Field of Science

Academic bureaucracy

One of the first things to get the Rauner-roundTM here in Lincolnland are its universities.  Our new GnOPe governor says he'd like to give universities more money, but first they have to "cut their bureaucratic waste".  Now TPP is not a big fan of the administration, but he does know a few things after so many years as an academic. And TPP knows a few things about his university after having been around so many years. The state has been slowly but surely cutting its support for higher education which means the cost is shifted to the student in the form of tuition and fees. Here in Lincolnland the state support has shifted from around 68% of the cost and now some 30 odd years later state support is around 16-18%. Yet if you figure in inflation, and the actual real cost of doing business, our university is spending less of its budget to run itself than ever before. In other words to minimize the burden on students, our university has gotten more efficient. Another thing that is known by this academic is that our salaries are below the median of our peers at comparable institutions. Sigh. One wonders how us over-paid faculty escaped our governor's criticism? The majority of the administration operates to do things for students many of which the state mandates the university to do, and a lot of unfunded mandates have come our way; the state still wants things, but doesn't want to pay for them. Now the university could probably do with a few less deanlets, but seriously where is all this bureaucratic waste our governor wants cut? Well, he doesn't know, but it's his business acumen  and GnOPe belief that higher education is wasteful. Do not hold your breath for him to show you data, nor will he look at yours especially if it doesn't support his beliefs. What all of this means is that higher education is going to get its budget cut in name of curtailing wasteful spending whether there is any or not. It didn't take long did it? That's how it is. You do a great job, you do it more efficiently, and then you get budget cuts because of your non-existent wastefulness. Could have been worse. The governor of another Midwestern state wanted to know why university faculty couldn't teach 5 courses a term like high school teachers?  No need to try and explain that our job is to teach students to learn for themselves, and that means doing history, art, and science, and to be a scholar, someone who can apprentice young scholars, takes time outside the classroom. But then again one of our missions is to "train people for the work force of Lincolnland".  Yes, train, not educate.  Sit, speak, roll-over, heel, beg, that's training. And our politicians of all flavors don't seem to appreciate the difference between education and training. This is a good time to be retired. 

Chili has no beans, a topic with plenty of heat

"The chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt and sizzling scorn." (H. A. Smith, 1967, Holiday).  Sounds like this guy has participated in a chili cook-off or two. The Texas people of my acquaintance are pretty diverse, but they do agree that beans have no place in chili, let alone adding macaroni or scorn, sorry, corn. What passes for chili in Cincinnati is beneath contempt. To his credit, TPP does not claim to know more about chili than you do, but he has won the local Texas Independence Day chili cook-off held around here, the only non-Texan to ever do so, and to claim the prize he had to swear he would seek Lone-star citizenship.  He'd have won a 2nd time but for irregularities in the voting (Texas politics as usual).  This is a good time of  year for a bowl of chili, and TPP's best invention was made when he slipped a bit with the cumin and decided what the heck go for that east Texas flavor, that far eastern Texas flavor, as in more like curry-flavored chili. It had plenty of depth and authority to be sure. TPP also makes a mean pot of beans especially when they are cooked in a huge cast iron Dutch oven. But beans is beans. Now there was one couple from down on a bayou somewhere that used to make "road-kill swamp-water chili" and while you weren't quite sure what the meat was, or used to be, there sure weren't any beans. And it's hard to know what to call it when people make "vegetarian chili" probably using prime cuts from a tofudebeest. The only good thing about the Stupor Bowl is it's a good excuse to make some chili. HT to Slate for making TPP think about this. 

