Field of Science

Spring flower wish list

Here's an early spring flower that the Phactor doesn't have, the stinking hellebore (also dungwort or bear's claw hellebore because of the highly divided leaf)(Helleborus foetidus). What a charmer! But maybe our climate is a bit too severe for this species. First try at this species resulted in winter kill, and it was a tough winter, but supposedly this is hardy in zone 5, just maybe not in our nasty zone 5 with its radical temperature swings often without the benefit of snow cover. In spite of its various common names, it doesn't actually seem to smell bad, and a cluster of plants on a hillside, as shown here, can make quite an early display even though the flowers are not as large as other hellebores and are mostly green. Any feedback from other zone 4-5 gardeners?

Floral and Foliar Display

This is a spectacular plant called the "cascading bean" (Maniltoa lenticellata - Caesalpinioideae: Fabaceae) from northern Queensland. How one of them got into our greenhouse is a long story, but here 'tis for the past 20 years or so. Actually it's outgrown the greenhouse, twice, and has been severely pruned for its effort. It regularly puts on a growth spurt producing these cascades of new leafy twigs that are pink, almost devoid of chlorophyll, and quite limp, falling out of the large pink buds all at once. Slowly the pink fades to be replaced by pale green and then a darker green, and as that happens the leaves and twigs get pulled up into a graceful arch. This year the leaf flush was accompanied by flowering for even more excitement. Both the pistil and stamens are exerted from a reflexed white corolla. Wow!

How to force flowering shrubs

Via email a reader asks, "How can I force flowers into bloom?" Never force anything, just use a bigger hammer. Let's assume that the flowers in question are spring flowering trees and shrubs, or maybe bulbs. The general rule is fairly simple: if some color is showing then they are usually quite easy to force into bloom providing you with a bouquet a week or more early. Almost any bulb will flower if picked at the mature flower stage. Flowering shrubs need a bit of help to force the flowers open. Take your hammer (thought this was a joke?) and pound the bottom inch or so of the twig to fray the stem. This provides more surface area for the uptake of water. Srubs force best in coolish conditions, so don't place them in hot or sunny locations even if they look nice there. Just before this late March cold spell, the Phactor clipped some twigs of Forsythia, Abeliophyllum (sort of like a dwarf forsythia with white pink flowers - picture from link provided), spice bush (Lindera benzoin), and Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa). All the flower buds were showing just the tips of the corolla, and all of them flowered quite nicely and when paired with some early daffodils, are quite cheerful. And if you look at things critically, you might be able to remove some parts that needed pruning anyways.

Of fish and figs

One of the more interesting aspects for tropical forests are fish that function as seed dispersers. In Costa Rica the machacas (pictured, ~35-50 cm long) have excellent eyesight above the water and a quite a number will race out from under the over hanging tree crowns to snag a chunk of banana or a fig much to the delight of each year's class of students. In the Amazon other members of the same family, the characins (tetras, piranha), have proven to be excellent dispersers, especially in flooded forests, because fruiting trees are an island of resource, a patch of food, so foragers must move from place to place to find the patches. Fruit-eating fish in that ecosystem can move seed up to 5.5 km, dispersal on a par with large birds and mammals. However, over fishing could have an impact on tree reproduction, an excellent example of interconnections not at first evident.

Berry Go Round #38

It's a Tuesday, it's cold and snowing, it's the 29th of March, a stack of exams is awaiting my attention, a laboratory needs prepping, and providing an antidote for my general depression Berry Go Round #38 has been posted over at Anyone Seen My Focus? How can that not cheer you up? Click on over and have a look.

Plant Porn - Fern Sperm

At the beginning of the semester, one of the 1st things my students do is sow spores of various ferns and lower vascular plants upon a suitable medium. By the time the course gets to vascular plants the gametophytes, especially ferns, are just about mature. One of their instructions is to select one of the mature looking gametophytes, one a bit like this, and mount it in a drop of water
on a slide for observation. What oftens happens the less observant never even notice, but the sharper objects notice something after a few minutes. What are all those jiggly things swimming around? Then slowly comes the thought: sperm! Of course what stimulates a mature gametophyte to release sperm, water, and there you are watching the whole thing. A couple of enterprising students captured a few seconds of this on video. With literally thousands of sperms being released, any mature archegonia would surely get their eggs fertilized. Pretty darned exciting!

