Friday, October 24, 2014

Paul Krugman, contrarian

With President Obama's popularity at its lowest ebb according to all the opinion polls, the Inside-the-Beltway commentariat class loves to pile on, basically assigning him, somewhat prematurely, to the ranks of presidents who are considered inept and failures. Thus, many of these worthies were shocked and rather outraged recently when the latest edition of Rolling Stone featured a cover story by Paul Krugman praising the Obama presidency.

I seriously doubt that Krugman has lost any sleep over the shock and outrage expressed over the article. After all, he's used to it. He does not run with the herd and he never hesitates about expressing his opinion, whether or not anyone else agrees with him.

Some of the surprise, certainly, was due to the fact that Krugman has been a frequent critic of Obama. When he first ran for president in 2007-08, Krugman considered Hillary Clinton the more experienced candidate who was better prepared to lead. He was not wrong. He thought that Obama was naive and much too trusting of Republicans' willingness to compromise for the good of the country. It took the president years to begin to recognize the scorched-earth policies they were pursuing and the fact that they were not concerned about the good of the country but only in perpetuating themselves in power. Even now it is questionable whether he has completely accepted that fact of politics as presently practiced in Washington, D.C.

But in spite of all that, Krugman looks at his presidency and sees a clear record of accomplishment.
  • Health Care: The Affordable Care Act has been, in Krugman's words, a "perils-of-Pauline" experience. It is a jerry-rigged law that was crafted along conservative Republican guidelines for public health policy. In fact, it was lifted almost completely from a plan devised by a conservative think tank. It could have been much better but in the political climate of the time, it was probably the best that could be achieved, and it is working quite well, contrary to what you will hear from Republicans and their pundit supporters. Millions of people now have insurance who didn't have it before and millions more could if only the Supreme Court hadn't opened a giant loophole in the law and if only Republican governors were not such intransigent jerks. 
  • Financial Reform: The Dodd-Frank law is often derided as worthless. Krugman, the economist, doesn't agree. Again, it could have been much stronger, but still, it manages to do some important things. As Krugman writes, "It may not prevent the next financial crisis, but there's a good chance that it will at least make future crises less severe and easier to deal with." And that's nothing to sneeze at. Plus, it authorized the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has already done some important work, in spite of Republican obstructionism.
  • The Economy: The economy was set to fall off a cliff in 2008. That it didn't and that it began a slow climb out of the abyss in 2009 is due to Obama and his team's leadership. But he gets practically no credit for that.
  • The Environment: Because the Congress is packed with science-denying troglodytes, it is virtually impossible to get any legislation passed that protects the environment or addresses climate change. Thus, Obama has begun to work through the agencies of the Executive branch and through powers available to him as president to do what he can, and he has been pretty effective in doing that. Once again, he gets no credit for it.
  • National Security: Bottom line is that he has kept the country safe, even though he has been a disappointment to the liberals who were so excited about his election because they thought that all the people who took us to war on false pretenses would be held accountable and that the reach of the national security state would be curbed. That hasn't happened, but there is still time for some achievements in this area. Guantanamo may yet be closed on his watch.
  • Social Issues: Issues of race and religion and income inequality still plague our country and yet enormous progress has been made in the last six years and it has become so commonplace that, to some extent, we take it for granted and do not pause to appreciate the enormity of it. One only has to think back ten years to the way homosexuals were thought of and treated in this country and compare it to the more open and accepting attitude of a majority of the country today to begin to see how far we have come. As for women's issues of equal treatment under the law, equal pay. equal access to health care, no, we're not there yet and we haven't made nearly the progress that we should have, but there is hope. And in many other areas of our society, incremental baby steps forward have been taken and much of that is due to the leadership and example of Barack and Michelle Obama.

  • That is a pretty impressive record, one that it is likely that history will view kindly. Or, again, in Krugman's words:
    This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don't care about the fact that Obama hasn't lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn't quite say, a big deal.
A very big deal, indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Teddy Bear the porcupine loves his pumpkins!

Have you met Teddy Bear the porcupine? He REALLY loves pumpkins and he'll be glad to tell you all about it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco: A review

Private VenusPrivate Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in Kiev to a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, but at an early age, his family emigrated with him to Rome. He wrote in Italian and in the 1960s, which seems to have been a very prolific and creative period of the mystery genre, he essentially founded the the school of Italian noir fiction. Private Venus was the first entry in that new field of fiction.

This book was the first in a series known as the Milano Quartet. Other books in the series are Betrayers of All, The Boys of the Massacre, and The Milanese Kill. The first one was published in 1966 and the last one in 1969. Unfortunately, Scerbanenco died prematurely in late 1969, so the literary world never got to see where he might have taken his new genre.

Private Venus introduces us to the main character, the "detective" in the series. He is Dr. Duca Lamberti. We meet him just as he has been released from prison after serving three years for assisting one of his patients, an old lady dying painfully of cancer, to die. Though euthanasia was against the law, there was a lot of sympathy for Dr. Lamberti and once he is released, one of his connections, a policeman who was friends with his father, helps him in getting a job.

He is hired by a friend of the policeman, a millionaire plastics tycoon, to babysit his son. The son is in his twenties and his life has gone seriously off the rails. He is slowly drinking himself to death. The father fears that the son has become a hopeless alcoholic, but he wants the doctor to keep him away from alcohol - maybe even cure him of his craving.

Lamberti observes the young man, Davide, and becomes convinced that he is not, in fact, an alcoholic and thinks that he can wean him from drink. He believes there is some hidden underlying reason for the drinking and he soon discovers what it is. Davide is convinced that he is responsible for the death of a beautiful young woman a year before. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she was with Davide in the hours before she died and he believes that if only he had stayed with her, she would be alive. He drinks to forget his guilt.

