Citizen Science

The incoming administration has not shown a great deal of interest in climate change or in science generally so it is up to those of us who care to do our part.  We can contribute to worthy organizations.  We can participate in protests against fracking and building more pipelines.  And we can submit observations to organizations that depend on Citizen Science.

I think we have all heard of the canary in the coal mine, but patterns of bird migration are also signs of change.  This will be the 4th winter my husband and I have participated in Feeder Watch.  Before that, we reported for the Christmas Day Count and other particular days.  If you live in the United States or in Canada and have at least one bird feeder, you can sign up for a modest cost and report the birds that come visit.  It is pretty simple.  Sign-up and you get a packet that explains what to do and how to report. Pick two consecutive days a week and report through the winter.

A Tufted Titmouse at one of our feeder a few winters ago.

A Tufted Titmouse at one of our feeder a few winters ago.

But what if you don’t have a feeder or live in the US or Canada?  Regardless of where you live you can report what you see on eBird.  I report birds we see on walks and when we travel as well as bird during Feeder Watch.  When we started, I could tell Blue Jays and Cardinals from House Sparrows, but saw many birds I couldn’t identify.   Gradually, you can learn who almost everyone is – even the same individual who comes often to the feeder.  Feeder Watch provides a helpful chart of common birds and Cornell University has a great online ID program.

If you are like me and feeling depressed about the results of the recent election, take some positive action and sign up for Feeder Watch.

 

 

Keeping things too cold

Reading the Sunday Review section of the New York Times I was reminded that I always kept a sweater on the back of my chair in the summer time.  I also pretty much kept the blower in the cube off.  We were always playing with the blowers in the ceiling because it was just too cold.  So Kate Murphy’s “Enduring Summer’s Deep Freeze” definitely resonated with me.

IT’S summertime. The season when you can write your name in the condensation on the windows at Starbucks, people pull on parkas to go to the movies and judges have been known to pause proceedings so bailiffs can escort jurors outside the courthouse to warm up.

On these, the hottest days of the year, office workers huddle under fleece blankets in their cubicles. Cold complaints trend on Twitter with posts like, “I could preserve dead bodies in the office it’s so cold in here.” And fashion and style bloggers offer advice for layered looks for coming in and out of the cold.

Why is America so over air-conditioned? It seems absurd, if not unconscionable, when you consider the money and energy wasted — not to mention the negative impact on the environment from the associated greenhouse-gas emissions. Architects, engineers, building owners and energy experts sigh with exasperation when asked for an explanation. They tick off a number of reasons — probably the most vexing is cultural.

“Being able to make people feel cold in the summer is a sign of power and prestige,” said Richard de Dear, director of the Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory at University of Sydney, Australia, where excessive air-conditioning is as prevalent as it is in much of the United States. He said the problem is even worse in parts of the Middle East and Asia.

What a waste of energy and resources!  Back in 2005, the Japanese government decided to bump up the thermostats in government buildings.  It took a while for what they called “Super Cool Biz” to spread.  The first year, men still wore long sleeved shirts and carried jackets so they wouldn’t feel weird meeting with private sector people.  A blog, GaijinPot explains what it all means.

Cool biz has been a summer buzzword since the Cool Biz Campaign was launched by the Japanese government in 2005. The Cool Biz Campaign aims to help reduce energy consumption in part by having government offices and cooperating private companies set the air-conditioner to 28˚C. In addition, the campaign encouraged workers to wear cooler clothing to work, which in effect meant a more casual dress code for summer.

28C is around 82F.

The suggested dress code Japanese government workers in the summer?

Not required to wear:
Necktie
Jacket

Allowed to wear:
Half-sleeve dress shirts
Kariyushi shirt (Okinawan shirt)
Polo shirts
Hawaiian shirts/Aloha shirts
Chino pants
Sneakers

Not allowed to wear:
Exercise shirts
Shorts
T-shirts
Jeans

Notice this is for men. I assume women can wear shirts or dresses with sandals.