Gardens and bunnies: it could be worse!

A new fossil find of a therapsid, a mammal-like reptile, demonstrates that there could be worse things browsing in your garden than a bunny, although this year bunny browsing was really, really bad! This little fellow was about the size of a pig, so the potential existed for considerable gluttony. The rather strange thing about this critter is the rather remarkable canine teeth, usually the hallmark of a carnivore, e.g., saber tooth "cats", but the rest of the teeth indicate this was a confirmed herbivore (publication link). In the animal kingdom many "out-sized" features are associated with mating behaviors, displays for females or male-male competitions, so that might be the case here too. Modern day porcines have some pretty fearsome canines too, and another function can be in rooting. But generally speaking, my preference would be not to have herbivorous therapsids in my garden. Nice bunnies.

What a pansy!

While observing our pansy plants endure nights in the low 20s and then perk up each day, it confirms what many gardeners know, a pansy is a tough little plant. So how did the term pansy come to mean a wimpy or meek sort of person? Pansy is an old common name for some violas, which have many other common names, and the modern pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) is of hybrid origin with some Viola tricolor parentage, but where did the other word derive from? Anyone ever find an explanation?

Drinking Safety Rules

Until you actually learn how to consume alcoholic beverages in true moderation, no drinking is really safe. A career long association with young adults gives the Phactor some perspective on the steepness of the learning curve, and when a college student sets out to "get drunk", that's one of the warning signs that they've got a problem. My Father was pragmatic to the core, and he liked good times and was no stranger to a drink now and again. His rule, before sending his 17 year old son off to college at a time when the legal drinking age was 18, was very simple. Don't drink anything that has a funny color or funny name! So this article on fancy spring break drinks just screams trouble. Several are clearly concoctions designed to pour alcohol into people who don't like the taste of real drinks. Actually our drinking was kept in check financially because who could afford fancy drinks? The delightful concoction pictured is called a fishbowl and breaks both rules at once. They used to be just filled with beer. Probably tastes like a blue jelly bean.

Can blogging get you in hot water?

On several occasions readers and others have asked, "Phytophactor, why blog under a pseudonym?" Why never mention the name of your state (Lincolnland) or institution directly? Do you abuse the public trust by using state resources to blog? Well, at first the use of a pseudonym was simply because it amused the Phactor to do so after labeling himself a plant pundit. Writing in the third person and never directly naming dopey administrators or the institution was part of the fun; others just might wonder if that could be their dean being so aptly described. And no, the time and resources are my own, at least by my accounting. But it is no easy matter to decide where an academic's job ends and his personal life begins. After all part of the service component of our jobs, part of our educational charge, is outreach, educating the public, and to a great extent this blog helps fulfill that role, except it's not confined to just our state. Restricting email to only university business is a way more difficult thing to figure out, and the Phactor has his own email, but still friends and relatives email me at work because the email address has been mine for over 20 years going back to times when there was no other internet access around. Nothing from my official life connects to this blog, and when it comes to time, when you average over 50 hrs a week working, and the state says we have a 37.5 hr work week, a few minutes used during the day now and again doesn't come close to offsetting the unpaid overtime worked. Who's getting shorted? But given the potential for trouble and entanglements, it's probably a good idea to have remained a pseudonym. Look at the trouble a U. Wisconsin historian is having for having the temerity to use his professional expertise to look at the current political situation in their state. It's quite a blog.

Hybrid or Heirloom?

The NYTimes had an interesting garden article about hybrid and heirloom seeds. The article took sort of a funny tone by taking the slant that gardeners who prefered hierloom varieties were exhibiting a form of political correctness. The situation seems considerably more nuanced than presented. First, there are hybrids and then there are hybrids. Without disease resistant hybrid tomatoes, my backyard garden would be a total bust, and while defeating the purpose of home gardening, even the process-tomato hybrids have their place (in a catsup bottle). The Amish paste tomato is a great heirloom variety, but of late the early blight has made it impossible to grow. Heirloom varieties are great to have around because they represent genetic diversity that would get lost if heirloom fanciers didn't grow them. Unfortunately many seed producers believing that people wanted uniformity provided it, and heirlooms display some of the range of variation that exist. Many heirloom advocates cite the ability to keep seeds from open-pollinated plants, but it isn't that easy. If you don't hand pollinate the flowers and then protect them form other pollinations, you've probably just made your own hybrid of unknown parentage, assuming at least one other variety is growing within bee flight distance. And so it goes. Deriding hybrids simply fails to accept reality; dismissing heirlooms as "failed" varieties is just stupid. Although not a seed crop, the northern spy has long been the Phactor's favorite apple, an heirloom variety for certain, and not without it's problems to grow, so in spite of the fantastic apples, it had fallen from favor and has become quite hard to find. The nova spy is a new variety that has managed to retain the fruit quality while solving the cultivation problems by providing an early bearing dwarf tree. So let's not be hybrid or heirloom ideologues; let's stay flaming moderates.

