Field of Science

New Year's Eve - 2011

2011 was not an outstanding year; it will only be remembered as a footnote to pinpoint when some personal family events took place. Probably it will be remembered as the year the pond was rennovated, or the year Mrs. Phactor's Mother died. While December has been milder than any we've ever experienced here in Lincolnland, that isn't much of a memorable event. No one will remember that the world did not come to an end, of course the same non-event will also not occur in 2012. The snowy owl didn't show (yet), so that won't be noted in the 2011 bird visit notes, although a Cooper's hawk did perch on the top of the bird feeder about 10 feet from our breakfast table the other morning. This was the year we learned how drearily, depressingly unsuitable the current crop of presidential hopefuls is. It depressed the Phactor to no end to see a prominent doctor and social acquaintance's car sporting a bumper sticker that said, "I think, so I vote Republican." Unfortunately, he must think "I got mine, so everything else can go to hell." The Phactors were too busy this year, too many responsibilities, some self-imposed, some family duty; not enough time to enjoy the good things in life although the year was not without it's moments (the Queensland beach house). The Phactor posted just over 600 blogs this year, and visitor traffic has tripled. So thanks to all who have stopped by even if you do need to get a life. Maybe in 2012 the Phactor will try to say something profound or important. Nah, nothing like profundity to kill readership. Time to sign off for the year because in the background the Phactor hears the sound of a cocktail shaker. No big long list of resolutions exists, in fact just one, to finish the book and get that publishing gorilla off my back. And, no, blogging is not a factor in the book publishing tardiness; book progress takes big blocks of time, a rare commodity, and you can dash off a non-profound blog in 10 minutes. So 2012 will be the year the book gets published, and hopefully a few hundred thousand of you will decide to buy a copy. Sure. Best to all for 2012. Be safe, be happy, be kind, plant a tree, and pass it forward. The only way the world can be a better place is one person at a time.

Friday Fabulous Flower of the Year

Oh, it's so hard to choose; you're all so lovely, so much fun to blog about, and so important to the Phactor's livelihood, but the Phactor can always fall back on his usual plan, which is when in doubt, pick a Magnolia, even if it requires a bit of a cheat (most of the featured magnolias were not a FFF item, but that designation is fairly new having debuted irregularly in 2010). Ta da, Magnolia kobus, FFF of the year, a likely 2012 addition to the estate, or else one of the yellow-flowered magnolias.

The Phytophactor Person of the Year - Jon Stewart

After long and careful consideration, after tallying the diverse inputs of readers and suggestions of offspring, the person who made the biggest difference in the world this year, and who affords us the most hope for 2012, by a wide margin, is Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, who, for elevating phony news to new heights, is the Phytophactor person of the year. When Stewart is in gear you learn more by watching a wise-guy comedian than you do from watching "real news" programs. In particular Stewart skewers the news makers and the news manufacturers like Phlox News, and no one needs skewering more than the smug O'Really. It takes a sort of New Jersey, sure, skeptical attitude to deal with current events and not get depressed. Given the choice between Jersey attitude and North Shore arrogance, the Phactor will go with Jersey. That Stewart can make fun of the rich and powerful, and the opinionated, exposing the twists and turns being used to ideologically shape the news, without being censored is the best evidence that the USA is indeed a great nation, and those who seek to limit and stifle comedic discourse and criticism are this country's worst enemies. The final decision to name Stewart was cemented when it was reported that his audience has grown in key youthful demographics (Ah, yes, all those college-age stoners according to O'Really.)
while those of Phlox News slid lower and got older.

"Every night Stewart is teaching Americans how to not watch Fox News. The Daily Show host has become the media critic with the biggest platform and loudest voice in our country, and most often that voice is targeting Fox News for their brand of “journalism.” Jon Stewart has thrown a wrench in the Fox News cycle of life by educating his millions of younger viewers about Fox News. Stewart spends segments debunking the propaganda, exposing facts, and uncovering the edited video that is the bread and butter of America’s top cable news network." "As we head into 2012, the news that Stewart’s entertainment program based in large part on debunking the misinformation in the mainstream media is doing so well should provide hope that maybe someday sanity will return to our national discourse." Atta boy, Jon, keep up the good work. But unfortunately it looks like you'll have plenty of material to work with for some time to come.

New Hampster devolving

This is a new twist on the usual state legislative attempts to limit the teaching of evolution. Jerry Bergevin's (R - 17th district) bill would "[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism". The first reaction is, huh? But then Jerry explains, "I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It's a worldview and it's godless." Oh, those darned atheistic biologists; let's expose them all! What a mind thought of this! What's going on here, other than blithering ignorance, is that Jerry is projecting his approach for understanding the world onto science, specifically evolution. Jerry thinks you start with an ideology and then make everything fit. Science is operationally materialistic because no one has ever figured out how to do science unless you simply ignore the possibility of supernatural influences. One, this doesn't mean the supernatural doesn't exist, although the success of science in explaining things does create doubts. Two, just because science operates materialistically, it doesn't mean scientists themselves are atheists. Good old Jerry thinks you start with an atheistic world view and then fit all the facts and all the explanations to come out the way you want them to be. The real problem is that science takes all the facts and then constructs explanations for them, and unlike politicians, scientists cannot ignore the facts. Evolution is a far-reaching explanatory theory for the observed natural world. So if people like Jerry don't like evolution, or any science for that matter (why only evolution?), because it offends their delicate religious sensibilities, all they have to do is come up with a better explanation. That isn't so easy because not only do such explanations have to make sense out of all the facts, but the explanation has to be useful, it has to be capable of generating predictions that allow you to do science. HT to the National Center for Science Education.

How a university works - administrative leave

Let's save money by shutting down the university between Christmas and New Year's Day. Hard to argue with the basic concept, but then comes the practical side of things. None of our organisms got the memo! That's right, all of our culture chambers, incubators, animal rooms, and greenhouses must continue to function, daily; organisms can't just take the "time off". Of course, it's different for faculty. A security guard just popped into my office to ask who I was and what I was doing here (clearly the university is recycling big box store greeters to improve campus security).
This is the Phytophactor's office and the person you are interrupting at work is the Phytophactor.
There aren't any classes to teach and the university is shut down.
Ah, you are operating under the inaccurate presumption that we are just teachers, but we do so much more. These are manuscripts being written; science being communicated. Do you wish to assist me in moving this library, a 40 year accumulation, or the specimens to which reference is being made, to my home? No, of course not, so this is where my work gets done. Did I in fact notify anyone that I would be working over the shut down?
No. You must be new here. You see faculty do not need any one's permission to be in their office or laboratory. Did you notice that the university entrusts us with keys.
I'll just make note of your name and continue on my rounds.
Please do, and notify my department chair and dean. They're both new and need to know who's dedicated among their faculty.
The basic problem here is that by common standards no one in their right mind goes to work when they don't have to, and technically, the Phactor could be at home letting day-time TV dissolve his brain. Now if it were gardening season, well, then there might be some temptation to stay home and putter about the estate. But here's the thing, and this goes to the oft asked question "when are you going to retire?" as well, the Phactor really likes what he does. It's quite gratifying to see your name in print, to get scholarly recognition, and to have figured something out, something new, something unique, on your own. This is quite hard for other people to understand. It's easier to assume that we're up to no good scuttling around a nearly, eerily empty campus. And do understand that even blogging is but a brief respite from the tedium of working on a book's appendix, a vestigial organ, that should be able to be excised without any harm to the main body of work.

Botany enters the 20th century, and maybe the 21st, in 2012

This summer in Melbourne Australia the Phactor attended the XVIII international botanical congress, which are held every 6 years. One of the highlights of the meeting are the nomenclature sessions where the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature is discussed, debated, and amended. This is the official rule book for naming botanical organisms, a real page turner recommended to cure insomnia. However as of January 1, 2012, botanical naming is going to ditch Latin! Now before you faint, please rest assured that nothing is happening to Latinized binomial nomenclature. Scientific plant names will remain the same, but what has changed is the requirement that anyone proposing to name a new species supplies a detailed description of the species in Latin. Presumably when this requirement was initiated any well-educated person would have studied Latin in school (it was still available when the Phactor was in high school), and it provided a common language of science. However, de facto, English has become the language of science. In another startling move the Code will allow electronic publication. This is important because of the principle of priority by which the first validly published name is deemed the correct one in the case of multiple namings starting at Linnaeus. So don't forget the time/date stamp on that electronic publication; it'll be important. Somehow the Phactor missed all the nomenclature sessions in favor of seeing fern gully (Those are all tree ferns!) and other sights. HT to Culturing Science for reminding me to blog about this.