Summer attire in Japan

Summer attire in Japan

We already do casual Fridays many places and a lot of tech companies are casual every day so why not raise the temperature, maybe not to 82 but to, say, 78.

As Kate Murphy wrote

Extreme temperature changes like entering a freezing lobby on a sweltering summer day may feel good at first, but it makes the hypothalamus go nuts, intensifying physical and psychological discomfort when the initial pleasure wears off — as if to say: “A blizzard is on its way! Do something!”

The problem is compounded by building managers who, surveys indicate, typically don’t adjust the temperature set point higher in summertime when people wear lighter and more revealing clothes than they do in wintertime. Since thermoreceptors (nerve cells that sense temperature changes) are on your skin, the more of it you have exposed, the colder you are going to feel. Sixty-eight degrees feels a lot different if you are wearing a wool turtleneck, slacks and boots versus a poplin sundress and sandals.

However, you can understand managers’ bias toward keeping the lower, wintertime setting when many are men and might wear ties and jackets no matter the season. They may be even less inclined to bump up the thermostat if they are heavyset, as body fat is the ultimate heat insulator.

So, men, take off those jackets and ties in the summer.

A couple of computer scientists have developed a smartphone app that proposes to solve that problem by making people the thermostats. Users can tell the app, called Comfy, whether they are hot, cold or just right. Over time, it learns trends and preferences and tells the air-conditioning system when and where to throttle up or throttle back the cooling. So far it’s used in a dozen buildings, including some of Google’s offices and some government-owned buildings, for a total of three million square feet. The developers claim Comfy-equipped buildings realize savings of up to 25 percent in cooling costs.

“We have a lot of data that people are most comfortable if they have some measure of control,” said Gwelen Paliaga, a building systems engineer in Arcata, Calif., and chairman of a committee that develops standards for human thermal comfort for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, or Ashrae.

Of course, for fresh air and comfort, engineers and architects tend to agree the most effective control is being able to open and close the windows. No app required.

Maybe one day we can stop dressing one way outside and another inside during the summer.

Spring in Vermont

I’ve been gardening like crazy.  My husband and I have taken out 90% of what the previous owners had planted including the trees and have replaced them with lilacs, blueberry bushes, forsythia, and a serviceberry bush.  We also replaced two maples with a stewartia tree. (I put in a link because you probably never heard of one before. We hadn’t.)  Plus annuals and lots of perennials.  I figure that you can always take stuff out next year that doesn’t work.  All of this has helped take my mind off the mostly bad news that seems to keep coming.

Our young Stewartia tree with flowers.

Our young Stewartia tree with flowers.

Last week we caught a little break.  The Supreme Court made two decisions that, contrary to the dissenters, I think will be positive in the long run.  The first upheld the subsidies for the Affordable Care Act; the second, legalized marriage for everyone in all states.

Marriage equality began here in New England as all the local media have proudly told us.  Vermont legalized civil unions and Massachusetts was the first to sanction marriage.  As one news reader noted, “Today’s decision doesn’t really effect New England as same-sex marriage in already legal in all six states.”  That is a paraphrase, but a fact of which most New Englanders are very proud and contrasts to the defiant words from some of the Republican Presidential candidates.  Reminds me of the governors who wanted to stand in front of the school house door to prevent school integration.  Conservatives are always arguing that marriage leads to more stability so I can’t really understand why they aren’t pleased that more people will be getting married.

On the ACA, I wonder if some of the New England states like Vermont that are struggling with the necessary automation and connections to the federal exchange will just move to the federal exchange all together.  And I also wonder if states that never expanded Medicare will do so now.  But with Congressional leaders and most of the Republican Presidential candidates still hoping to repeal “Obamacare”, that is probably not likely.  In the meanwhile, more people are getting insurance and as they begin to get preventative care, costs should continue to drop.  Insurance companies, like most of us, like stability something the pro-repeal Republican should remember.