Fifty plants that changed the course of history

Although published last year, the Phactor has just now gotten a copy of Bill Laws' book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Just as the title suggests, the book contains 50 essays about plants that have certainly been important to humans, and even if maybe they didn't quite change history things would have been different without them. Each essay is 2 to 6 pages long and quite readable. Each stands alone so you can jump around or go alphabetical where hemp (Cannabis) follows tea (Camellia). As a long-time instructor of economic botany, most of the material isn't new to me, but if you like knowing nifty things about common plants, you would be well served by this book. Maybe the best part is that you can read an essay in a spare 20 minutes and learn something new and not worry about losing the plot line. The publisher thoughtfully included a ribbon bookmark having anticipated this approach. The illustrations generally well chosen, some quite unique, and generally the book is handsome. If the Phactor had constructed his own list of 50 plants the concordance with this book would probably be around 80%; a few of Laws' inclusions, e.g., dog rose, coriander/cilantro, while interesting enough, are puzzling as changers of history. He fooled me by including cork oak under English oak thereby rescuing the inclusion. The historical implication of many plants may be connections of which you are unaware, e.g., sugar cane and slavery, but Laws' missed explaining that nutmeg was central to New Amsterdam becoming New York due to a swap of islands (Manhattan for Palau Run). Overall this book should contribute to an increased appreciation of many plants by providing those oh so interesting connections with history and human affairs. Mrs. Phactor has put this book on her to read list, and that tells you a great deal because generally we have very few cross-over books.

Biological Beauty

This truly captures the biological mind. If you can't deal with this, then keep your distance. Oh, got to go; someone's here to see the cool Selaginella gametophyptes growing in my lab. And if you've never grown a plasmodial slime mold, you are really missing out.

HT to Bioephemera for reminding me how darned funny xkcd cartoons are (#877 - Beauty).

Wonderful world of ants

Insects are very interesting, especially those that interact with plants, but no question about it, ants are amazing in their biological diversity, their ability to act almost as a super organism. As those of us who've spent considerable time in the tropics can attest that 1. ants are everywhere and 2. you'd better known which ones to watch out for. At the field station in Costa Rica where we teach rainforest ecology there are over 500 species of ants. Among the coolest are leaf-cutter ants, bullet ants (be very careful), army ants (Rule: don't walk through them in tevas), aztecas, and tiny fire ants. Here's a link to a nice little slide show about ants that promotes what is apparently a popular book called Adventures among the ants. Sorry, haven't seen the book, so can't say how good it is. This little fellow is a bullet ant (Paraponera), about 2.5 cm long, and it's sting packs a real wallop that was once described as the single most painful NON-lethal thing you could experience, but how would you know?

Friday Fabulous Flower – Squill

The Phactor has a blue lawn. No, it’s not sad and depressed; it’s full of squill (Scilla siberica). It takes decades for the original plants to multiply and spread to make such a continuous carpet of blue, and only a few of the oldestyards in town look this way. Many people mistake glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) for squill, or vice versa, but the GOTS flowers don’t nod and the stamen filaments are broad (dilated) forming a white center in the blue corolla in common varieties. A blue lawn is such a cheerful spring display, and that’s good because there is no way on Earth to get rid of squill once you have it; they can probably survive a nuclear bomb. A bit later in the season, the foliage is a bit of a problem. If you don’t wait until the leaves die down of their own accord before mowing, they will slime your lawn mower with their copious mucilage. Here's another view of the blue sward.