BLAST from the past

Lot's of things are conspiring to make TPP feel old especially a recent spate of things that all happened 50 years ago, e.g., Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant, things he remembers very well. Here's another gee-you're-old reminder provided by The Nation: Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb debuted on this date 51 years ago. It was a marvelous movie about the trouble with relying on something as destructive as atomic bombs for your safety and international peace. That makes the year 1964 and TPP was in high school. He remembers helping families of friends build bomb shelters in their basements such was the fear of a nuclear war. My Father just told me it wouldn't matter much, shelter or no shelter. There was a great new age issue in the movie about fluoridation being a plot to destroy your precious bodily fluids. Peter Sellers was fantastic as Dr. Strangelove who had a bit of an affliction with his arm.  Slim Pickens also had a great part this movie.  Eeee Haaa! Even though it's now a real oldie classic, no spoilers will be given except that my Father was pretty much right according to this film's view of nuclear war. Note that not all that much has changed since our military wants new missiles for its nukes. Aimed at what?  Those were some times to be that age: nuclear annihilation sandwiched in between riots and marches for civil rights and the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and the stupidity of the Vietnam War.

Calling all plant phanatics

As lone time readers may have noticed, this blog has no ads and makes no endorsements, unless TPP has been handsomely rewarded, which he hasn't, so you may also conclude how much impact the 623,884th ranked webpage has commercially, essentially none. However as a service to fellow plant lovers, and if any one factor can describe the diverse readers of this blog that may be it, other than my kid sister who just likes to check up on me.  So here's a link to Strange Wonderful Things, a purveyor of rare and unusual plants, but not having done any business here, this is simply an information item, not an endorsement.  Perhaps if a reader has purchased something, they will supply a comment about their satisfaction or lack thereof. The list of what's available is pretty unimpressive, but the list of everything they supposedly grow is a lot of fun to peruse. A couple of the descriptions are sort of amusing and include culture information. The listing for Amborella trichopoda caught TPP's eye touted as the oldest flowering plant species on Earth. This in all likelihood is not true but a misunderstanding about the uniqueness of this species. This is an upland evergreen tropical shrub/small tree that only grows on New Caledonia, a very old, very isolated piece of real estate that used to be part of Gondwana. So rare and uncommon, oh, yes. This species also has a very unique phylogenetic position; it has the most ancient common ancestry with all other flowering plants. So if your draw an evolutionary tree of flowering plants the bottom most branch is a single species. Now what this means is that this evolutionary event happened at the dawn of flowering plants, and one lineage flourished and gave rise to all other flowering plants, and one lineage did not flourish and is now represented by a single species. It does not mean this species existed when that evolutionary event occurred. Sorry. It's like Gingko in that regard; a single species has survived of what was a very diverse lineage but that species is not as old as the lineage is. It does mean that this species may have retained a lot of features with the common ancestor of all flowering plants. Does TPP want this plant?  Oh, yes, very much! He already has representatives of the other two basal branches of the flowering plant evolutionary tree: water lilies and star anise (Illicium), so it would be nice to complete the set. 

Don't worry! Be happy!

Here you go, folks!  A handy infographic from the BBC that rates the probability of some apocalyse wiping out humans or life on Earth. Wonder if this comes in a wall poster size. Now the BBC can get away with this because in England this kind of sarcastic humor is still recognized as such, but here in the not-too-bright 'Merca, this would have cable newscasters going crazy having interpreted this as a govment report that will send survivalist digging deeper and stocking more food than ever. And this comes the day after the blizzacocalysemageddon (sp?) failed to materialize in its most dire form. The crazy non-informative just-make-sounds over-blown all-the-time "news" cycle just makes the worried people more worried (maybe they should sing a worried song). Instead the solution is to click the mute button, or better yet the "off" button, get yourself a whiskey, and read your favorite skeptical blog. HT to Mano Singham's blog.

Right-wing science guy

No question the new GnOPe majority congress inspires us scientists with their attention to science via stunningly appropriate committee appointments.  Tom Tomorrow's right-wing science guy explains.

She's back, again, again, again!