As spring slowly turns to summer here in Vermont, I’ve been thinking a lot about race.  As with many things we seem to be taking one step forward and two back.  Who would have predicted in 1964 that in 2015 we would need a new voting rights act?    Or that the unspoken racism of one of the major political parties would lead to a mass shooting in a black church?  Yes, I mean the Republican party with opposition to everything proposed by President Obama.  You can’t convince me that if the current Democratic president were someone like Jerry Brown or Tim Kaine opposition would be as virulent.  Race is at the core.  All those Senate Republicans who want to be president could prove me wrong by supporting the new voting rights legislation.  As the Washington Post pointed out, they once did so.

The Sunday after Charleston my husband and I drove down to Boston to attend church.  We wanted to attend his home church, an historically black church of which he became the first white member over twenty years ago.  The service is still traditionally African-American, but the worshippers are black, white, and Asian.  It was comforting to sit with people I have known for so many years as well as with the newcomers.  The young pastor spoke first about being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and went on to talk about faith.  We were all given little packets of mustard seed by the children to remind us to keep the faith.  I’m finding that gardening is another way to find a measure of peace and faith that things change.  In the garden one can see the entire cycle:  planting, growth, blooms, death.  And then it begins again next spring.  We just need to keep the faith.

Photograph:  Bob Wyckoff

Some thoughts about product and corporate boycotts

A few days ago the ice cream maker, Ben and Jerry’s, offered free ice cream in exchange for a donation to whatever local charity the particular store had chosen.  I posted the information on Facebook knowing that I had friends who ate Ben and Jerry’s with some regularity.  A good friend (so good my wedding reception was at her house) posted a comment asking that we boycott Ben and Jerry’s because they sold ice cream to the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territory.  I’ve been thinking about boycotts since then and this post is my attempt to think “aloud”.

Looking back I can remember two successful boycotts I’ve participated in.  First was the Woolworth’s boycott in sympathy to the student sit-ins.  Second was the Delano Farmworkers Grape Strike.

David Richmond (from left), Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil leave the Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C., where they initiated a lunch-counter sit-in to protest segregation, Feb. 1, 1960. (No photographers were allowed into the store on the first day of protest.)

David Richmond (from left), Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil leave the Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C., where they initiated a lunch-counter sit-in to protest segregation, Feb. 1, 1960. (No photographers were allowed into the store on the first day of protest.)

The student sit-ins of lunch counters began in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  I found this NPR story about Franklin McCain and the sit-ins.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four students from all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked into a Woolworth five-and-dime with the intention of ordering lunch.

But the manager of the Greensboro Woolworth had intentions of his own — to maintain the lunch counter’s strict whites-only policy.

Franklin McCain was one of the four young men who shoved history forward by refusing to budge.

McCain remembers the anxiety he felt when he went to the store that Monday afternoon, the plan he and his friends had devised to launch their protest and how he felt when he sat down on that stool.

“Fifteen seconds after … I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet,” McCain says.

They were not served, but returned day after day with more and more reinforcements.  Sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counters spread across the South.  In New Jersey where I grew up, there was a boycott of the local Woolworth’s in solidarity with the students.  Even after the lunch counters were integrated, it was years before I had lunch at one.  The first time I was in my early thirties.  I still remember I had tomato soup and grilled cheese – the special.

The grape boycott lasted 5 years from 1965 to 1970.  Millions of Americans came to identify with the farmworkers who wanted to unionize so they could improve working conditions and wages.  The United Farm Workers has a history of the strike.

Hundreds of grape strikers traveled across the U.S. and Canada, telling their stories and organizing mass support for the grape boycott. The strikers were joined by thousands of supporters who helped tirelessly organize the boycott.

Cesar [Chavez] and the farm workers believed if consumers in communities throughout North America knew about the suffering of field laborers—and saw the grape strikers struggling nonviolently—they would respond. For Cesar, nonviolence couldn’t be understood in the abstract. It could only be seen in action. He said, “the whole essence of nonviolent action is getting a lot of people involved, vast numbers doing little things.”