Botanical mutants

Meristemi points to an interesting blog featuring all manner of misshapen fruits and vegetables which is quite amusing. Saw another collection of similar images once that were all chosen for their similarities to genitalia, sort of a modern twist on the doctrine of signatures. Also, it’s good to know what amount of cucumber curvature is allowed in the EU. And as usual she makes an interesting point; the pursuit of fruity perfection has resulted in less diversity. The best tasting tomato the Phactor has ever sampled was a greenish red variety with a lobed fruit, far from round, red perfection in appearance, but isn't it taste that matters in a tomato? Although in a few cases like the Buddha's hand or Ugli citrus fruit, the misshapen has become a virtue. Maybe they're just hard to stack.

A goodbye to our legume enumerating dean

Administrators come, and administrators go, and academics down in the trenches are left to live with the legacies these administrators have wrought. In his long tenure the Phactor has watched with varying degrees of dread and pleasure as the revolving administrative door has kept turning. A former dean, an over achiever seeking his level of incompetence, left for higher office at another institution and managed to get his new faculty united behind a vote of no confidence within his first year. Who said he had no potential? Of course that means a replacement was needed here, so a department chair (economics) from our college was tapped to be the acting dean. His philosophy is simple: what have you done for me lately? Although wrapped in new gift paper, his approach was that of a classic bean counter, which surely appealed to our provost, and of course, being an economist this approach was dressed in fancy clothing. This is nothing new. However, it was his insistence that one biologist was just like another, the idea that academics within a discipline at the university level are interchangeable pieces, the idea that a particular expertise needed for a program or specialized course is not a good justification for filling an open position, is an attitude born of high schools and junior colleges, or perhaps the field of economics! Hmmm, macro, micro, maybe they’re all the same? Indeed, the Peter Principle seems to have been in full effect these past two years, but even still it is hard to imagine a stupider idea from a dean of arts and sciences. But today dawned with miserable weather and cheering news, a distant institution has been conned into hiring our acting dean. Need help with your bags? No he leaves lots of baggage. So, don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out. Now comes the dread, the morbid worry that the replacement might actually be worse! And that can happen!

Weirdest, rarest orchid ever

Orchids do a lot of stange things, but to live completely underground! That's really weird, and wonderful, and it's the greatest picture of the flowers too. What a thrill to find something so rare, really rare, as in endangered rare, but it's hard to census underground organisms! Jennifer at the Artful Amoeba also explains why parasitic plants are losing some but not all of their chloroplast genes. Not only is the pollinator unknown, but how are the seed dispersed? Ants maybe.

Sure sign of spring - Okeefenokee version

My not-quite-a-redneck kid sister lives off a dirt road on 9 acres of swamp some eres south of Talahassee, and here's a great spring floral display of bladderwort whose traps were featured not so long ago. Wow! And you should see their backyard! Note the buttressing of the tree trunks.

Bad day for biology teachers

Yesterday seems to have been a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day for a couple of biology teachers. However, in only one of the two events was what they taught relevant. A biology teacher here in Lincolnland admits that he was teaching creationism in his high school biology class, but odds are the school board will tell him to never ever do it again and he'll continue teaching a horrid version of biology, rolling his eyes whenever mentioning that some biologists actually think something as bereft of evidence and as improbable as evolution could be true, teaching that will do more harm than the blatant creationism that any half intelligent high school student can see clear through. Please, please, please, let him not be a graduate of our university. Of course there'll be the usual "evolution is just as much of a religion" comments, but creationism isn't just wrong, it's useless; you can't use it to do science, and that's lost on all the critics of science. In Kentucky a female biology teacher was caught messing around with a high school student in a car. Scheesh! Get a motel room. No dobut about it, she'll be fired, and in all probability she was the better of the two at teaching biology. Maybe she graduated from Northwestern?