Botanical Santa

Ho, ho, ho! A colleague is teaching plant diversity and unless you can put the plant in students' hot little hands, it's not very good instruction, but you can't just run out to the local market, or even the local garden shop, and buy heterosporous ferns, or even more, esoteric plants, like the clubmoss quillwort. So the Phactor packaged up a care package (Psilotum, Isoetes, Marsilea, Regnellidium, Salvinia, Azolla). This is being done today because another colleague is going to be the mule and deliver the package. Oh those lucky kids. Now you may think, how generous, but now my colleague is in my debt, and the time will come when something he's got will be something the Phactor needs, and then comes the payback. Having specimens for students to study, to observe first hand, to take apart and examine, is what basic science teaching is all about, and if you ever hear someone say, "Why, Prof. Phactor, if we want them to see something like that, we show them an image", on a computer screen (!), well, run away, because this is somebody who doesn't know a bloody thing about teaching science. With an instructor like that, you don't get to make observations, you don't develop any observational skills, and your understanding of the organism will be limited, 2nd rate, and incomplete. Your instructor doesn't know, and can't be bothered to figure out, that real observation does not come from looking at an image obtained by somebody who did make an observation. And for these reasons botanists help each other out. By the way, he also wanted an Angiopteris, a modern day desendant of Carboniferous ferns, but they damn big (fronds 2+ meters long), slow to propagate vegetatively and difficult to propagate sexually, so he'll have to wait.

Merry Marathon

Christmas day and the quiet extends through the house, but yesterday was a merry marathon orchestrated to the quarter hour to squeeze in all the activities. Still it was fun, the dinner was good, the company outstanding, and only the kittygirls got upset because a couple of the youngest guests, who, although barely ambulatory, could utter high pitched squeals of delight a the sight of a cat. Mrs. Phactor is engrossed in her i-something and new slippers, thus engaging both hands and feet. The F1 declared both the funky opera gloves and knee socks, again engaging both hands and feet, winners. And good old Santa was reading my blog because the wished for book was delivered, although the owl remains elusive. This presents a challenge since there are still 25 to go in the 50 plants that changed the world, now a new 100 await. Unforeseen presents included page proofs that e-arrived yesterday with the publisher's simple straight forward demand that now that you have spent 5 years doing research, 6 months putting together a manuscript, jumped through so many hoops and reviews and editorial demands have taken months, you must now return the proofs in TWO days or else. The drop everything and do page proofs attitude remains a very annoying. Maybe my assistant can handle it? And this morning a revised manuscript arrives from a co-author whose culture and religion don't involve Christmas holidays. These things will be set aside for another day at least. Snowy owls have been reported only about 15 miles north of our estate, so perhaps the unseasonally warm weather will allow a bird walk and some exercise to work off the cookies and 12 yr old bourbon, a most excellent combination. Hoping all of you have as much fun and enjoyment.

We're number one! We're number five?

Ah yes, in these days of USA exceptionalism, it’s not considered nice to point out areas where the USA is not #1. Here’s a chart that shows the top 40 countries in terms of scientific publications, and that’s a very big circle for the USA, the biggest in fact, so we’re number 1 in scientific publication! Yea!
Not so fast now, grasshopper. When analyzing data you need to think about how the data being reported might be biased. Some other countries have some pretty big bubbles of publication too. To figure out how well a country is doing in science let’s compare scientific output on a per capita basis, that is, on the basis of population. This will give a better idea of the importance of science in that particular country. So who’s number one when you do that? Australia! Down under published 169 papers for every 100,000 of population. United Kingdom is 2nd with 144.5 publications per 100,000 people and Canada 3d with 144 publications per 100,000 people. See the importance of getting that other half paper published? Germany comes in 4th with 101 publications per 100,000 people, and then the USA is fifth with 99 publications per 100,000 people. It’s probably all those illegal aliens pulling the average down, or maybe the anti-science attitude prevailing in politics. And look where the largest growth occurred in scientific publication – Iran. Clearly the Phactor did not have a big impact on the results, but a factor he was. Oh people better watch out in 2012 because the Phactor just got page proofs asking for a 2 day turn around (they got hopes). Image from
Nature News.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Galphimia glauca

Wow, almost missed the fact that today is a Friday, and that just wouldn't do, would it? Here's another denizen of our glasshouse, one of the most prolifically flowering shrubs in the collection: Galphimia glauca. This is another member of the Malpighia (Barbados cherry) family; you may recall the miniature holly of about a month ago. One of the factoids presented then was that Malpighia was an honorific taxonomic name; so is Galphimia but in a very unusual way. See if you can figure it out before reading any further. Any puzzle loving people out there get it? Galphimia is an anagram of Malpighia so maybe it's a fonichori. This genus also displays the "stalked petals" common in the family. This shrub has some limited ornamental value in warmer climates and is a popular non-component of homeophathic remedies for hayfever, but that's good because the leaves and twigs are poisonous and extracts used as an insecticide. The flowers are about 1.2-2 cm in diameter.

Gifts of the Magi - down to two?

Exploitation and over use of natural communities threatens many species, and according to a newly published study, a valued species of antiquity: frankincense, a native of the middle east. It's a common enough story, not enough reproduction threatens the species. Over-grazing and fire destroy the seedlings so extant populations now consist of older and older individuals. While of modest value at present, in ancient times, this aromatic gum-resin was highly valued not just for use in incense but as a medicinal. A dismal scenario presents itself. Without protection, the populations continue to dwindle, but of course, scarcity may drive the price of frankincense higher and more people will want to collect the gum-resin from wounds slashed into the bark. And if this causes a higher rate of tree mortality you have a nice capitalist run-away system leading to extinction. That's the way of unregulated captialism; it can never fix such problems and this is the scary part of this. It's not that people can't live without frankincense, but this is a single example of a common enough problem. Tigers for Chinese traditional medicine, rhino horn for knife handles, or frankincense all work the same way. Why aren't any wise men around when you need them?

Winter Solstice

Sometime today, around 5 pm, is the actual winter solstice, so today is the shortest day, well, not shorter really, but the day with the briefest daylight period of the year, and since our ancestors were quite keen observers the solstice is probably why so many holidays are clustered at this time of year. This is the grand daddy of all winter holidays! Let's see drag some green foliage and red berries into the house and decorate them! Check. Burn a fire! Check. Scare away the dragon/bear/demon that has been consuming the daylight! And maybe appease the gods with food and drink (cover all the bases)! Check. In our minds we tend to associate the solstice with dead of winter, but since the actual climatic seasons lag behind the celestial seasons and images like this may be in the offing, so far our winter has been mild and a white Christmas doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Haiti of happening. Too bad, the estate looks good coated in white; if the weather keeps up like it is going now, the witch hazels will start flowering. The Phactor remembers arriving in London on a trip back from the Asian tropics many years ago on December 21st-22nd, with a long lay-over before flying across the Atlantic to get home (that's still another story), an event that fixed in my mind the actual latitude of that city, which is about 10 degrees north of my present location, and that makes daylight in London a bit more than an hour less than here (tad less than 8 hrs) on the winter solstice. Somehow we tend think of London with its milder climate as having a more southern location. Of course, the abrupt transition from 12 hours of daylight, sun overhead, to 8 hours of daylight, sun low in the sky, and from from tropical climate to temperate winter, lacking proper attire, really helped make this a big impression as this was the first time to have done this. To celebrate the Solstice, the Phactor is cleaning up the semester's paper debris in his office by burning it on the quad! Oh, that's not allowed on campus even if a pagan tradition? Doesn't the university have a policy of religious tolerance? Student sacrifice is out too? Well, maybe recycling fits the season.