Yes, folks, unless you are living in a cave and bereft of news you know that Sarah PalindroneTM is back in political news with hints of running for POTUS. Expectedly the news she made was for giving a totally disjointed, nonsensical word salad of a speech, where according to John Stewart the "nouns kept running away from the verbs". TPP coined the term Palindrone for exactly her type of speaking, something that sounds just a dumb backwards as forwards. Now perhaps you would like to think that Sarah doesn't really stand a chance; she is the dumbest of the lot by a lot, maybe with the exception of former Texas governor Perry, but at least he sticks with good-old-boy whiz bang jingoisms he can handle. The problem for this correspondent is wondering if there are really people out there that think our country would be better off if this woman became POTUS?  Really? Why? Is her speech some form of divine political glossolalia (speaking in tongues) that is to be revered? TPP still hasn't gotten over the frightening thought of having her as VP to a geriatric POTUS. So just when you think the bar cannot possibly set lower, along comes Sarah to challenge that notion. As H. L. Mencken said, "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents more and more closely the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

A Magnolia experiment

While in western Florida, my dear Sister suggested we visit a native plants nursery in Talahassee, not so she could enhance the diversity of her wildlife preserve, but to amuse TPP. They had some very nice plants, lots of natives, and that included Magnolia ashei, the Ashe Magnolia, sometimes considered to be a M. macrophylla var. ashei, a variety of big-leafed magnolia that is only found in western Florida, primarily along the Apalachicola River (map here). Some very nice seedlings were available for only $10! TPP could not resist; he has a thing for magnolias dontcha know. Now TPP knows what you are thinking. What kind of wild-eyed optimist would think this magnolia would survive in the upper midwest?  There is a funny thing about narrow endemics like this shrub; they generally can grow in a much wider area than where they are found in nature. In other words, it's not some general physical requirement or local adaptation that has limited their distribution. Other big-leafed magnolias grow here including your basic M. macrophylla. In one garden not too distant from here grows a southern magnolia in a protected area, and a visiting botanist says an Ashe magnolia is growing in a garden about an hours drive west from here. So for $10, TPP will give it a try in a protected location. It shouldn't get very big in any case; locally bay magnolias grow as large shrubs mostly whereas they grow into trees in the Carolinas and the Ashe magnolia is an understory shrub. So who among you wouldn't do the same thing? Isn't that a great flower?  And of course the big leaves just look so exotic, so tropical in a way. TPP already has a M. tripetala, another big-leafed species.  No one really knows how cold hardy this species is.  Some sources suggest zone 6, and 3 other magnolias in TPP's collection are of similar hardiness ratings and doing fine including after last year's rock bottom zone 5 winter temps. Lastly, these are seed grown from other cultivated trees, not seedlings or seeds collected in the wild. Only wish the native star anise was tougher. 

Plant poaching

It always sounds a bit weird, but plant poaching does occur. The plants have to be sufficiently rare and desireable to be worth the effort. Things like the ghost orchid of the Everglades and the Venus fly-trap. Venus fly-traps only grow in boggy places near the Carolina coastal area of Wilmington. TPP saw some in Green Swamp, and this report makes it sound like they are none too safe from poaching even though the area is protected from development. Plants that only live in relatively small locales and in fairly restrictive habitats are always the most threatened in the wild. Whenever you consider buying such plants, do give a thought about whether or not the plants were grown ethically and not poached. TPP often asks native plant purveyors where they got their stock. But what a shame if cool little plants like this become extinct in the wild. Too bad there aren't any really big carnivorous plants, think little shop of horrors, that you could feed plant poachers to. TPP will return to this topic shortly as he just acquired a rare locally endemic Magnolia.

Wildlife on display at Wakulla Springs

The weather down there in Florida was as good as it gets in January, sunny with highs in the 60s. What a nice respite from our usual January weather in Lincolnland. Well, you can't waste such nice weather so my sister & her husband took the Phactors on an outing to Wakulla Springs and in addition to being a very pretty place there was a remarkable amount of wildlife on display: gaters, lots of birds (ibis, black vulture, egret, ducks, were dirt common), lots of turtles, lots of manatees. Here's a few pictures. The bird is a little blue heron, a new bird for us. TPP had only seen manatee once before; a first for Mrs. Phactor. Everyone down here says they're gater fans, and they do pose rather nicely on a sunny day, but the locals' love of gaters seems quite out of proportion. At any rate, Wakulla Springs was a great place to visit. Put it on your list to visit. Enjoy.