Don't Drink the Water Day - March 22

Calling attention to the most frequently over-looked and most unappreciated of natural resources, water, is a good idea, but Water Day doesn't get much press. A great deal of human medical problems world-wide could be vastly improved if people only had access to safe drinking water. That of course also means that adequate garbage and sewage disposal because so often safe water starts with eliminating the contaminates. Unfortunately, in places that have some of the worst water resources, and in many cases limited water resources, human population growth is increasing the size of cities far beyond their capacity to provide water, trash, & sewage services, and no where is this more true than in Africa. Unless an intrepid traveler, we tend to be oblivious to this problem, after all we luxuriate in water resources, wasting water every which way we turn (no, not the expected lawn rant). A few years back the Phactors visited a school in Africa with about 80 kids per class, and they were neatly dressed, polite, interested, and interesting, but the school had no running water, no toilets, not even of the pit variety, no sinks, nada. The wet season would have supplied quite a bit of water if the roof runoff could be captured and stored, and then used efficiently. Guttering, big plastic tanks, a pump (there was electricity), and it's not rocket science, but what did not exist was either the money nor the infastructure to get such a project done. So please do appreciate what you have and don't squander this resource just because it's cheap and plentiful for us. And remember even here in the USA there are places where you do not have the water rights to save the runoff from your own roof!

Physics of flowering

This is not exactly news in the botanical community, but perhaps when a physicist discovers flowers it garners more press for some reason. Still it's a nice video showing how differential cell enlargement results in a complex petal shape.

Chi-town Restaurant up for Beard Award

This comes as no surprise at all given our reaction to a recent visit to the Girl and the Goat. It's up for a Beard award as best new restaurant. And all because of the Phytophactor's endorsement? You'd think it would be worth at least a free drink.

Non-evolution in Florida

Nothing beats having the scientifically ignorant attempting to dictate science curricula, and you have to wonder if having politicians like Florida’s State Senator Stephen Wise's tinkering is the price you have to pay have public education? Did I have to say he’s GnOPe? Did I have to say the science he wants to tinker with is evolution? Is the educational background of most politicians weak on science? Does Wise look like an orangutan in a suit? Judge for yourself. Wise proposes very unwisely, but in a strangely honest manner that whenever evolution is taught, non-evolution should be taught. The curiously honest part of this is that sums up creationism and intelligent design in a single term: non-evolution. It consists of nothing but criticisms and doubts about the veracity of evolution, and of course, the corollary, if not evolution, then god. Game, set, and match.
As anyone who’s familiar with such proposals knows, the rationale is to teach critical thinking. Sure. And teaching the flat-Earth alternative promotes critical thinking too. Does Wise really want science teachers examining the evidence and underlying assumptions of “non-evolution”? Does Wise really want students to consider all the many creation stories? In an interview Wise asks “Why do we still have apes if we came from them?” Imagine the mind that actually thinks that’s a critical issue, a question that undermines evolution, a real challenge to answer. Ah, well. Dear Senator Wise, the modern apes and humans share common ancestors which explains why we share so many characteristics and about 98% of our DNA. Wise up.

USA National Motto funny business

The current House of Representatives having found nothing useful to do wants to pass a non-binding resolution reaffirming "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Funny that because all the people who are so eager for this reaffirmation also argue for the original intent of the constitution worshiping what they think the nation's founders meant. Well, the founders were clear on one thing, the motto they adopted in 1782 as part of the USA's great seal is E pluibus unum, an affirmation of a nation built of states. In God We Trust was a political gesture born of the cold war and the communist scare of the 1950s. The Phactor clearly remembers when it became necessary to become a deist to pledge allegiance to our country ("one nation under God") which guarantees your freedom of religion by making you say something religious to be patriotic. Of course it just meant memorizing new words back then. Supporters argue that this motto is not promoting religion, and its secular nature has been upheld in the courts, so how can anyone be upset? If you want to test the idea that "In God We Trust" and "one nation under God" are secular in their intent, whether they promote religion or not, then why not be more inclusive and just make a tiny editorial change: "In gods we trust" and "one nation under gods". What to bet what will happen? No of course not. The howl would be enormous because those mottos don't wink, wink, nudge, nudge affirm the right religion. Secular my foot. Go ahead, test the hypothesis. Oh, yes, tried this one out on a Lutheran minister who was arguing that the slogan on our money was of a purely secular nature. He became purely purple.