Exotic Image - Shadow puppets

Isn't this a magical image? Exotic, yes? Would you know what it was? Great images are not necessarily complex ones, but images that are strongly evocative of some exotic place or event. They bring back memories and sensations that no amount of explanation or description can bring alive for you lacking the experience. Shadow puppets are a classic form of Asian puppetry where a silhouette puppet is placed and moved between a light source, lanterns that provide such a setting sun quality, and a screen upon which the shadows are cast. The audience sits or stands beyond. Indonesian shadow puppets figured prominently in The Year of Living Dangerously from back when Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson were both young and fresh, but Linda Hunt truly was amazing. This image is magical and borrowed from a young colleague of mine who was just married in southern India where this puppet show was part of the entertainment. The story is not one the Phactor recognizes, but the image is strongly evocative of India (or maybe Thailand too) and more than anything it provides memories of still evenings with the heat of the day still lingering, and the smells of India, which are like no others, and they are burned into the memory. And olfactory memories are powerful ones perhaps because they activate a primitive part of our brain. So enjoy this as best you can. This will be my wallpaper picture for awhile.

Holiday break?

The semester was officially over yesterday at 1:28 pm when the last grades were posted, and with the reliability of the seasons, one of the first people the Phactor encountered off campus said, "Wish I got as long a break as you guys do." OK it's break from teaching, but a break? Even before the grades were posted an email arrived from a colleague, a manuscript we submitted earlier this year was accepted for publication, except for the matter of revisions, good revisions, but still considerable revision, and please have it done by the end of January. This gets even better because the Phactor has to finish a review of a manuscript ASAP delayed by final exams and grading. Seeds collected about a month ago will need to be counted and placed into a cold treatment to set up a germination trial in a couple of months. A student has been working on a research project and the data needs to be analyzed, and my colleague in crime reminded me of our own fall research data, and the need to figure out what it all means because the deadline for submitting an abstract for national meetings taking place next summer will be in February or March. A greeting card from my book editor basically said, "Get the damned book done." None of this has anything to do with getting ready for the next semester's teaching. So, yes, the Phactor really wishes he got a break. What's this? Oh, no, maintenance schedule for our building just hit the in-box, so work around the outages people. It won't matter cause the faculty are all on break. Ah, well, it's what we get all those fantastic salaries for doing (Is there an emoticon for dripping with sarcasm?).

Holiday help?

A lull in the action gave the Phactor a window of opportunity to wrap some presents. The only fun part of wrapping presents is watching people unwrap them, but there is a time and place for everything. My assistant did seem to understand this principle at all because no sooner would one end get neatly folded and put into place than a couple of white-gloved paws would get shoved under the paper quite destructively from the other end resetting the process to square one. Considerable assistance was also given to unrolling ribbon. Oh yes, this was all in good fun and one of us was certainly enjoying our together time and this activity immensely, but progress and efficiency required that the instructions be amended. Step 1: Throw the cat out of the room & close the door. Here's a picture of the Phactor's cute assistant.

Network of Food Flavors

This is the niftiest, foodiest scientific study that the Phactor has seen in quite awhile. What great figures. There's a lot of crazy things to see about flavor over laps. One of the neatest is that if you look closely at the big connections diagram, in the middle is a triangle composed of beer, chocolate (cacao), and coffee. Well, duh! Of course they have a lot in common; it's called happiness. This diagram shows flavor clustering based on number of shared compounds so things like fruit, and seafood, and spices all tend to cluster. Not much tastes like liver, and you knew that. Western Europe and North America differ from Southern Europe & even Asia primarily in dairy. Have to take a longer, closer look at this whole thing. Let us know what you notice or find. HT to the Wild Plants Post.

O'Really - more of the same

O'Really is such an ass. According to a survey of TV watching habits liberal Democrats like to watch the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, Masterpiece Theater, and snappy sit-coms life 30 Rock. Conservative Republicans like to watch This Old House, Swamp Loggers, the 700 Club, the Bachelor, and Top Shot. The findings show that media-savvy comedies with a sarcastic bite and morally ambiguous antiheroes attract liberals. Conservatives tend to watch serious, work-centered shows, along with reality competitions. But then you get O'Really's take on this. Billy says most of the Daily Show's audience consists of college-age stoners. Wow, everybody the Phactor knows watches that program and not a stoner among the bunch. O'Really says the conservatives watch programs about doing stuff, "active verbs" was his phrase, like shooting stuff and destroying wet land forests to make a few bucks. Billy thinks if you like Masterpiece Theater it shows you're part of the educated elite who somehow identify with British aristocracy. The Phactor would suggest that maybe Masterpiece Theater is a tad more intellectually engaging than Top Shot or the Bachelor. And of course there's a reason O'Reilly always dumps on the smart crowd; they easily see through his bombastic tripe, but no question about it, if you watch the Bachelor for awhile, O'Really does seem to sound smart.

Life is tough

Tonight the Phactors are hosting half of our dinner group, a monthly social event for the past 33 years; our 8th social event in the past 9 days, and the 3d the Phactors have hosted. The season's theme is regional USA and this particular menu comes from The Virginian (Thomas Jefferson) in the Gourmet Magazine (September 2003), although exactly what about this is evocative of Jefferson escapes me. If any of this sounds good to you, the recipes can be found at epicurious. Here's the starters: fig and goat cheese crostini, Virginia ham and melon-apple chutney on corn bread rounds. The soup that the Phactor constructed earlier today is roasted tomato with Parmesan wafers. This is pretty iffy for Jefferson on a couple of levels. Wonder if Jefferson actually grew tomatoes? They are neotropical but did not become a common garden item until the early 1900s. Of course he could have run down to his local Italian deli and got the cheese (and the wafers are just great!). Ham and corn bread, OK, but the rest is a bit suspect for Jefferson. Mixed green salad with tarragon vinaigrette garnished with parsnip crisps. This seems possible, if salad was a menu item in Jefferson's day. Anyone know? The main dish is mustard and herb crusted rack of lamb and wild mushroom potato au gratin. Don't care how authentic this is, it sounds just plain great. The dessert is a pecan pie. This is a true southern confection, but hard to know its early distribution. A heritage cookbook has a Savannah pecan pie recipe, so it's quite possible in Virginia too. So there you go. None of this bothered the other menu planners who decided to go for it on the premise that Jefferson would have liked the recipe even if he'd never actually seen it in his life. For reasons quite unexplained, the Phactors are way ahead of the preparation game; maybe because the place remained pretty neat from an open house earlier in the week, otherwise it would be hell to pay for taking time to jot out a blog. Obviously the other participants cook all the other dishes, or this would be a very different story. Ta.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Dombeya spectabilis

This is not a plant you see very often. It was formerly in the Sterculia family, but the Mallow family was enlarged to include all such genera. In truth the flowers and leaves are very mallowish. The flowers are just at the lower range of what is considered large, about 2-2.5 cm in diameter, but they are clustered into rounded inflorescences to make quite a display. This species has brighter pink flowers than other species the Phactor has seen, perhaps the reason for calling it "spectacular". Dombeya is an honorific for a hard-luck French botanist who kept getting his impressive and valuable collections "stolen" and as a result some still reside in the British Museum. The interesting thing is that as the flower opens, the edges of the petals are dusted with pollen functioning perhaps as a pollen presenter, which is somewhat unusual especially for the perianth. But the trouble with such captives is that you do not get to see them interact with other organisms in the wild so how they work remains unknown.

My cup is half full

Time for the Phactor to look at the flip side. The majority of my students did really really well; some were impressively good. You provide opportunities for them to learn, to demonstrate what they can do, then you turn them loose and see what happens. So while it hurts to have some students perform poorly, many other perform very well and they often seem surprised at themselves. The little things keep you going.
"I certainly underestimated botany before your class (economic botany), and in fact I had mostly avoided it. Now I have an increased desire to continue learning about botany." "Everyone said that senior seminar was a drag, a waste of time, but I learned way more than in most classes, and thought about more issues, seriously, than any other class. Oh, and thanks for the help improving my writing." "Economic botany was the best class I ever took. I was always talking about it to friends, my roommate, my parents. I've never done that before."
How nice, but do they write to the chair or the dean?

