Field of Science

How to run a university - value of the blanket C

Back in the good old days when you enrolled in a common curriculum course at university, you stood about a 60% chance of getting a C more or less for just showing up and sort of trying. About 10% of the class would be grade gunners and receive As; and the 15% who didn't quite make As but out-distanced the Cs would get Bs. The real screw offs and the academically unfortunate would get the Ds (10%) and Fs (5%).  This was called the "blanket C" and it only required faculty to distinguish those students in the upper and lower groups; everyone else just got a C.  You expected it. Grade expectations of parents, employers, and graduate schools were adjusted to the blanket C and anything on the sunny side of 2.0 was looked upon favorably. TPP will not mention his own undergrad GPA which was sort of embarrassing even in the blanket C era. Let's just say he lived up to the low expectations. Now the point here is that jocks were still jocks, but not one objected when the hulking brute sitting behind you in English passed forward a page torn from a spiral notebook with a couple of paragraphs printed on it in pencil, signed Hulkowski- Football in big, bold letters at the top, which you could not help notice as you covered it with your own page and a half typed essay that you slaved over for at least 2 hours.  When the papers were handed back, your own essay would be covered with red marks and emblazoned with a C, as expected, and as expected, Hulko's paper would also have a C at the top, but it had remained pristine and unmarked. Why should either party bother, because you see, it was OK for jocks to get Cs. Well, grade inflation has just shot the hell out of the blanket C, a grade now reserved for the no-shows, or maybe not used at all. As explained by a dean to a colleague who had the audacity to give no-shows Cs at a Carolina university (Luke, Puke, something like that), "We are a selective school; there just aren't any "average" students here."  Even jocks had to get As, and they had to take more courses than just "Coaching winning fill-in-the-sport 101".  This is the reason for the huge uproar at another university also in the Carolinas, which one doesn't really matter because this could have happened at more than two of them because this is just how things are, and it isn't even limited to those states, but if you want a list, check the national rankings in football. When it was just a blanket C, no one got upset, because the jock-student was actually there to turn in and receive the assignment back, but with grade inflation and rising expectations for better preparation of jocks for the major leagues, jocks could no longer bother any more with even the pretense of being a student. You got an A in certain courses just for existing and playing your sport. Those graduates and students who are actually at university to get their 3.8 GPA even though it has now been greatly devalued because everyone else also has a similar GPA get upset when their GPA isn't higher than that of the non-attending athlete, or anyone else for that matter. Alumni from years before who had a 3.8 in the era of blanket Cs (TPP will not mention Mrs. Phactor here, but he could.) are really upset because this practice just tears the lid off of the higher education, except for sports, problem. It means their prestigious institution of higher education has laxer standards and much higher tuition than the local community college. People are upset at finding out the whole system is broke because some careless people got caught, but it opens the door for the next step in this evolution by just making learning optional for big sports "undergrads" who want to play in the minor leagues hoping to grab the brass ring of a major league contract for millions of dollars paid for the 4.2 years of the average pro career and the physical disabilities there after. Then if they don't make it in the pros, and after they blow their life's earnings in 5.3 years, they can reapply to university with a different attitude about learning.   

One more thing to worry about

That's just swell! The universe could end any time, although the odds are rather low really, but still what a thing to stay awake at night worrying about. After figuring out that the universe was expanding, cosmologists wondered if the universe would end in a Big Crunch, sort of a reverse of the Big Bang, or in a Big Chill, expanding outward forever.  Then the discovery, sort of, of Dark Energy suggested that the universe would end in some sort of particle decay, a Big Rip, something that sounded rather like the show at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But no, the universe will end up being gobbled up by an expanding bubble of alien (to this universe?) energy, a Big Gulp. What to do?

Golden rain and fall color

Fall color this year is varied and very good this year, but as always fleeting. The area immediately behind our house is under the canopy of two sugar maple trees, one large and one huge, and the light especially in the late afternoon is just perfused with a completely lovely golden glow. And as a bonus, the weather was warm enough to sit on the patio and enjoy the light with a glass of wine.  But then it started to rain, not water, not cats and dogs, not frogs, but leaves, and it
rained for 3 days burying the entire area with inches of golden orange maple leaves.  Several other species have contributed to the fall color too: yellow - bottle brush buckeyes, orange - sumac, red - dogwoods, pinky orange - black haw, red-orange - black gum, and variously peachy yellow, orange, and red - Japanese maples making bright dabs of color here and there in the gardens.  This one (Acer japonicum 'aconitifolium') is fairly new, but what a beauty, what color.