How to grow leaf lettuce - biological principles

Leaf lettuce has to be one of the easiest of cool weather crops to grow, but it also is frequently grown poorly. First by cool weather crop, it means that lettuce doesn't grow well in hot weather, but really it means that the long days and short nights of summer cause lettuce to bolt, grow taller quickly, and when it does so in an attempt to reproduce, the laticifers, the latex producing cells that give lettuce it's generic name (Lactuca) mature and the lettuce gets intolerably bitter. So plant lettuce as early as you can in spring, or in very late summer for a 2nd crop. You can even use containers and/or a cold frame for a very early crop.
Here's the problem and my simple rules for growing nice big leaf lettuce plants. Intraspecific competition is always severe because the organisms competing are just about identical; they all need the same thing. With plants it can often be competition for space/light, water, and/or nutrients. Leafy lettuces are easy to plant way too densely because their seed is fairly small and no one wants to put each seed down one at a time, so you just sort of sow it and it's always too dense. But as they grow, a dense stand of lettuce seedlings crowd each other and compete with the result that the plants stay small and become thin and spindly. So here's the steps you must take until you learn how to sow the seed better. Step one: when the seedlings reach 1" in height, thin them out until all the seedlings are at least 2 inches (two fingers) apart. Step two: keep thinning as the seedlings grow until they are at least 4" apart by the time they are 4" tall (width of your hand). Step three: keep thinning until the lettuce plants are at least 8" apart (full hand span) by the time they are 8" tall. Step four: as you harvest, keep taking out every other plant. Step five: eat everything you thin out as you go. And don't spare the water or nutrients, lettuce likes to grow fast. By the time you get to step step three the days will be getting longer (or way colder if in the fall) and you'll have to harvest like crazy, but the neighbors will love you for giving them all the extras.

Provosts are mostly annoying

Most of what provosts do in the modern college or university is annoy faculty. It is here that the top-down style of administration begins; and if they don't know or at least acknowledge that quite a bit of what we do begins down in the trenches and moves up, it's real annoying. It's also terribly annoying because provosts are so removed from life in the trenches that they no longer relate. Our latest tiff resulted from asking the provost to rebate some tuition back to the department so that students taking a rainforest ecology class don't have to pay instructional costs twice. It should be obvious that students don't study rainforests in Lincolnland; they get ready to study rainforests on campus, but they really study rainforests in Costa Rica. And to do this students must pay for the costs of instruction twice, once in their tuition, and once for the cost of instruction in Costa Rica. Now everyone understands that studying overseas costs the student travel money, and this isn't the issue. About 40% of the course instruction takes place in Costa Rica, but they pay tuition as if all the instruction took place in Lincolnland. So has the dept received any additional instructional support money, any travel money, anything at all? Silly rabbit, no! And in the official response our course just does not "meet the parameters for direct cost recovery". The students will be glad to hear this, and the Phactor would like to know what those parameters are. As a suggestion the provost tells us how to shift the expenses elsewhere so it won't be so obvious to students that they are paying twice, and that we hit alumni up for scholarship support. And then lastly asks that we contact them "if they can be of any further assistance". Bloody hell you can! Your weren't a nanogram of assistance the first time. Please explain how these students are getting what they are paying their tuition for? Now of course, when it comes to bean-counting as a means of keeping the cost of education down, provosts are in a league of their own. But when they actually have a chance to help out students lower the costs of their education, or actually just give students their tuition money's worth, you can pretty much count them out. Some leadership; some lesson. Oh, look, an evaluation of top admin performance is due! Let's see, where to begin?

Corned beef today

Homeland security did not keep the Phactor from obtaining an adequate supply of saltpeter to last for a couple of years of beef pickling, and today the product of that effort is going to be sampled. This is a bit late for St. Patrick's day, but it was a busy week and cooking takes some time. This takes long-range planning because you get a craving for corned beef, and it takes 4 weeks to get some made. This also carries on an old family tradition of making it yourself. The big old farmhouse, home of my youth, had catacombs for a basement, but it had all sorts of space for preparing all sorts of things, including it's own stove and canning kitchen. It also had a beautiful old smokehouse, and once a year, just for the heck of doing it, my Father would butcher a side of port, cure it in big crocks and then smoke it. That was some amazing bacon, and that's why the Phactor goes to such trouble as making corned beef; mine doesn't taste like the stuff you buy today in the grocery stores.