Grading exams, evaluating students

Grading exams is not fun, nor is the final evaluation of student performances. The results as might be expected run from excellent to quite poor. What have they been doing? Do they really think that? Examples of illiteracy abound. Actually the top 10% and the bottom 10% have trouble believing that the other extreme exists. Part of the trouble at public universities, and here the Phactor broaches a politically incorrect topic, is that junior colleges don't help most of the poorer students catch up. Those students who went to a junior college out of necessity because of a lesser high school academic performance arrive at our university as juniors only to find the performance gap between them and students who were ready for university work has increased. And this is not to say that the instruction or instructors at junior colleges were poor, but in general students' study skills have not advanced and their expectations for what is an appropriate amount of work remain low. It is hard be rigorous when retention is a prime directive and student satisfaction drives faculty evaluations. It's true to some extent at the university level, but it's life and death at junior colleges. What can you do? You give them what ever help you can, but you must teach to the top end of your class, who mostly think the Phactor is a wonderful instructor, and some of them come from junior colleges too as there is more than one reason to attend a junior college. However it has been decreed, by our most recently convicted governor that anyone graduating from junior college has to be admitted to one of the public universities. One of the struggling students was in to question my evaluation of an essay. OK, here, read this, and tell me how you think yours compares. Well, mine's not as good, but you wrote this. That's quite an accusation because the Phactor did not write that, one of your fellow students wrote it. Total disbelief. Unfortunately it's my job to sort students into categories this time of year, and it must be done. So back to the piles of paper. Hope there won't be too many sad results.

All we wants for Christmas - a new bird record

OK the Phactors have many geeky tendencies which explains the species lists, flowering logs, and a bird list recording all the Avian visitors to our estate. Since our estate has lots of cover, food, and water, bird visitors are fairly frequent and numerous. But a new species record is needed. The last really cool new record was a white-winged crossbill a couple of winters ago that brought the local birders on a dead run. Well, snowy owls have been seen in Chi-town already, and it's only a short train ride south, so how about us scoring a snowy owl for a Christmas present? Nice fat, juicy squirrels; well-fed bunnies; all you can eat! This could be a double winner! What a present!

Higgs Boson is not quite what was expected

The Phytophactor does not want to be left out of the excitement whirling around about the imminent arrival of data supporting the existence of the infamous Higgs Boson. Now this is quite out of the Phactor's field but a reliable source indicates that much to the embarrassment of the LHC crew, the Higgs Boson is rather different in appearance than what was expected and it turns out to have a much darker side than anyone theorized. But wouldn't want to be the one pointing this out. See accompanying image. Glad my name won't be one of the 200 or so authors on that paper!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Bad landscaping

Once you've grown enough trees and shrubs, and cut down enough overgrown landscaping, you can see the future problems with new landscaping. Take a look at this bed featured as part of a HGTV dream house. First, you must be kidding about the evenly spaced evenly sized globes of green. And it's hard to tell what they are (mugo pine? probably), but even if slow growing (as mugo pines) how long before they coalesce making a solid mass and begin crowding each other out? Second, the monoculture of ornamental grass in a row! Yeah, grass grows in rows, lots of it, especially here in Lincolnland, but your landscaping shouldn't look like a field of maize. Probably not a good idea to burn them rather than cutting them down! Third, those pretty firs almost planted under the eaves. Unfortunately trees grow, and these will be crowding the house in no time at all. Landscapers do this because they want the bed to look nice now for show and sale, but with total disregard for the future and with the understanding that most people can't envision the future. Hey, every now and again, you make a mistake planting something and not allowing enough room; the Phactor is thinking of a certain 5 gallon thread-leafed Chamaecyparis that has really grown a lot in just 10 years, and they are tricky to prune if you don't want a poodle. Placing young plants too close together or to other plants or buildings or driveways and sidewalks is probably the most common landscaping mistake the Phactor sees, and he sees it alot. A lot of nursery tags now tell you how big the tree or shrub will be in 10 years, so make allowances. Too many people seem to think plants shouldn't grow, and they seem annoyed when to explain to them what will happen. Dream house or nightmare? Probably not a real nightmare, but bad, as in uninspired and poorly planned, just the same. HT to the Garden Rant where they also go ballistic about native plant "lawns" that run afoul of mowing ordinances.

Dear Santa

Mostly the Phactor has been good, and if not good, at least legal, and if not legal at least discrete. So the Top 100 Exotic Food Plants would make a great present. After all the Phactor already has the Top 100 Food Plants by the same author, so naturally you'd want to complete his set. It's always fun to see how many you've tried. HT to Agricultural Biodiversity.

The Social Season

The social season has descended upon us, and this isn't to complain because there are worse things to do than hanging out with friends and acquaintances, eating and drinking and talking. Last night was a retirement party for some 55 year old youngster. The retiree was well below the average age of those in attendance, and the assault upon those of us who like our jobs was relentless. Tonight is a fancy dinner party, an annual event where we eat one person's cooking and play with her spouse's train set which only gets set up around their Christmas tree. Tomorrow and Monday the Phactors will host open houses for two only slightly over-lapping groups. So this Saturday AM found the Phactor making cookies, 2 kinds, and minding French bread dough. Sometime in here a final exam has to be written, or maybe just give them all cookies and wish them a happy holiday. This explains the Martha Stewarting done last weekend. This is yet another reason for a blogging pseudonym; blog-reading free loaders just can't drop in. You'll just see all the cars parked around and wonder is that the Phactors, and why weren't we invited.

Who gives a fig?

Rachael Roscata asks: "So not to go on a tangent and cause a billion questions beginning with "Well what about...", but what about a fig? Is it a fruit?"
Well, the Phactor doesn't have to go out on a limb (?) to answer this. A fig is a real fruit, but a very strange one. Rachel found the Phactor's 3-yr-old blog about whether an artichoke was a fruit or a vegetable, a blog read by over 5,500 people since the software began keeping track of traffic.
A fig is a multiple fruit, and an accessory fruit, one composed of a whole inflorescence of flowers that develop enmass into a single fruit. A fig is a synconia, a bulb-shaped receptacle, a modified stem bearing many flowers on its inner surface, so you never see fig flower unless you cut the whole synconia open. So how do it get pollinated? Tiny wasps live and reproduce inside the synconia. Male figs don't produce fruit but they provide a brood substrate for wasp larvae and pollen, which is carried upon female wasps seeking new synconia in which to lay eggs. The pollinated female flowers produce the edible fruits, each flower resulting in a single seed. Each species of fig has a specific and different species of wasp, an interesting evolutionary dance where each species needs the other for its reproduction. Fig flowers are very small, so the actual flower-fruit would be just one of the sort of stringy units within a fig, but the receptacle also develops into fleshy tissue. As pointed out in the artichoke blog, accessory fruits include fleshy tissues associated with the flower or flowers. But Rachael was pretty perceptive in thinking that a fig was a pretty strange fruit. Well, what about that! Try not to think about what happens to the wasps after pollination, but you know those little crunchy bits? They're seeds.

Rats with tails - squirrels

Although the dozen or so fox squirrels that inhabit the Phactors' estate are big, handsome, fat critters, they are terribly destructive, greedy sods, chewing on everything (bonsai trees!), digging everywhere, eating anything edible, so from time to time the Phactor has tended to be a might critical, even hostile, or derogatory ("rats with fluffy tails"), but this fossil find indicates it could be worse! Saber-toothed squirrels! Wouldn't want one of the kitty girls getting their paws on this critter!