He knew most people couldn’t drop what they were doing and dedicate themselves completely to the movement like the grape strikers, most of whom lost their homes, cars and worldly possessions. But Cesar and the farm workers showed ordinary people that by making little sacrifices every day—by not eating grapes—they could directly help the poorest of the poor.

The boycott connected middle-class families in big cities with poor farm worker families in the California vineyards. Millions stopped eating grapes. At dinner tables across the country, parents gave children a simple, powerful lesson in social justice.

In my family we didn’t eat grapes for many years.  My mother had been a California farmer worker and later an organizer on the east coast for the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union.  We started boycotting very early in the strike if my memory is correct.

The Woolworth’s and Farm Worker’s boycotts were successful because they were narrowly focused and concerned an issue with which the average person could identify:  Segregated lunch counters and farm working conditions.  The boycotts that I have been asked to join recently include Monsanto, Nestles, and Ben and Jerry’s.

The first two have, in my opinion, little chance of success not because the cause isn’t clear, but because they lack focus.  I couldn’t even begin to get through the list of Nestles’ products I wasn’t supposed to purchase.  Organizers of the Monsanto boycott should just urge us not to purchase Monsanto’s “Round-Up”.  And as for Nestles and their draining of the California (and other aquifers), people should not be buying water in bottles anyway.  Better to ask people to stop buying bottled water where they can safely do so.  As for the request to boycott Ben and Jerry’s, I am afraid that the issue of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, although of concern to me, is too obscure and not of immediate interest to most Americans who will weigh that against the other good that the company does.

To succeed, corporate boycotts need to be focused in what we are asked not to purchase and concern a cause to which a critical mass of consumers can relate.

 

Photograph:  Jack Moebes/Corbis

Trying to make sense of the anti-vaccine movement

Why don’t some parents get their children vaccinated?  Religious grounds?  Maybe for a few.  Philosophical grounds?  I still haven’t figured out what that means.  Misinformation?  Probably more of a reason than religious grounds.  But I have concluded that it is having no personal history that maybe the biggest reason.

Like most of my generation – born before the early 1960s – I suffered from all the childhood diseases as they were called back then.  I had the measles, rubella (then called the German measles), and chicken pox.  I was somehow immune to the mumps even though I attended a birthday party after which all the attendees but me got them.  I particularly remember chicken pox.  It was miserable.  I felt terrible and I itched all over.  It was worse than having poison ivy which I seemed to get almost every summer until I was old enough to recognize the plant.  My experience was typical of almost everyone I knew.  Margaret Talbot provided some history in her piece for the New Yorker, “Not Immune”.

Twenty-five years ago, when a doctor named Robert Ross was the deputy health commissioner of Philadelphia, a measles epidemic swept the country. Until this year’s outbreak, which started at Disneyland and has so far sickened more than a hundred people, the 1989-91 epidemic was the most alarming that the United States had seen since 1963, when the measles vaccine was introduced. Nationwide, there were more than fifty-five thousand cases and eleven thousand hospitalizations; a hundred and twenty-three people died. Most of those infected were unimmunized babies and toddlers, predominantly poor and minority kids living in cities. Ross thought that the blame for the outbreak could be placed partly on poverty and partly on crack cocaine, which was “making a lot of families forget how to raise children.”

The epidemic spurred the creation, in 1993, of a federal program, Vaccines for Children, which subsidized shots for children who were uninsured or onMedicaid*. Immunization rates soared. Then a new skepticism about vaccination settled in—this time, more often than not, among affluent parents who were drawn to holistic living and were dubious about medical authority. An infamous 1998 study in The Lancet, which claimed that the rising incidence of autism was linked to vaccinations, was particularly influential with some of those parents—even though the data were found to be falsified and the author’s medical license was revoked. Another theory, tying autism to thimerosal, a preservative added to vaccines, has also been debunked. Since 2001, thimerosal has been used only in the flu vaccine—and there is a thimerosal-free alternative—but the incidence of autism continues to rise.