PUMA commuter vehicle

The Phactor lives within easy walking distance of his workplace, and so do the majority of my neighbors, but only about 1 in 5 walk to work. Public transportation passes by both ends of our double block, and almost no one in our hood uses it. Clearly you don't need an SUV or van for our commutes, so this nifty little commuter vehicle, a GM-Segway hybrid called PUMA, which should be called Tumblebug (hmm, that may not be the best name; like Nova in Mexico), may actually prove rather practical for small urban use. It gets 35 miles to the charge and goes 35 miles an hour, so that tells you how close charging stations have to be. One charge would allow Mrs. Phactor to commute to and from her office for a week. A gasoline/electric hybrid would get 200 mpg. Funny, this is sort of an appealing little thing, even though it looks a bit like a dumpster with a transparent top, so watch out on trash pick up days. What jelly bean colors do you suppose it comes in? Seriously, don't you want one?

NCAA Basketball Prediction - Never Wrong

OK, here's my prediction about the NCAA basketball tournament - a single game the Phactor will not watch. Here in the midwest basketball is a strange pathology; that so many people find it interesting may reflect the gray dullness of their every day lives. It's hard to understand a so-called sport where you don't carry a stick and can't hit anyone. So why did our athletic director get so upset when it was suggested our university replace basketball with ice hockey? Can't say, but now he's off to Kansas which is even crazier about basketball than Lincolnland. This is not a personal boycott of basketball, but spring is definitely here and the gardens (and cats suffering from cabin fever) are demanding my attentions. The winter cleanup, berry brambles, and pruning all need to be done, and today the weather will be good, way too good to be seated in front of a TV watching B-ball games. It's spring! Time for baseball!

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Winter aconite

Although our estate is home to a great variety of perennials, our former residence still had a few things still lacking. Mrs. Phactor is trying to remedy that situation. Here's one of her recent successes even with the diligent efforts of our sciurious wildlife to dig up everything planted. Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is one of those plants sometimes referred to as "wolfbanes" and maybe you shouldn't try determining the edibility through trial and error (it might be your last mistake though). How very cheerful that this plant flowers as early as any spring flower, and because it's a woodland native (in Europe), it will do quite nicely in lawn and/or under trees, so almost everyone has space for this plant. The flowers are about 2 cm across, and while not huge, in masses, in early spring, they can produce quite an attractive display against the leaf litter. In looking at these flowers you will see the hallmarks of the buttercup family displayed quite nicely.

Darkroon nostalgia

One of the many skills the Phactor developed was a certain proficiency in the photographic darkroom, and now film photography is quite dead. Hard to believe, not that it happened, but how fast it happened. Having grown up near Rochester NY Kodak Park was a wondrous giant of film manufacturing, and to many of my high school and college contemporaries, working for Kodak was one of those sure things in terms of employment, but most of those jobs didn't even last one career. All that film, all those chemicals, and no one needs it any more. In thinking about the hours spent in the darkroom, no nostalgic feelings are forthcoming even though there could be something satisfying about seeing what developed, or didn't. Don't miss it even a bit. Even though digital photography lacks the subtlety, the depth of the wet work, the convenience and ease is totally seductive, almost addictive. When each photo was expensive and took considerable time to produce, you took care with the initial shot. You had to actually think about shutter speed and depth of field. Old habits are hard to break and even with a nice digital camera and tons of memory the Phactor still takes pictures like it was a film camera. Now the primary worry is permanence, and already some digital images have been lost, not that the occasional slide or negative weren't lost or destroyed.

Display of the green aqua

Without planning to do so, the Phactor found himself in the middle of Chi-town's St. Patrick's Day celebration some five days early. Although nothing like NY and Boston, Chi-town has a lot of people with Irish heritage, and even more people who are looking for any excuse at all to dress funny, drink, and act foolishly, more or less in that order. So the city goes all out. Here's the Chi-town river, or one very large green beverage, stirred, or more like Evenrude blenderized, not shaken. Drinking this would probably do you less harm than the beverages of about equal volumes that people were actually pouring into themselves. And of course about 1 km from this scene, the river empties into Lake Michigan thus greatly diluting this beverage, just like waiting for the ice to melt in your drink. Somehow this didn't stir the spirit of my Irish heritage hardly at all.