Friday Fabulous Flower - King's Mantle

Today seems like the first of winter; up to now it's definitely been fall. So nothing else to do but go on safari to our glasshouse for a dose of tropics. While you typically think of tropical plants as day neutral with regards to flowering, many tropical plants respond to the shorter days (actually the longer nights) by flowering. In the deep recesses of hard to reach plants (You have no idea what it took to get this image!), the king's mantle (Thunbergia erecta) was in flower with its really large snapdragony flowers (actually a member of Acanthaceae). Most members of this genus, named after Carl Peter Thunberg, a student, or rather apostle, of Linnaeus', are vines or viney shrubs, this Asian species being more the latter. The Phactor has featured this genus before, but not this species. Most flowers with this general form and size (4+ cm across) are pollinated by largish bodied bees big enough and strong enough to crawl into the somewhat flattened floral tube pushing it open to contact the stigma and/or anthers with their hairy thorax.

Political retirement in Lincolnland

The most recent former governor of Lincolnland, Rob Bag-o-chips has been retired to a federal pen for the next 12 years (85% of a 14 year sentence) making him the 4th of the last 7 to end up in the pokey. This tells you a great deal about how politics works in our fair state; it's all about money and you pay the man. Lincolnland has a 2 party system giving you the choice between incompetent and crooked. Hopefully someday the grand high potentate of Madiganistan, the guy who runs the entire legislature, will break through the ethical thin ice upon which he skates, but he is just so good at it. Don't think any other state can match this record.

Holiday season retrospective

Quite a few holiday posts have accumulated over the past couple of years, and like watching the miracle on 42nd street for the 42nd time, why not do a bit of a retrospective?
There was a time when the Phactors did not decorate
the usual evergreen tree, and while it probably warped the F1, it was easy to hang ornaments.
Almost every year someone asks about whether
it's ecologically sound to have a real tree and how to tell a "pine" tree from a "fur" (Yes, that's what they actually asked.)
Let's see the Phactor has also covered
holly (or maybe uncovered would be more accurate) and mistletoe, and how these symbols of the season are pagan in origin.
Lastly you'll be glad to know that our
non-hardy azalea is blooming right on schedule and now has its seasonal decorations too.
Now back to the pile of student papers on my desk.

Horse hockey!

Harry Morgan died today, and the Phactor isn't feeling so good himself. As a child of the pure TV generation, Harry Morgan was almost a constant fixture from Sgt. Bill Gannon on Dragnet to Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H*. And he was so good, so many memorable scenes and parts. When Col. Potter replaced McLean Stevenson's (a local Lincolnland boy) character, everyone was disappointed, but he played the part with firm humanity and soon made your forget his predecessor.

What is a well-landscaped campus for?

A reshuffling of lab exercises has created a couple of timing problems. Some dye plants are needed, and it's December, and a few lonely flurries are in the air. The marigolds that usually are found in several planting beds are gone. Darned grounds crew is just too efficient. And speaking of that, where did all the bayberry bushes go? They used to grow in three places on campus and they're all gone which means the Phactor had to visit another campus here in town that still has the good sense to have bayberry because there it is right in Exercise 11: collect bayberry fruits for wax extraction. Now how the heck are students supposed to do this without bayberries? Didn't you read my lab manual? And what about the mullein (Verbascum thapsis) that used to grow in that weedy area on the edge of campus? Whose idea was it to kill all those "weeds"? Most of those plants are there because of a student pollination research project of some 20 years ago, so they were mine, and waste not want not, the mullein leaves make a nice dye. Scheesh, this job is hard enough, and you just can't go out and buy this stuff. Glad the Phactor thought far enough ahead to have grabbed some black walnut fruits before they were raked up and removed. Listen up, people, all those trees and shrubs are not just pretty landscaping to fill the space between buildings. The whole doggone campus is MY classroom and if you drastically change the contents you had better check with the person that uses them! Note to self: send email to campus arborist to set her straight about who is in charge.

Mole Poblano - spicy chocolate sauce

Everyone is familiar enough with chocolate as a confection; thank you Daniel Peter. But chocolate was used as a cooking ingredient long before that. This weeks lab deals with stimulants, caffeine, nicotine, and theobromine, and the latter means chocolate, not as a confection, but as a traditional Mesoamerican cooking flavoring/spice. No better way of spicing up chicken or turkey than to make a simple mole. Sorry, my timing is bad especially if you had turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving and ran out of ideas. Here's a simple and milder version for my food wimpy and cooking averse students.

10 dried ancho** chili peppers
5 Tbsp almonds
2 cloves garlic
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 Tbsp sesame seeds (OK mixing some metaphors here*.)
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups chicken broth (save from cooking some chicken)
2 cups boiling water
2 onions chopped
1/2 cup raisins
2 Tbsp masa harina (maize flour)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground coriander
4 Tbsp cooking oil
2 oz Mexican chocolate (or use semisweet chocolate plus 4 tsp sugar, 1/8 tsp cinnamon, 2-3 drops of vanilla extract)

Soak peppers in boiling water until soft. Discard stems and seeds; save water. Put peppers, almonds onions, garlic, tomatoes, raisins, masa harina, sesame seeds, spices, into a blender with a few Tbsp of the pepper water. Blend at medium speed until a paste is formed. Add more water as necessary. Heat oil in a saucepan. Add chili paste and cook stirring 2-3 mins. Add chicken broth gradually, stirring. Add chocolate & stir until melted. Sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream. This can be frozen or refrigerated until later. Serve on tamales or chicken and cheese filled tortillas.

Poblano peppers are not scary hot, so this isn't as spicy hot as you might think. As as an even easier alternative, you can go to a Mexican grocery and buy a jar of Dona Maria or some other mole sauce, and then like everyone else, use the empty jar as a juice glass. Enjoy.

*Sesame, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, almonds, garlic, onions, and raisins were not part of moles prior to 1492 as all are of Old World origin, so traditional recipes would have used other ingredients, e.g., allspice instead of cloves.

**Poblano and ancho chili peppers are the same thing, but called the former when green and the latter when ripe, red, and dried. So why isn't it Mole Ancho? No idea.

Seasonal transformation

Several upcoming social events required a rapid transformation of the Phactor homestead from normal homeyness to holiday seasonal. This involves no small amount of greenery accented by red, very cheerful, very pagan, very appropriate for celebrating the winter solstice upon which other religious celebrations have been superimposed. The best reason for having and decorating a live tree is the fragrance of firs. While holly looks wonderful what with the shiny dark green leaves and red berries, it delivers little in the way of fragrance. So many things got put away, and many other things got taken out to replace them, and the cats had great fun poking around through all the boxes, bins, and bags especially since so many of the contents seemed like cat toys. It will be interesting to see how many people visit our abode during the coming weeks. In the midst of all of this we discover a nice piece of art purchased back in July, and then forgotten, yet one that now looks quite spectacular, a set of small abstracts that can be variously arranged in aesthetically pleasing ways, once anther print was relocated to open an auspicious bit of wall space, which may have even enhanced the print's appearance by new surroundings. So now to take it all in while enjoying a bit of nog with an emphasis on the nog.

Friday Fabulous Flower - A Corpse

Friday finds my main PC suffering from some malware and while the geeks are busily putting things back in place, it makes access to my archives on a secure server difficult, so to post a fabulous flower required a bit of a punt and a visit to the Wikicommons. So here is Rafflesia arnoldii, sometimes called a corpse flower, but so are many other stinky flowers. All such flowers stink because they smell, and look, like carrion to attract fly and/or beetle pollinators who are deceived into thinking that this is a brood substrate for their offspring. Here's another from the recent FFF archives and notice how much the general pattern and coloration are alike although not closely related at all. Flies are flies, and such patterns trigger their behavior. This particular species has the biggest single bloom of all flowering plants, and because it is a subterranean parasitic plant, this is all you ever see, the blossom. If you find one of these in your yard, and at a meter in diameter it would be hard to miss, you live in Sumatra. The name is a double honorific, something a bit unusual. The genus is named for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, as is the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, home of the Singapore Sling and one of the Phactor's favorite places before they renovated it and removed most of the old charm. The specific epithet (not a species name) is in honor of Dr. Joseph Arnold, a famous naturalist who actually died in Batavia, modern day Jakarta, back when it was a most unhealthy place due to malaria and other tropical diseases.