Nevertheless, the skepticism endured, and one result has been the decisive return of infectious diseases. First, it was whooping cough: in 2012, more than forty-eight thousand cases and twenty deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control, the greatest number since 1955. Now it’s measles….

Child in later stages of measles rash (probably has had rash for 4 or 5 days)

Child in later stages of measles rash (probably has had rash for 4 or 5 days)

The level of misinformation and fear is incredible.  Nothing that anyone says or does seems to lower the volume.  There is no known link to autism from any vaccines.  What remains are religious ground and some vague notion of philosophical grounds.  A couple of Sunday’s ago, Gina Bellafante tackled the question of religious grounds in her New York Times column.

New York already allows parents to seek vaccine exemptions for medical or religious reasons. In effect, philosophical exemptions are superfluous because religious exemptions perform the same function. A state form requires that parents provide a written passage, in their own words, explaining why they are requesting the exemption, and the principles that guide the objection. A head of school can accept the submission or reject it, ask for supporting documents — a letter from a priest or a rabbi, for instance — or not. Anyone whose request is denied can appeal to the education commissioner.

That religious exemptions are available at all to any but Christian Scientists, whose disavowal of medicine is foundational, remains a subject debated not nearly enough. It is not just that the waivers are used to conceal the discredited anti-vaccination sentiments shared by parents with no theological commitments whatsoever. (As one Manhattan school nurse put it to me, “It would be practically impossible, not to mention a huge pain, to prove that they are lying.” Of the 25 percent of students at the School for Young Performers in TriBeCa who received religious exemptions last year, how many have parents prepping them for the seminary?) It is that among the major religions there is virtually no canonical basis for vaccine aversion; the Bible, the Quran and the texts of Sanskrit were all obviously written before the creation of vaccines, and most religions privilege the preservation of life.

Read the end again:  “…most religions privilege the preservation of life.”

So today I saw a snopes.com piece debunking (there is that word again) the new internet factoid that 

In the last ten years no one has died of measles in the U.S., but more than 100 people have died due to the MMR vaccine.

Snope.com responded

During a then-current measles outbreak, on 4 February 2015 an alternative health site published an article claiming no one in the United States died of the measles between 2004 and 2015.

Furthermore, the article stated, more than 100 people (mostly young children) had died after receiving the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.

The claim circulated widely during a time of increased debate over parental decisions about vaccinations, particularly among those who are opposed to the practice. In some iterations the claim was amended to specify “child deaths,” but the article itself stated there were zero deaths (among all age groups) from measles in the United States in the timeframe cited. That claim was provably false, as two people in the U.S. died from the measles in 2009, and another two deaths from measles were recorded in 2010. As such, in two of the ten to eleven years cited in the claim, at least four people have died of measles. And according to the World Health Organization, 145,000 people around the world died of measles in 2013 alone.

Likely one of the reasons there have not been more deaths in the U.S. is the push in the 1990s to get kids vaccinated under the Vaccines for Children program.  Snopes.com concludes

Few people died of measles in the U.S. between 2004 and 2015 because measles was classified as eliminated in 2000. Relatively few people in the U.S. contracted the viral infection after that, so it stands to reason far fewer would go on to die of it. And while more than 100 reports of suspected adverse reaction or death may have been reported to VAERS in the years cited, that number references unconfirmed public reports, not verified vaccine-related fatalities.

Finally, the possibility of death is not the only reason one should (or should want to) vaccinate a child against measles. As the CDC notes in their measles fact sheet, in some children measles can lead to pneumonia, lifelong brain damage, and deafness.

The number of deaths cited seems rather small compared to the number of persons vaccinated especially since it is not clear that there was a death for each reported case.

Now, of course, the progressive parents who don’t want their kids vaccinated for philosophical grounds have lots of company from the right who have politicized the issue.  Talbot writes

On Fox News, Sean Hannity declared that he wasn’t “trusting President Obama to tell me whether to vaccinate my kids.”

