July 31, 2009

Ladybugs Plague Denmark

After the American Century

"The air was filled with countless dancing gnats, swarms of buzzing flies, ladybugs, dragonflies with golden wings, and other winged creatures." -- Hans Christian Andersen, "The Marsh King's Daughter"

A veritable army of ladybugs has descended on Denmark, as often happens at this time of year. Other nations suffer from plagues of grasshoppers or locusts, and for decades Americans have worried about the northward progress of the killer bees. But as befits a small and peaceful nation, Denmark suffers a more genteel nuisance, as swarms of ladybugs invade the land.

This morning, I found ladybugs all over my car, crawling vigorously around my garden, and diving by the drove into my rain barrel. They seem to have no natural predators at this time of year, proliferating exponentially. Based on the number in my side yard, I conservatively estimate that there are at least five per square meter, more than 1,000 in my small yard alone. Extrapolating from this admittedly inadequate sample, it is possible that there are somewhere between two and five billion ladybugs here at this time of year.

However, this may be too small an estimate. A neighbor back from a vacation in the wilds of Jutland reported seeing clouds of ladybugs at dusk, turning the sunset a darker red. Strangely, they often swarmed on the beaches, attacking German tourists, nipping their sunburned skin. Apparently they cannot resist the smell of certain suntan lotions.

Scientific studies are not yet complete, but it appears that the ladybug plagues are intensifying as a result of global warming, which prolongs their mating season, making it possible to produce at least one additional generation each summer. In wet years, their food supply is also greater. Longer and wetter summers apparently account for the sudden multiplication of ladybugs in late July. Since ladybugs consume aphids and mites, gardeners the world over are glad to have them around, and one can only speculate over whether there is some unintentional connection between the policies of the current Danish government and what must be an enormous production of garden pests sufficient to feed these beneficent predators. (Polling is incomplete, but the vast majority of ladybugs appear to be social democrats.)

New species of ladybugs have also invaded Denmark, however. There are about 5,000 kinds of ladybugs worldwide, and I make no pretense to being able to identify them. As one might expect, some are from Southern Europe, brought home by Danish tourists in their cars or in their suitcases, usually as unnoticed eggs that hatch after arrival. However, there are also more exotic ladybugs, including one large, individualistic North American variety. There is also a Chinese one that is a bit flatter and rounder, with stubby wings for steering, which appears to spin like a miniature flying saucer.

In my back garden is a multicultural ladybug nation, a globalized phenomenon, a trillion footed buzzing society that has chosen Denmark as its preferred destination. Within a few days, I expect my garden to be striped clean of aphids, mites, and insect eggs. I expect they will also drive away any lurking conservative politicians. And as the sun sets over Denmark, look for the telltale reddish-black cloud of ladybugs heading for another summer evening at the beach.

July 28, 2009

Texting While Driving A Menace

After the American Century

Once again technological-social change has outrun the rather lame politicians, and your life is in danger every single day as a result. Anyone paying attention knows that many drivers now are not looking at the road, but at a hand-held device, texting. New studies have now appeared that confirm a common sense understanding that such distractions are extremely dangerous. People who text while driving are at least as dangerous as those who are drunk. Their risk of being in an accident is 23 times greater - 2300% higher - than for non-texting drivers. For more details, see the New York Times.

What to do about it? The problem is two-fold. Both laws and public attitudes must change. Many nations and most American states do not prohibit driving while texting, which is rapidly becoming "normal" behavior. Delay in getting legislation on the books is politically negligent, because the longer it is legal the harder it will be to change the public perception of texting while driving. It ought to be perceived as the equivalent of driving while intoxicated - which causes thousands of highway deaths and injuries. At the moment, however, there is little or no social stigma attached to texting while driving. Most people do not drive when drunk, but most people have at least occasionally sent or received text messages, often while moving at 100 kilometers an hour or more. At such speeds, cars travel a long way in 5 seconds, which is how long a "texter" is not looking at the road. We alredy knew that talking on cell phones is a dangerous distraction, but now it is clear that texting is far worse.