Botanical booze

In case people missed Colin's info-comment, here's a beverage to be newly released in the USA, and of course, who wouldn't like the name? Squared shoulders, elegantly refined, clearly clear, why it's as if they had someone in mind! Here's the newsy link. While the Phactor is quite certain it should be shaken not stirred, he wonders if a gin flavored with "an unprecedented 31 botanicals, 22 of which were locally harvested, including rare subspecies of juniper, bog myrtle, wood sage, heather flowers, peppermint leaves and others", is as botanically friendly as one would like to think? Let's hope the demand for this pricey artisanal gin doesn't do something bad to populations of rare subspecies of juniper, etc.. Unfortunately gin is not the Phactor's drink, but maybe someone will do a Botany Bourbon.

Academic prestige

Some people attach a great deal of importance to your academic heritage, your alma maters, and typically such people attach considerable significance to school rankings: most selective, most elite, most pampered rich kids, etc. So it was with great interest that the Phactor scanned this list of the 30 "druggiest" campuses in the USA only to discover that all three institutions with which he has an academic association are in the top 30! Far out, man! Who knew? This will have to be added to my resume in some respect although in actuality little did the Phactor add to these rankings. HT to BJW who's always on the look out for nifty items of interest, but who didn't know all my academic connections.

War on Christmas and Christmas tree farmers

Oh, the Garden Rant really does a number on this one, and it makes you ask, who really hates Christmas, not to mention Christmas tree farmers and sellers? And who will try to make anything and everything political to the point of ridiculousness. Well, you know who. The GnOPe!

Get a shopping bag, Rachel

Some one decided a few years back that the conservative movement needed to have some attractive women as spokes persons. Back a bit ago, Noelle Nikpour performed intellectually for everyone to see. Today in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, Rachel Marsden displays a similar dim-witted view of science by making several snide suggestions for topics at the upcoming Durban environmental summit. It's actually hard to tell if this column is meant to be serious or sarcastic.
Rachel's gives some advice, "Don't waste time fiddling with the planet's thermostat." Ah, Rachel, if only it were that easy, but even you realize that if a gym can't control the temperature, the Earth is harder, but part of the idea of a gym is to sweat. She seems confused about how heat works, but the problem is not the ceiling height because heat rises, so it's coolest near the floor of the gym, but the Earth works rather differently. It's warmest at the surface because of the atmosphere's insulation. Rachel thinks "nuclear energy is the future." But the reason many of us oppose its expansion is not because we're "worried about a nuclear energy facility going all Chernobyl on [us]", but because no one wants to talk about the camel in the tent which is what do you do with all terribly toxic nuclear waste for the next 25 million years? Rachel say "imposing green alternatives almost always results in dirtier ones", and as an example she says that if she wasn't given plastic bags at the grocery store she'd have her purchases delivered, thus wasting even more energy. Oh, and Rachel sending non-decomposing plastic bags to the dump as garbage bags is not a form of recycling, and little needs to be said about your little snippy remark about "faith-based" pollution except that a George Carlin you ain't.
Rachel thinks "excessive tree-hugging is suffocating the foliage". "Plants need carbon dioxide to live and produce oxygen. Humans need oxygen and need to eat plants." First blame environmentalists for saving forests. Second, sounds like Rachel avoided all that hard sciency stuff because her simplistic views lead her to a huge misunderstanding. OK Rachel, you see the rates of both respiration and photosynthesis increase as temperature increases, but respiration increases fastest and then photosynthesis actually begins to slow down, so plants respire, sort of like "eat" but more sciency, more of their own energy resources leaving less for consumers. At higher temperatures more tropical trees die and all that carbon dioxide stored in their wood gets released by decomposition increasing the amount in the atmosphere and you have a positive feedback system where temperature increased the CO2 and CO2 increases the warming, leading to run away global warming. Data exist that demonstrate this could happen (see link), so it's not just an "abstraction". Lastly, Rachel thinks there is an "ongoing epidemic of ensconcing kids in liberal arts programs to educate them far beyond their intelligence." Wow! It's a terrible thing to be educated beyond you intelligence, but it looks like a career as a conservative columnist and political strategist is possible. But then Rachel says science and technology along with critical thinking should be encouraged and innovation will arise without using any gummit money. Hmm, the Phactor always thought that the key aim of liberal arts programs was to teach kids to think critically, and maybe that's the problem because then they are able to see easily through these comments to their dumb, silly cores. And then one wonders how we are to interest kids in science and technology when the entirety of the conservative movement is waging war on science and higher education. Are we to encourage innovation to solve problems that you deny exist? Hard to know exactly what this woman wants except to criticize and belittle any and all efforts to deal with environmental problems. But as we all know, such changes begin small and locally, so get a shopping bag Rachel to carry your cabbage head home from the grocery.

Choosy plants & picky flowers

When choosing a mate, lots of animals are choosy; females look for desirable traits exhibited by males, and males often compete for females. Although it surprises many people, plants do the same thing, it's just harder to document. In seed plants, pollen grains are tiny males that disperse to find females, and they may have to compete to acquire a mate. In flowering plants pollen landing on a stigma must race to get to the females by growing pollen tubes to the ovules across a distance equivalent to a marathon in comparison to their size. In this way certain genotypes have an advantage, and it's been shown that these will make larger, more vigorous offspring. And it's not just the males because the floral tissue and the females within may exert influences that make certain genotypes successful or unsuccessful at mating. This and many other studies have found diverse ways in which plants select among available genotypes, choices that involve no thought obviously, but choices nonetheless, for producing their offspring (embryo within seeds). Here's a nice article about several recent studies to give you a new or greater appreciation of what goes on with flowers and pollination.

Caffeine gives brain a jolt

Without doubt this is good research, but really, you needed rats to document that caffeine gives your brain a jolt? All you have to do is observe everyone participating in the five-day rat race, and almost everyone of them jump starts their cranium with caffeine. Wish the Phactor could apply to the Juan Valdez Foundation for coffee research. But that's science for you. It's not enough that it works, science has to find the caffeine receptor sites deep within the brain, invent a cranial coffee port, and then pour the stuff straight into the brain! And the best part is that it's still legal.

Green Solutions

A pragmatic approach to solving real environmental problems is something much needed and this online publication may help: Solutions. Looking for pragmatic solutions involves dealing with people as people rather than hoping human nature changes, dealing with politics as politics rather than hoping pols will begin look any further forward than the next election and monied interests, and dealing with nature as nature rather than hoping the Earth loves us. Such a pragmatic approach is the opposite of denialism, a lose-lose strategy, and this more than any other single thing will be the undoing of the GnOPe as they move farther and farther out of touch. And that’s not to suggest that the opposition is doing all that much better. But let us know what you think about this journal. Honestly, the Phactor has been too busy to read more than a hand full of the articles posted, so feedback is welcome.

End of the semester in sight

A good friend was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, and as he put it, "Duluth is not the end of the Earth, but if you stand on your car's hood you can see the end from there." Monday is not the end of the semester, but when the Phactor stands on his chair he can see it from here. Now is when steady, diligent work the whole semester pays off. If students aren't on top of things now, it's basically too late. Students asking for help have run out of time, but you try to help them anyways. One fellow wanted to know what he was doing wrong, and after analyzing his approach, the answer was simple; he was doing everything wrong. Poor notes, tired old highlighting of text material, no integration of lab material, and so on. His old study just before an exam was totally inadequate for the volume of material being covered and he was over-whelmed. If the skills do not progress and continue to improve, the wheels begin to fall off as advanced undergrad courses stress the system. And this happens to pretty bright kids too because high school, and then all too often community colleges, just don't push them along or challenge them sufficiently to induce changes, and the bright ones get by pretty well. About half of the struggling students know something is wrong because they figure out that not everyone is having a problem; the other half know it's poor teaching. Their expectations and the reality of higher education are just not matching up. A few are still plagued by inattention, immaturity, and disinterest, and these are not a winning strategy for any endeavor; maybe the think the Phactor doesn't notice that they are playing with their little wireless toys. In the end this is what you end up evaluating, those who can and those who can't, or rarely those who won't.