 I argue that parents are vulnerable to all that is floating out there – the misinformation and the politicization – because they have no history of the diseases.  Very few people in the United States born after the introduction of vaccines have had measles, chicken pox, or mumps.  I would venture to guess that most adults who have children were themselves vaccinated when they were children.  I base that simply of the fact that there have been few outbreaks since the early 1960s.  No parent who had any of the once common childhood diseases would want their children to suffer.  Unfortunately, I think this cycle has to play itself out which means some kids will die or suffer long-term consequences.

[By the way, if you were part of the generation that had chicken pox be sure to get the shingles vaccine.  I watched my mother suffer and you can bet I got vaccinated the first chance I had.]

Photograph:  From the CDC

Science and magic

When I was a child, my father took me up on the roof of the chicken coop on our small New Jersey farm to watch Sputnik whiz by.   I couldn’t believe that it was so small and so fast.  It was, to be honest, a little anti-climactic to my 10 year old mind.  Still, I was amazed by the concept that something could be put on a rocket and sent into space for us to see.  It was like magic.  Science often seems magical.  In her essay, “Retrograde Beliefs” in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Kristen Dombek, an essayist and teacher at Princeton, writes about this connection.

Magical beliefs include astrology.

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

The sun and plants.  Arrow points to Mercury.

The sun and plants. Arrow points to Mercury.

There is, of course a scientific explanation for Mercury’s movements.

The story of Mercury is a cautionary tale too, about thinking there is a connection between how things work on Earth and how they work in the heavens. Every time Mercury orbits the sun, it ends up a bit ahead of where it began, so that the planet traces in space not a steady ellipsis but a pattern of flower petals. Called precession, some of this jumping ahead is explainable by Newton’s laws. But some isn’t. The difference between where Mercury should end up, according to the law of gravity that works on Earth, and where it actually ends up, is minuscule — 43 arc seconds per century — but it was enough to puzzle astronomers for years, even leading to speculation about a phantom planet, Vulcan, that might influence Mercury’s orbit.

What it took, in the end, to explain Mercury’s precession was Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity; Mercury flies close enough to the sun that it travels through a part of space-time so bent by the sun’s mass that the planet is dragged a bit farther along each time. The fact that things work so differently in space than they do on Earth, not to mention at the quantum level, has physicists conjuring ideas even stranger than any malevolent planet — string theory, multiple universes — to connect it all together again.

The really scary thing about astrology, however, is not that so many will be worried about their technology as well as their lives, but that

The belief that the movements of celestial bodies govern our lives is more popular in the United States than it has been in two decades, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. In a 2012 survey, a third of Americans viewed astrology as “sort of scientific” and another 10 percent as “very scientific.” Belief is most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds but has markedly increased among 35-to-44-year-olds in recent years. To put this in perspective: More Americans believe in astrology, or “sort of” believe in astrology, than believe that climate change is influenced by the burning of fossil fuels.

Think of that.  More Americans believe in astrology than believe there is a human element to climate change!  This is part of the current trend to distrust science and facts.  Everything is magic.  The moon landings and most certainly the recent landing on a comet were staged.  There can’t be climate change because winters are so cold.  The increase in the number of earthquakes in places where there is fracking is just a coincidence.  We have forgotten about facts because it is more convenient to ignore them when they don’t fit a particular belief system.

Like Kristen Dombek, I love Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Dombek writes

There was something about this story that married a love of quantum physics and astrophysical theory to a witchy sense of cosmic magic; it sent me not away from science, but toward it, suggesting that my relentless research, in my parents’ library and in the woods and streams of our farm, might matter, even though I was a girl.

I am not a scientist, but I read science articles, follow space exploration, and think that mapping the brain is fascinating.  Real science that discovers facts is even more magical than all those science deniers could ever imagine.  All they need to do is look.