July 23, 2009

Where is the Logic? State's Rights and Gun Control

After the American Century

The Republican Party has long championed "State's Rights," once a code word for racial segregation, but more recently an all encompassing term to indicate opposition to federal meddling in state affairs. But for all but two Republicans in the United States Senate, States' Rights is clearly less important than giving individuals the freedom to carry concealed weapons. The Senate has just narrowly defeated an attachment to a military spending bill that would have permitted anyone with a valid license from one state to carry a concealed weapon (usually a handgun) in all other states as well.

Republicans claimed that this was only fair, resembling the fact that a driver's license from one state is recognized and valid in all others. However, no one is driving a car concealed under his armpit. States do not issue hunting or fishing licenses that are recognized in all other states. Indeed, even lawyers must pass the bar exam in any state they want to practice in. The right to practice law in Massachusetts does not confer the right to do so in Connecticut or California or anywhere else.

If passed, this law would be profoundly undemocratic. Two thirds of the States, 35 of them, have passed laws that prohibit gun ownership (concealed or not) to certain individuals - notably those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors. Furthermore, many states insist that gun owners must have training courses. The narrowly defeated provision would have permitted someone who had been in prison for armed robbery or murder to go to a state with lax gun laws, acquire weapons, and carry them legally anywhere in the United States. Even more frightening, it would have allowed Dick Cheney to carry a concealed weapon in Massachusetts, where all such weapons are outlawed.

This bizarre legislation was supported by almost all Senate Republicans and by most rural Republicans. However, it was vigorously opposed by the Mayor of New York, who is Republican, but for some reason does not like the idea of allowing concealed weapons in his city. And fortunately Richard Lugar, Republican Senator from Indiana, did not support this bill either.

Lugar's opposition was needed. For Republican support would not have mattered if the Democrats were opposed. But their leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, was all for more concealed weapons, and several of the sponsors were Democrats as well. Indeed, all together there were 58 Senators eager to have more concealed weapons on America's streets. Only 42 voted against, but that was enough to defeat a rider to the bill. For this was not an amendment or a refinement of the bill being voted on, and it had not been vetted by a committee that heard from expert witnesses. In such cases, Senate rules require 60 votes in favor. It was a close call.

In case anyone believes the rhetoric about Democrats being the liberal party of big government, keep this near fiasco in mind. And anyone who thinks the Republicans do not want the Federal Government to meddle in the states, think again. It depends on the issues. Republicans would be happy to have Washington legislate definitively against abortion, gay marriage, or gun control. There is seldom a logical political philosophy guiding the Republicans, or, for that matter, many Democrats.

Even more troubling, majority bi-partisan support that would effectively eliminate gun control suggests that the Senate is not thickly populated with intelligent individuals with high ideals. Can we count on such people to create a new and better health care system?

July 21, 2009

Will Danes Adopt Preventive Health Care?

After the American Century

My vacation is drawing to a close and you can expect more postings here at After the American Century. In Denmark at this time of year there is little news, as most of the country has gone on vacation, including most of the politicians. Life seems a bit more pleasant without them showing up on the evening news.

However, there was one worthy idea, hardly new, in the news today, namely that all citizens ought to receive twice a year health check-ups. This was standard in the United States by the 1970s, and when I arrived in Denmark in 1982 and was assigned to a doctor, I immediately went by his office to get acquainted. I assumed there would be a physical examination, to establish a baseline for my future care. The nurse and receptionist were cordial but bemused. Regular physical exams were not part of the procedure, and amazingly, they still are not. In other words, while Danes have a free (tax supported) health system, it does not focus on prevention, only cure.

By now the health system has a pretty full record on me, or anyone else who has been treated for various ailments. Yet this record is a bit haphazard. Measurements of weight, blood pressure, and the like are not taken in a systematic manner, and there is no baseline to measure progress or deterioration.

Unfortunately, this "new idea" has been launched at a time when no one is paying attention, because the country is vacationing. But regular examinations is essential to a preventive health program, the goal being to keep citizens healthy rather than wait for them to fall ill. And while it might look expensive, studies show that preventive health programs save money, because problems or worrying developments are caught sooner.

Readers outside Denmark will probably be amazed that the health system has not yet grasped this basic idea. But for those who know a bit about it, this is not surprising, as Danes generally are not quick to learn from outsiders. I know many foreign-born permanent residents who have said for years that preventive medicine ought to be the national policy. But it is hard for outsiders to get a hearing. This, however, is a story for another day.