Food quest in action

The food quest of a couple of days ago is being put into action, and the Phactor has just spent 30 mins carmelizing a pound and a half of purple onions. Apparently a dozen or so people are coming for brunch tomorrow. So let's see what's cookin'. For starters, curry-spiced bloody marys, shrimp with eye-popping, sinus-opening cocktail sauce, a Phactor speciality (love that horseradish), and a modest little chicken liver pate on slices of baguette. The main dish is a lovely smoked salmon potato frittata with dilled sour cream accompanied with some baked applewood bacon, an arugula salad with balsamic carmelized onions, and a rosemary foccacia (semolina used here). For finishers, an apple-cranberry crisp and a spiced (5 spice powder & almond flour in here) cranberry almond bundt cake with orange frosting. More or less our usual Sunday morning fare.

Firs, Pines, and Douglas-firs, oh my!

'Tis the season when many people purchase decorative conifer trees; otherwise they own some ersatz version thereof. No option exists in our household because Mrs. Phactor is of the most firm opinion that only a natural tree will do. On an ecological basis cut conifers are grown as a crop and can be fully recycled. So here is your holiday conifer primer. 1. Evergreen is not synonymous with "pine tree" or "conifer". 2. The vast majority of trees sold this time of year are firs, douglas-firs, or pines, and these are three different genera (Abies, Pseudotsuga, and Pinus respectively). 3. Douglas-fir is not a true fir, but most confusingly it's also called Oregon pine and Douglas spruce. See the problem with common names?
Here's how you tell these three genera apart. One pines needles are in clusters or bundles of 2, 3, or 5. The other genera have needles borne singly upon the twigs. The common pine species sold as cut trees have two (Scotch) or 5 needles (white pine). Firs and Douglas-firs have different buds at the end of twigs. Firs have resinous buds, that is coated in resin, and rounded in shape. Douglas-firs are smooth, dry, and conical. Distinguishing among the various species of firs is too tricky for verbal descriptions.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Big Blue Bromeliad

This particular house/garden plant has always been reluctant to flower. While most of the tropicals flower annually, and reliably, this particular bromeliad (Tillandsia cyanea) often goes a couple of years between flowering events, but then the display is long lasting and quite attractive. Like many tropical plants the long lasting display is produced by colorful bracts composing a large inflorescence. One or two short-lived flowers emerge daily. This is typical of pollination by hermit hummingbirds who travel a path from plant to plant across the rainforest and the inflorescence serves as a beacon for that particular stop on their daily travels. This species has large flowers for this genus. The plant itself is easy enough to grow in a hanging basket of orchid mix and soil. The grassy leaves are tempting to the felines, so growing it aloft keeps them apart.

Hot prairie research

Yesterday was a beautiful November day here in the upper midwest. On Monday last our prairie study site was burned, a fall rather than a spring burn. The reason for this hinges on observed differences in time of seed dispersal for two species, a native and an invasive bush clover. The invasive bush clover tends to hang onto its seed very late in the season, so how much of its reproductive potential will get damaged by a fall burn? The answer to this question will probably be not enough, but you never know until to try it and determine the answer for certain. So yesterday we collected seed from scortched clovers and from the litter that tends to accumulate under dense stands of the invasive clover, and in another month or so, after a cold treatment, germination trials will be set up. No matter how toasty the whole place looks, none of these herbaceous perennials are damaged by these fires, so the parent plants will not be harmed. Now in a side story the Phactor was driving the F1's slick silver coupe because it was making a "noise". It's a very nice late model ride, but not exactly cut out for field work. Please understand that after spending a couple of hours out on a recently burned prairie, you get pretty blackened from the knees down, rather smoky flavored, although not as smoky as doing the actual burn, and you have dirty bags of plant material. The good news is that this particular sport coupe has good traction in the mud and made nary a wayward sound. The smoky odor should fade in a few days, but too bad about the floor mats. Shhh! Don't tell!

Tough Review, but it's a masterpiece!

It must be said at once that this book is better than having a sausage stuck to the end of your nose.” (Mark Golden’s review of a book by S. Pomeroy in Classical Review). How's that for not a very favorable review? Oh, but this one might top it, especially in science. "It is quite possibly the most overwrought, absurdly contrived, pretentious expansion of feeble post hoc rationalizations I’ve ever read. As an exercise in agonizing data fitting, it’s a masterpiece." (P. Z. Myers, infamous blogger). Go here to see what publication this applies to. Good thing he doesn't review botany.

Food quest

On the Phactor's honey-do list is a quest for several odds and ends, more the former than the latter, for some sort of cooking event. Five-spice powder is most commonly composed of star anise (a basal angiosperm), cloves, cinnamon (but the Chinese use Cassia bark instead of real cinnamon), Sichuan pepper (not real pepper) and fennel seeds, blended to achieve a certain balance of jin and yang. Sounds like a trip to an Asian grocery, which is always fun. Almond flour, and here we certainly hope this wasn't supposed to be "flower". OK, so some really finely ground almonds must be somewhere. Dill weed. This isn't a problem, and the weed means foliage as distinguished from dill seed, but while dill is rather weedy, it does seem rather a harsh label. Semolina flour is puzzling. By definition semolina are the middlings, the little pieces, left over after grinding durum wheat into flour, so it's either flour or semolina not both, and yet there we go. Maybe this is simply a way of designating durum flour from breadwheat flour, and it is hard to tell tetraploid endosperm from hexaploid endosperm once it's made into flour. My real worry is that everything is an ingredient in a single recipe, sort of like that goofy cooking contest show where the chefs get a basket of ingredients and have to combine them all into a dish. At least this list doesn't include cheetos like one of the baskets on the cooking show. Pretty funny that, giving cheetos to a chef. This happens frequently to the Phactor, monthly actually, and in high correlation with the arrival of one or more cooking magazines. Maybe that's why yesterday my shoppinglist included a turkey red wine, limoncello, and several bottles of very dry champagne. This is sounding better all the time. So we are thankful that we have, and can afford, and enjoy, such bounty.

Nocturnal orchid

Nocturnal flowering is rather uncommon even in the tropics. Quite a few flowers open in the evening, for example, nutmegs, but the flowers remain open through the next day at least. And of course there are several bat and moth pollinated flowers. Several palms flower at night attracting hordes of beetles. But a completely nocturnal orchid is news because of all the crazy things orchids do, nocturnal flowering was not one of them. Since this orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum) flowered in captivity no one is certain about the pollinators, but some type of small insect certainly, perhaps a small dipteran. The dangly little filamentous appendages are strange, and they may either mimic some sort of insect or help disperse a particular floral odor, or both. In general the flowers of orchids in this genus are pretty small, ca. 1 cm diameter. Unfortunately and particularly with the fadish approach to science funding in the USA, even the small amounts of support needed to fund tropical field work are difficult to find, which makes such discoveries really difficult.

Cooking cookies with a biologist

So here's the situation, the hydrogenated Glycine max oil had been creamed together with crystallized, purified vacuolar sap from Saccharum, two sterile ovules of the domesticated Asian jungle fowl, and an ethanolic extract of fermented fruits of the Vanilla orchid, so it was time to stir in the shredded endosperm of Cocos nucifera, the chopped embryo of Juglans regia, and the candified, ground seeds of Theobroma cacao, only to find that the most critical ingredient, finely powdered endosperm of Triticum spp., was insufficient to the task at hand. Now some 5 hours earlier that the Phactor's vehicle was checked into an out patient auto center to get new tires, so fortunately the people's grocery is only about a 20 min walk away, but walking home with 11 lbs of ingredients indicated the utility of having at least a cart. The preparation time certainly did not take into account not having all the ingredients on hand. Still Ms. Phactor and F1 seemed to approve.

