law was passed requiring the city make higher pension contributions in  2015. Unless the state legislature in Springfield takes action, an additional $600m must be found next year. Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation, says that the mayor inherited a financial mess but that pensions were "a time bomb". The mayor cannot fix this without help from state legislators in Springfield. Yet if the problem is not dealt with, further credit downgrades are possible. These will trigger greatly increased capital requirements for the city, which will spell further trouble.

As Mayor, Mr Emanuel has been fond of saying that the decisions he makes in the next two or three years will determine what the city will look like for the next two or three decades. They will decide, he says, if the city will remain in the list of top cities that drive the global economy. This is not empty rhetoric. Citizens feel that the most pressing issues in town are schools, crime and jobs but the backdrop remains the question of whether the city can be put onto a sustainable trajectory.

Raising taxes and revenue can only help up to a point. For example, a 75% increase in property taxes, says Mr Msall, would give the city the money to pay the police and firefighters pensions but nothing else. At the same time, the city is still living beyond its means and may need to continue the unpopular business of cutting services. Yet the bankruptcy of Detroit showed how dangerous the combination of raising taxes and cutting services is when workers and businesses are so mobile. Chicago needs to encourage more people to stay. In the first decade of the millennium, 200,000 people voted with their feet and left Chicago. Although it remains America’s third-largest city, just, its population of 2.7m is down from a peak of 3.6m in 1950. 

Unlike many of America’s other struggling, postindustrial rust-belt cities, Chicago reinvented itself and continues to do so. It has a diverse economy and is an important financial centre, with many large companies headquartered downtown or nearby. There are also many leading educational institutions, a relatively high proportion of graduates, and the city is set within one of the nation's most important transportation and logistics centres. Chicago also regularly appears in the top of global city attractiveness ratings thanks to its great museums, parks, food and lakefront. This allows it to continue to draw people, businesses and ideas into its orbit. Indeed in the decade that saw a decline in the city's population, the number living in the city centre has grown faster than any other city in America--rising 36%. 

The man with the plan
Ideologically, Mr Emanuel is a centrist Democrat, cut from the same cloth as President Clinton, with an emphasis on liberty, self-help and private-sector driven growth as the means of achieving progressive ideals. To the rest of the world he would be recognizable as a third way politician, someone who the business sector sees as one of their own but who is loathed by real left. In Chicago the disenchanted have dubbed him “Mayor 1%” for his affinity for out-sourcing and his ties to Wall Street. Yet Mr Emanuel is by no means remarkable in his centrism: the needs of big cities all over the country have drawn politicians towards the pragmatic middle. Even Bill de Blasio, in New York, for all his rabble rousing was forced to make concessions to charter schools when in office.

Mr Emanuel brings much to the table as one of the most well-connected politicians in America. He is an odd mix of strongly disciplined--he gets up at 5.30am every morning to exercise--yet lacking in patience, something his wife teases him about. And with a council of aldermen who rubber stamp anything he proposes, Mr Emanuel is a powerful force in the city. Journalists often complain that he is rude. Yet his outstanding ability to raise funds for political and pet philanthropic causes (something Mr Clinton described as a “genius at raising money”) must mean he can turn on the charm.

In his first budget he made deep cuts but described the package as "honest". This is a pretty symbolic choice of words in a city known for its institutionalized corruption, and an inability to live within its means. Mr Emanuel found $417m in savings from redundancies, spending cuts, increased debt collection and other reforms including consolidations of police and fire departments. There were also unpopular cuts to library funding, mental health services and the free water that had been given to non-profit organisations. Rubbish collection was taken out of the hands of individual city council members, known as aldermen, and put it onto an efficient, grid-based collection system that was partly privatized. Revenue was raised through increases to a variety of fees, fines and rates but he steered clear of property and sales tax increases. Within this budget there was money to update the city’s ancient water system. Subsequent budgets have not seen such large redundancies, but have continued his basic trend of rationalization, privatization and modernization—such as a project to update the city's L trains that travel deep into Chicago's black South Side. 

There have been many successes in the first three years. Downtown is still booming, companies are moving in and a new technology incubator is proving its worth. Improvements to transportation, parks, bicycling, libraries, wifi access and the riverfront are all helping to redefine Chicago as a 21st century city. Although 26,655 jobs have been announced by the mayor, these sorts of figures need to be treated with caution. Tourism, though, is a more unambiguous success. Increasing this has been a focus since the Mayor took office, and domestic visitors have increased sharply.

Yet it is on the nitty-gritty issues of schools, crime and that much of the next election will be fought. When he arrived Mr Emanuel's focus was on education and on attracting jobs, investment and tourism to the city. Crime was lower on the list, a decision that turned out to be a mistake when in 2012 the homicide rates spiked and the city recorded more than 500 homicides that year. Chicago was dubbed the nation's murder capital as murders were far higher than New York City and Los Angeles, which have larger populations. In truth, though, many other cities have far higher per capita rates. Yet the violence also disproportionately afflicted the city's African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides of this racially segregated city—which looks bad.