Very depressing trend - decline of collections based research

The decline in collections-based research at universities has been in decline for some time as hiring decisions attempted to track newer, shinier, more fundable areas of biology. We used to say that collections-based research would only persist in museums and botanical gardens, but obviously that isn't so any longer. This is of course very short sighted, but that is actually the nature of science these days. Legislators no longer understand the need or value of basic research, and it's proven an easy target for their ridicule and criticism. Perhaps this is just another facet of the war on science and higher education in the USA, long an area of our strength. Things do not bode well for the future.

Epic battle of wills

An epic battle of wills is shaping up here in the Phactor household.  Mrs. Phactor purchased a small throw rug to place at the bottom of the stairs leading to our basement. Every time she goes by she says, "Who crumpled up this rug?" And she straightens it. Every time a certain cat goes by, she says, "Who straightened out my play rug?" And she crumples it up to her liking. Some things are just more interesting in 3D than 2D. Note the milk bottle ring, always a favorite cat toy. Thousands of them reside under our refrigerator because they usually have a "lost my playtoy" half-life of about 5 minutes. The other toy is flannel blanket that is loaded with catnip between its two layers, a much loved toy too. So far neither party has missed an opportunity to score, and neither seems to have tired of the game as yet. This contest may go into extra innings. BTW, both players take almost exactly the same amount to time change the preferred setting on the rug, but the cat seems to be having the most fun often turning in a prolonged and conscientious effort. 

17 foods Americans like that furiners find disgusting and much needed commentary


This is one of those mostly stupid www click bait lists, but inquiring minds just had to know.  Here they are in no particular order.

 1. Grits – TPP finds them to be tasteless fodder. To be fair, other cultures have their versions of tasteless fodder too.  So don’t be too quick to point your spatzle/dumpling/yuca stained fingers at grits.  Actually TPP likes yucca better than grits.  

2-3. Velveeta cheese/Cheese Whiz – Both of these were counted separately, but they’re really the same thing, a plasticized facsimile of cheese.  As one comic put it, you can be thankful that Cheese Whiz doesn’t contain either.  Although TPP will admit complicity because Cheese Whiz when melted & combined with a hot tomato salsa makes an OK quick chip dip when you badly need some comfort food. 

4. Supermarket (“Wonder”) bread – Helps build bodies 8 (then 12) ways and comes in the white wrapper with the red, yellow, and blue balloons.  Hmm, a bread that must have been heavily promoted during Saturday morning cartoon shows (along with breakfast cereals ).  Soft, sweetish, spongy, a crust in color only, and you can squeeze it into a dough ball without it crumbling. Some people out grow it, but things are getting better of late and even supermarkets are beginning to have some decent bread.

 5-6. Red licorice (Twizzlers, red rope) – Both of these were counted separately too, but they’re both really the same red, vaguely fruity, chewy, sweet plastic confection.

 7. Pop Tarts – Nothing good can be said about these cardboard confections except they’re fast.  They even make grocery store donuts look good.

 8. Casseroles containing cream of anything soup – The casseroles in question probably contain canned green beans, also disgusting, and are topped with crumbled potato chips.  But really people? You think this disgusting? What about Jello, which did not make the list? Or marshmallows!

9. Breakfast cereal – Most of these are actually Breakfast Sugar if labeling were honest.  Sugar may not be the most common ingredient because fructose, corn syrup, and dextrose weigh in separately.  It’s hard to find a breakfast cereal that isn’t sweetened any more. What ever happened to just plain shredded wheat?  Long live Weet-Bix. This is to make nice with the people who won't like what TPP has to say about their bacon.

 10. Hershey chocolate – Too sweet, too milky, too soft.  Nothing but kid stuff; grow up. Our local purveyor of chocolate puts finely ground dark roast coffee beans in a dark chocolate, a confection that will give you a real buzz. Keep away from children who wouldn't like it anyways.

 11. Snow Cones – Shaved ice and sweet syrup.  OK, but you have probably never had freshly made maple syrup drizzled on snow. Snow & shaved ice with sweetening was the original sorbet. So this confection has a bit of heritage, a bit of legitimacy, especially on a hot day.  But why can’t they have a mango syrup?

12. Root Beer Float – Root beer, birch beer, sarsaparilla are a North American thing, but a good sharp root beer combined with vanilla ice cream, sorry, this isn’t disgusting. Up to this point TPP had no arguments with the list.
13. Beef jerky – TPP has had some good Caribou jerky, but good jerky isn’t what is sold in wrappers in quickie marts.  Pemmican apparently was an invention of native Americans, so people should have some respect.