Thoughts on cars and toasters

While many people act, and drive, as if their automotive vehicle (aka car) is an extension of them selves, a statement about their personality and immaturity, cars hold no particular fascination for the Phactor. Fortunately my use of a car is far, far below average, although owning one remains a necessary convenience, but basically cars are in the same category as toasters, just a lot more expensive. You want one that daily delivers a nice even golden brown on both sides and accommodates bread, bagels, and baguettes with equal ease. However if you cannot park one yourself, you shouldn't be driving one. Decent toast is life requirement because it is how you start your day. The best toast in my memory was a perfect baguette served with a platter of tropical fruit and a very, very good cafe con leche on a patio overlooking the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (think rainforest meets Big Sur). OK the location probably had a great deal to do with the memory, but it was good toast. Having been blessed by location, shrewdly chosen, the Phactor does not drive on a day to day basis having lived within walking distance to his work place for 40 of the past 42 years. As a result over the past quarter of a century, the Phactor has only owned two vehicles, both were quite reliable and served my purposes quite well, but as my blog is not monetized, no endorsements are forth-coming. But today sitting in a waiting room of an automotive service establishment reminds one how annoying vehicles can be if not reliable. In this particular case after nearly 9 years and 55,000 miles (only), and with winter approaching, the car needs new tires. Even still this place is bleak beyond belief, worse than an airport and without the people watching. If only the toaster could be balanced for browning as easily as these tires. Does a good toaster actually exist? How can someone have such good fortune with vehicles and yet be continually displeased with toasters? The current machine toasts with total indifference, a perfect lemon, whose most redeeming quality seems to be its color. So if anyone can recommend a make and model both competent and reliable it would be appreciated.

Petunias finally encounter the Grim Reaper

The petunias in the window boxes outside our front bedroom windows after producing a pink cascade for at least 5 months died two nights ago. This is not so surprising actually since petunias are not cold hardy at all, so the first good frost or freeze of the fall always does them in. But what was surpising is the date, November 18th, a very late date for the first killing freeze (about 25 F). The weather had flirted with frost a few times, but here in our urban heat island it was never frosty enough. Most gardeners recognized how late the season was in a variety of ways, and then they nod and say "global warming". While the Phactor is positive global warming is real, such departures from normal averages are just weather. Over the long haul more frequent deviations produce a climate trend. Models of global warming predict more extremes, hotter hots, colder colds, wetter wets, dryer drys, early snow storms, late freezes, and so on, but greater amplitude in weather may not cause a change in the means as they tend to average out. 2011 had a late spring, cold and wet, and it pushed flowering back (in comparison to 2010) but then a very late mild fall that was very good for the baby bok choi.

Recycle plastic pots

A local green action organization is having a recycle everything you didn't think could be recycled day, and one of the things that can be recycled are plastic pots. The Phactor knew that if he saved them up long enough, in big stacked sets, they'd be good for something, or someone would get around to recycling them. Apparently plastic pots can be recycled into plastic landscape "timber"among other items. How appropriate. And that's good because you would like to think that gardening is a pretty green industry and there's all those plastic pots. A few plant providers have switched to pots composed of organic materials that just decompose, although some seem to take too long. More alternatives are needed. Now to load up the stacks and destroy the evidence of my plant buying problem. It's sort of like hiding those candy bar wrappers in the garbage. Actually it can be slightly embarrassing when recycling all the wine bottles too. It's not that so much wine is consumed, just that our recycling is done so infrequently.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Miniature holly

A favorite small shrub in our glasshouse is this week's Friday fabulous flower, commonly called "miniature holly" (Malpighia coccigera) because of the glossy, spiny margined leaves. Like many members of this family (Malpighiaceae) the flowers have spoon-shaped petals, here ruffled and fringed to boot, and while not large they are produced in great numbers making for a very attractive display. This species, native to the West Indies, is used as a tropical ornamental. The fruit is a red berry and edible, as are several larger species whose fruit are better known as Barbados cherries or acerolas. The flowers have a funny fragrance, not altogether pleasant. In between the upper three petals glandular sepals can be seen that secrete an oily substance as a reward for the bee pollinators. The genus is an honorific for Marcello Malpighi (1628-1674), professor and naturalist at Bologna. He was an early anatomist making contributions to both botany and zoology (malpighian tubules).

Time to bring tropical houseplants indoors

My habit has been to put all my tropical houseplants outside for the summer. And now is the time to bring them inside again, great advice because it's actually about a month past the time to bring houseplants indoors. Some don't like it when the nighttime temperatures drop below 50F. Some are tougher and don't mind some cooler nights. None like frosts. Most are in hanging baskets, so several orchids, bromeliads, gesners, and epiphytic cacti get hung in various places, usually in part shade for the better part of 5 months. Several bonsai trees, figs, a Pittosporum, a Bougainvillea, a podocarp, sit on shelves inside a cage to prevent squirrel damage. In particular the hanging plants respond very positively to this treatment, and they flower reliably as a result. This is undoubtably because they get enough long nights outside while inside even a flash of light can interrupt the stimulus. Presently a couple of orchid cacti, an orchid, and a gesner are in full bloom in a 4-season room where they all reside during the winter months. Several more will bloom later in the season, and a couple have been featured here before: the queen's tears, an azalea. Your houseplants also look rather nice hanging out in other wise dull areas of the garden, but several trees have become jealous and regularly discard a branch or two upon the houseplants. That no serious damage has occurred is a wonder. When inside, all these epiphytes growing is rather porous mixtures do quite well when their pot is soaked once a week. This is done by immersing the pot in a sink or bucket and letting it soak for awhile. The larger ones are set upon stools and given a light shower of ever so slighlty tepid water for 10-15 mins, let drain, and then rehung. It also keeps them free of dust. The real trick is finding enough nice places for them inside.

So You Think You Can Govern? Reality Show.

GOP Dumps Presidential Candidates, Launches So You Think You Can Govern? Reality Show. Story here. You know this just might work better than anyone could think.

How to teach politics and government

Uh oh! Some of the fine citizens and the upstanding high school principal in Ronald Reagan’s college home town of Eureka have decided that the Daily Show’s coverage of politics is not appropriate material for a high school politics and government class, so after parent and student complaints, a 1st year teacher has been suspended, at least for now. For those of you who do not known Lincolnland, our state consists of one great big city, a handful of small cities, and a whole big bunch of small rural towns nestled in the maize and soybean agricultural desert. The Phactor can certainly sympathize with these people. You certainly don’t want your children to ever encounter any different opinions, any discomforting ideas, or any material that might make them uncomfortable. Proper schoolin’ should help them to remain smugly assured that their views, values, and ideas will never be subjected to any criticism particularly when that education is paid for by taxes. Any first year teacher of politics and government should know that the correct way to teach is to drone on about the 3 parts of government and how it was an OK idea until the presidency got too big for its britches especially when the office is not occupied by the party of choice in these parts like back in the good ol’ days of Reagan. Bringing in current events and popular culture to stir up interest is terrible teaching. No teacher should openly disparage political candidates. They should use clips and quotes from news sources, perhaps even the Daily Show, so that students can actually hear what the candidates actually say, you know, all those historical, geographical, political, and constitutional gaffs, which of course is exactly what the Daily Show does. What teaching moments they provide! No teacher disparagement required; just let students listen to and evaluate what politicians actually say. But rather than suggesting to their children that they figure out how to respond appropriately, how to defend their positions intellectually, how to make a case for their support of a political position, these parents whine to the principal who suspends the teacher. If people want to know why the educational system in this country is not what it used to be, parents and principals like these are the reason. They don’t want education; they want indoctrination, oh, and their children admitted to our state colleges and universities.

Rainforest diversity

It's hard to describe rainforest diversity to people who have not seen it, but it's even harder to visualize. This is a false-color image of a rainforest where each color represents a certain degree of tree diversity, different species, different genera, or maybe different families. The ability to image diversity this way based on reflective differences in species chemistry will allow many studies of rainforests that simply aren't possible from the ground, or if they are possible, then in much shorter amounts of time. But you wonder what it means when what appears to be the crown of a single tree is a collage of a dozen or more colors. Lots of epiphytes? But this just looks cool and you really need the big box of crayollas to do this kind of work. You only need a box of 8 to handle most temperate zone forests. Of course, seen in real life it's just all green. Too bad it's not really all these colors, not even in Oz.