Much has changed since then. While a recent dive in crime figures seems too good to be true, the city has started to think far more strategically about how to tackle these problems. These include strategies to keep kids in school, offer summer jobs and develop the social skills associated with reductions in violence and anti-social behavior--a program called Becoming a Man. Some of the changes will take time to pay off but will pay dividends say observers. 

An crime and education are connected: it is difficult to have a high school drop out rate of 60% for African American boys and not have this translate into a crime problem. Mr Emanuel has tackled the school system with the same zeal to modernize, privatize and rationalize—something that has at times appeared heartless. Last year this translated into the closure of 50 schools, mostly in African American neighbourhoods. The reasoning was that of these schools were under enrolled, under performing or both. And more than $200m of savings from the consolidations were used to make investments into the receiving schools. At the same time, he has pushed forward with a reform agenda comprising more charter schools, greater teacher accountability, more early years education and a longer school day.

Much of his school agenda is, unsurprisingly, disliked by teacher's unions, and his fight over a longer school day and other reforms led teachers to strike for a week in 2012. In the end, both sides gave a little. Mr Emanuel got his longer school day and the children of Chicago now have an extra 2.5 years of schooling between kindergarten and high school. The unions got what they wanted on merit pay and rehiring fired teachers. Yet the school closures last year cost Mr Emanuel most dearly in terms of political currency. Many parents and teachers were deeply upset, and the poor neighborhoods which lost their schools were angry about the abandoned buildings and loss of good, middle-class jobs in places that had little else. 

Yet there are signs that the city is, overall, on the right track. The graduation rate continues to rise and went from 58% in 2011 to 65% in 2013. Moreover, Mr Emanuel has made a substantial, but largely under-appreciated, investment to improve the city's awful community colleges. Prior to his arrival only 7% of first-time, full-time students graduated and enrollment was plummeting. The community colleges have been reorganized to deliver qualifications needed by the main industries in the region such as logistics, healthcare and advanced manufacturing. Many local companies are struggling to find the skilled workers that they need, and local kids need jobs. The community colleges are now growing and have projected a 13% graduation rate for 2013. They are on track to meet a goal a graduation rate of over 20% by 2018. 

With a mayoral election due in February 2015, Mr Emanuel has a lot of work to do. A recent poll found that only one in five voters thought he was doing a better job than his predecessor and only 29% would support him if the election were held today. There are mixed reports about his standing with African Americans, and concerns about support from Latinos in a recent poll are likely overblown. As one might expect, his fund-raising is going well and he has $7m in the bank so far.

One of Mr Emanuel's problems is that he isn't anything like his predecessor Mr Daley. This should be good except locals seem to have forgotten the bad old days when the mayor sat on top of a machine that explicitly doled out jobs, city contracts and favors in exchange for campaign contributions, loyalty and votes. People felt that Mr Daley was everywhere in their city. He was. By comparison, Mr Emanuel seems more like a distant CEO.

There is speculation he may be challenged in next year’s election by Cook County board president, Tony Preckwinkle. She is probably the only person who could muster a serious challenge. Yet for all the criticism Mr Emanuel is facing from the unions, he has managed to negotiate deals with some of them to cut retirement benefits in exchange for raised city contributions funded by an increase to property taxes. Mr Emanuel’s argument is that he can put these funds on a sound footing. The legislation necessary for this to happen has just been signed by the Governor Pat Quinn. Next are the more difficult unions to tackle: police, firefighters and teacher’s. Nothing is likely to happen before the mid-term elections.

Although there is a thread of modern thought that suggests that mayors are the significant forces in the American economy, Chicago’s problems highlight the fact that there are many issues that lie outside a mayor’s control—no matter what image he may choose to project. Untraceable guns slip easily into Chicago, the city has no control over the jails or judges which are run by the county, and the penalties for carrying illegal guns are incredibly weak but would need to be addressed by legislators in Springfield. And while Mr Emanuel has pushed for legislation that would allow casinos in the city and bring in additional revenue, the governor has not yet supported a bill. 

Mr Emanuel’s strengths are also his greatest weaknesses. His impatience and rudeness may have helped the city move faster but have also won him enemies and detractors, for example by needlessly upsetting the head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. And he has done far less than he ought to to reform accountability over how money raised from special taxation districts is spent. Yet for all his faults and rough edges, Mr Emanuel remains the best person to save his home town from its sticky position. He is also the classiest act in town, and his frenetic pace of change in the past three years has been remarkable. If anyone can put Chicago’s financial house in order, it is him. And once that job is done, Chicago has a bright future.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Can someone explain how I have an ant in my iPad?

I have an ant in my iPad. It was crawling upside down on my screen when I took this picture. How did it get in there? Is it still in there somewhere?