Illustration: 3horoscopes.com

Looking at President Obama

The annual Gallup poll of the most admired man has just picked President Obama.  Even among Republicans he tied with Pope Francis.  But to hear some Republican elected officials and pundits, Barack Obama is the devil incarnate.  If he says the sky is a little cloudy, they will say it is clear.  So what is going on?  Are people finally catching on to what he has accomplished?  Are people starting to look beyond the media’s short attention span?  I don’t have any answers, but I know that the President has managed more than one could ever imagine given the Tea Party and solid Republican opposition to everything he proposes. Even people like Paul Krugman, who one would think would be a supporter, was not.  But Krugman has changed his mind and in October wrote a widely circulated defense.

When it comes to Barack Obama, I’ve always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.

I certainly haven’t agreed with everything Obama has proposed or done, but no one agrees with anyone else 100% of the time.  And there have been some scary moments.  Remember the “Grand Bargain”?  But we can list as accomplishments the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial reform (despite the reluctance of Congress to fund the Consumer Protection Bureau and the recent gutting of the prohibitions on banks and derivatives.), the steady improvement of the economy (the only one in the world not on the verge of tanking again) and the ending of our combat roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But I just don’t understand the continuous bashing by everyone.  Plus, I firmly believe that the mid-term elections would not have been quite so bad if the Democrats had had the guts to run on the President’s record.

Krugman writes

But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

I think one of the problems the President has is that he is a canvas on which each person paints the picture of what they want him to be.  Michelle Bachmann sees him as a non-Christian, non-American.  Cornel West thinks he is a ‘counterfeit progressive”, meaning, I guess a conservative in progressive clothing.  The problem is people do not look at facts.  And they certainly don’t understand the character of the man.  I found this description of him on the golf course very apt.

One of the golfers who played with Mr. Obama said the way the president carried himself on the course provided significant insight into his character.

“If you came down from Mars and saw his disposition on the golf course, you would think he would be a pretty good president,” the golfer said. “He’s honest, he keeps his composure through terrible adversity, he’s unruffled, he smiles, and he doesn’t quit.”

Obama

This is why after the mid-term elections, President Obama was able to have what Kevin Drum writing in Mother Jones magazine was able to call “a Hellava month”.  Drum lists his accomplishments during November and December.  Here are a few from his list.

  • November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.

  • November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.

  • November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.

  • December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

Plus a number of judicial and other nominees were approved by the Senate before they went home for the holidays. Jennifer Bendery explains in the Huffington Post.

If there’s one thing from 2014 that will define President Barack Obama’s legacy after he’s left the White House, it’s the number of lifetime judges he put on the federal bench.

In its final act of the year, the Senate blew through a dozen U.S. district court nominees on Tuesday night. That puts Obama at a whopping 89 district court and circuit court confirmations for the year, and means he’ll wrap up his sixth year in office with a grand total of 305 district court and circuit court confirmations — a tally that puts him well beyond where his predecessors were by this point in their presidencies.

It may be that, in the end, his biggest effect on the judiciary isn’t sheer numbers as much as the diversity of his judges. Forty-two percent of Obama’s confirmed judges are women, 19 percent are black and 11 percent are Hispanic, according to data provided by the White House. Eleven of his confirmed judges are openly gay or lesbian.

Even the 12 nominees confirmed Tuesday night will make a mark: Robert Pitman will be the first openly gay judge to serve in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Loretta Biggs will be the first black woman to serve as a district judge in North Carolina.

The most interesting part of the nominee confirmation story is that the last were made possible by Senator Ted Cruz who probably had no idea what he was doing.

Democrats spent the final days of the lame duck thanking Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for inadvertently helping to expedite votes on Obama’s nominees. On Friday, Cruz derailed a plan by party leaders to leave for the weekend and come back Monday in an effort to force a show vote on Obama’s immigration executive action. The stunt kept senators in session all day Saturday, with hours to kill. So, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used the time to tee up votes for the 12 district court nominees still on the calendar.

With two years to go, I don’t think any of us should write President Obama off as a “lame duck”.  He seems to be freed by not having to run for office again.  We all need to stay tuned to see what he does next.

Photograph:  Uncredited from Mother Jones.