 14. Corn dogs – Let’s start with the obvious. The basic hot dog in the USA is disgusting, and then you coat it with greasy corn meal, which is not considered edible in most places outside the USA.  Lesson: two wrongs don't make a right.  The Phactors were given about 25 kilos of avocados by  Queensland friends, but holy guacamole, try to find a corn chip.  Here's an iconic bit of Americana to provide some color. It's a hot dog riding a banana?

15. Meat Loaf – These concoctions run a tremendous gamut of edibility and best can be pretty good, but in general meat loaves are sort of like a hamburger roast, something to do with cheap ground meat. But one wonders what kind of restaurant people were in where meat loaf was on the menu?
16.  American bacon – Described as thin, crispy, tough, but it’s also smoky, so it has to be someone from the British Empire who is thinks their uncooked slabs of greasy fat are better.  However TPP has dumped on turkey bacon.

 17. Biscuits and Gravy – The author of the original piece (sorry lost the link) doesn’t even know enough to know that biscuit is singular!  Biscuit and gravy, period.  Now there is nothing disgusting about good, hand-made, fresh biscuit. Foreign guests to our home have always loved the Phactors' buttermilk biscuit. So the gravy is the thing, and it can be bad or good, it depends upon the sausage and how much is used.  Hint for foreign travelers: the quality of biscuit and gravy falls off quickly as you travel north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Anybody who puts baked beans on toast for breakfast has their own burden to bear.  Urp.
Mostly then TPP agrees, but these foods do sell, so someone likes them as appalling as that may be.

Feel free to augment this  list, readers. Or argue if you like. TPP would have put light/lite beer on the list.

PHLOX news tells it like it isn't

PHLOX news tells it like it isn't because conservatives prefer to hear conservative ideology and rhetoric rather than facts, and as a result the political debate is getting more polarized because the other end of the political spectrum prefers more factual reporting of the news. Too bad this means conservatives are ignoring reality, living in their own Reaganland, itself a fantasy construct. Perhaps you suspected this, or else you think this another conspiracy by the left-wing media elite, but Pew research has the data, which interestingly enough will only be believed by half of the political spectrum. Dang, but this is why the election season is so gloomy. As an example, our local political Rauner-round is telling people it's class warfare to attack him for having made millions of dollars and being very rich. That's the rhetoric. Here's the reality. What this very rich guy doesn't get is that he is totally, completely, magnificently out of touch with ordinary people, let alone the very poor. The only surprise so far is that he hasn't said, "Let them eat cake." 

Wild life? OK, so why is it just animals?

Apparently the Wildlife Photography of the year contest is only open to people who suffer from plant blindness.  Plants apparently are neither wild nor alive. Maybe these guys used to work for the Department of Natural Resources here in Lincolnland who told TPP's academic counterpart that the wild life preservation grant program wasn't going to fund any grants to preserve tall grass prairie because native plants aren't wildlife!  Even though there's less than 1% of the prairie left in our state, and where do you suppose the REAL wildlife, you know prairie chickens, prairie dogs, etc. used to live?  Nonetheless some of the photos are amazing, especially the penguins and blue ice. 

Just in time for Halloween

Yes, it's Tom Tomorrow's Right Wing House of Fear!  Be afraid, be very afraid, and of course, vote accordingly.

Sex? Sex? Oh, please. It's copulation.

In higher organisms, sex, gender, and copulation are all neatly tied up together such that to the less well informed (read science correspondent) they are one and the same. So when some science reporter says "Sex emerged in an ancient Scottish lake", and it turns out to be fossil fish copulating, it just sends the wrong message.  To be fair it's the headline that's wrong. The article clearly states this is about copulation. Sex is when parents of two different genotypes combine their genes in offspring, and it's much older than fish. There are algae, phytoplankton, that have sexual reproduction, and to some extent bacterial transformation might be considered a form of sexual reproduction, however, in this case, two parents only result in one offspring. TPP has a colleague in psychology who says he studies sex, but he really studies gender, where the two sexes are differentiated. That's not the case, at least not obviously, among many sexually reproducing organisms and we often use the term mating types designated by +/- signs. Then it gets really strange. Consider Ulva, sea lettuce, a green seaweed that looks like a limp leaf of lettuce. When you pick up a "frond" of Ulva, you don't know what you've got; it could be a plus, a minus, each with one set of chromosomes, or it could be a spore producer with two sets of chromosomes, all three physically identical, but parts of an alternation of generation life cycle. So let's be careful about throwing around the term "sex", besides the organism's name (Microbrachius dicki) makes for an even better joke regarding copulation.