In time, a vital clue is discovered - a role of film - that convinces Lamberti that the death was not a suicide at all, but a murder. When he is able to tie it to the death of another young woman, the first victim's friend, in Rome, he is certain he is right and sets out with Davide to prove it, with the help of a cooperative policeman, as well as a very brave young woman who willingly offers herself as bait to uncover a vicious ring of white slavers.

Throw in a mandatory Mafia connection and you've got a pretty nasty stew, one which the obsessive, world-weary Duca Lamberti, no longer licensed to practice his profession, is determined to sort out into its constituent parts and bring some justice to two victimized women - and peace of mind to his client, Davide.

Reading books in translation is always an adventure and a bit of an iffy thing. I've seen several reviews of this translation by Howard Curtis that have praised it. On the whole, it seemed adequate to me but there were times when the wording seemed a bit awkward and clunky and I had to wonder how it might have flowed more easily in Italian. But since I don't read that beautiful language, I can only speculate.

I think the second book in the series has now been translated. I'm not sure about the others, but I've got them all on my TBR list for some later date.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 20, 2014

Just because...

Just because I need to be reminded that there are some good people in the world...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Poetry Sunday: At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

Living in Texas and having traveled along our border with Mexico, I'm always bemused by all those "patriots" who are constantly moaning about our "porous border." Truly, I seriously doubt they have ever been there or they would see that in fact it is quite secure and well-policed.

The same people never seem to worry about our border with Canada, even though there is much more of it and it is certainly equally as "porous" - with more points for all those "Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists" to slip across and spread their disease. (Yes, we do have more than our share of very silly and foolish people in this country.)

As a country, we are very fortunate in our neighbors - both Mexico and Canada. Some poets have even taken note of that. William Stafford for one.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed - or were killed - on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This week in birds - #130

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

This is why they call it "hummingbird bush." This little Rufous female in particular loves this Hamelia patens shrub and considers it her personal territory. She chases other hummers who try to feed there. 

But it is not just hummers who love it. Butterflies love it, too, especially the little yellow sulphurs of autumn. This is a Dog Face Sulphur enjoying a sip from the blossoms.


Capturing carbon that is emitted into the air is one way of helping to reduce greenhouse gases and ultimately reduce global warming, and a Texas company is preparing to do just that. For profit, of course. The Skyonic Corporation of Austin will open a factory next week at a cement plant near San Antonio that will make industrial chemicals. In order to make the chemicals, the plant will capture the carbon emitted from making cement and reuse it. This technique holds promise for being a practical and profitable solution to a thorny problem.


The Northern Bobwhite is in trouble. Its numbers have plummeted in recent years and it is close to extinction in some parts of its range. There is an effort under way in New Jersey to increase its numbers there and to reintroduce it to some areas of its former range where it has all but disappeared.


Another animal that is in trouble is the wolverine. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently made the decision not to list it as a threatened species, but many conservation groups disagree and are suing to have that decision reconsidered. The main threat to the wolverine is a warming planet that is reducing the heavy snowpack in the mountains that it needs for its breeding dens.


Skinks are interesting little reptiles that do not seem to be in any trouble judging by the numbers that I observe slithering quickly away from me when I work in my garden. In fact they are one of the most successful groups of lizards, accounting for about 25% of the species in that family. "Tetrapod Zoology" has more information about the little critters.


Plants manage to survive and thrive in a world where they are tops on the menu for many, many two-legged, four-legged, and six-legged creatures. How do they do it? It's called "evolution." Over time, they develop formidable defenses against those that would devour them. This may include toxins in the leaves and stems, tough leathery leaves, and thorns. Thorns are a popular innovation. Studies have determined that plants are able to respond when threats from herbivores are reduced. They become less thorny.


Conservation groups are alarmed at the steep decline in population experienced by the Tri-colored Blackbird of California. They are asking the state to list it as endangered and to take emergency action to prohibit plowing and harvesting on fields where the birds are breeding.


Okay, I admit it. I love spiders. They are fascinating creatures and they do their part to help keep us from being knee-deep in insects. When I accidentally walked through a web earlier this week in my garden and destroyed all the poor spider's hard work, I felt very guilty. Africa Gomez of "BugBlog" would probably have the same reaction. She's a spider admirer, too.


Pound for pound, methane is 20 times more effective at trapping the sun's heat than carbon dioxide, and so it becomes particularly vital that we control the emission of methane into the atmosphere if we hope to have a positive impact on global warming. A new study has found a surprising methane hotspot: New Mexico's San Juan Basin. It is thought that this may be an indication of oil and gas deposits there similar to the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Fracking to extract these deposits releases methane, so this is now a new concern for environmentalists and climate scientists.


Brazilian scientists have discovered a near-intact fossilized bird egg -- the country’s first -- in Sao Paulo State. Compared to the abundance of eggs from non-avian dinosaurs, finds of complete eggs from Mezosoic birds are relatively scarce.


Texas, along with several other states, will experience the emergence of a brood of seventeen-year cicadas next year. Several states in the southeast and midwest will also have thirteen-year cicadas emerging and a few of these states will overlap with the seventeen-years. That should present quite a chorus!


In our solar system, the smaller planets like Mercury and Venus tend to orbit closer to the sun while larger ones such as Jupiter and Saturn are farther away, but not all solar systems behave like this, scientists have discovered. Each seems to have its own set of rules.


Birds are magnificent fliers. After all, it is their strategy for life. They have developed many techniques for handling different air currents. One of those techniques is collapsible wings in response to extreme turbulence. The birds simply fold their wings and ride the turbulence.