Ornamental shrub nomination - Pterostyrax

The Phactor's search for a new ornamental shrub continues. Here's a nomination that came passively from the Niagara Tropicals blog: Pterostyrax, the epaulette tree. This got my heart rate up a bit. Score one because it's spectacular in flower, but like all flowering shrubs and trees, few have a prolonged attractiveness. Score two because it's a bit odd, uncommon. Score three, it's hardy, but our winters and summers can be a bit more severe than in western upstate NY. Worries are that it could get a bit big, but maybe at the Phactor's age it will be someone elses' problem. What think you? Anyone ever tried one of these? Anyone got a line on a really good mail order nursery? Ah, just found one, the Digging Dog nursery. Wonder if it's necessary to consult she who must be obeyed? Nah! Why risk a negative response?

Cool illusions

Optical illusions are wonderful things in the way that they fool our perceptions even when we know exactly what is going on. Have a look at this video, and then think about whether or not you're still going to throw away that old bicycle. Bet you could make some plants grow! HT to Bioephemera.

Sidewalk Gardens

You can garden anywhere. And the amazing thing is that plants transform a concrete moonscape into a very attractive and appealing place; such is the power of plants. The transformation just takes some imagination and the realization that you don't need much space. Think about those weeks that literally grow in nothing but a crack in the concrete. Here's how to garden a sidewalk. Just look at the before and after pictures. What a transformation! Now get out there and bust up some concrete! Just because you live in a city doesn't mean you can't grow things.

Turning your backyard into a natural area - involuntarily

This is situation is sort of sad; the land owners were conned, or at the very minimum taken advantage of by unscrupulous real estate developers. They buy a lot, build a house, and then find out their backyard occupies a conservation easement and things like patios, gardens, lawn, non-native ornamental trees are not permitted. Now that's real ecological lawn care. How is it possible to buy a property without this being disclosed? As development spreads into more rural areas, such conflicts in land use become more common, and like it or not, typical lawns are not endangered communities, which is why the easement existed. The solution seems simple. Go with the flow and have a natural backyard, that is, as natural as a secondary growth recovery from dozer blight can be, and move your garden, patio, and all to the front lawn (it's a way to meet more neighbors), and be thankful the easement didn't go through your master bedroom. Of course to property rights absolutists, this is an abomination, but no matter where you live, there will be restrictions, so buyer beware. Darn those rules; the Phactor has always so wanted to keep chickens.

Small Time Blogging Milestones

So hard to keep track of events and their dates; the Phactor isn't like Aunt Nan who remembers the when and where of everything. But the Phactor was reminded just now by a reader's inquiry that the Phytophactor blog just passed its third birthday a month ago on Darwin Day (Feb. 12, 2011), and a few days ago passed the 600th blog post. On average that's only one blog every two days, but my frequency has increased over time to about one and a half a day. That's most readily apparent because the 500th post came just 2 months ago. Readership has increased steadily from about one visitor a month to over one visitor a day! OK, visits to this blog actually average about 150/day about three times the average a year ago. Today marks the addition of the 50th Phactor Phollower, and like age, that seems like a nice round numbered milestone. How flattering that 50 people are so disturbed and desperate. My 1st Phollower is a relative who took pity upon the emptiness of it all, and it took a long time to reach 30, but since then new Phollowers have been adding themselves at the rate of about 1 every 10-12 days. That trend isn't expected to continue because the Phactor is running out of relatives. And of course all of this is rather small time, the basic fate of the independent blogger. The sell-outs get way more traffic, and one or two have enough content to justify it.
Sorry about the number of political/social/academic rants of late; one of the reasons to blog is to blow off steam rather than letting it morph into pent up anger, or higher blood pressure, or violence, although only a beating of a verbal sort is in my otherwise gentle nature, and quite a bit of what's been happening lately has been steaming me up. So thanks for sticking with me. And you should know, for better or for worse, that the Phactor is one of those kind of people with whom you can have an honest disagreement without him thinking you are an awful person; misguided maybe, but not awful. But gardening season approaches and that always improves my mood, as does daylight savings time.

Weird Science News - Tractor Beams

In case you’ve never watched a scifi (not scify!) space movie, one of the cool technologies of the future is the “tractor beam”, some sort of energy beam that can pull or attract objects to the source of the beam. Now they exist, on a small scale. And it’s very tricky, which also means the Phactor doesn’t really understand the physics involved, because usually a beam of energy will push on the target like one of those little light engines with the black and white flags that spins inside a glass globe when light strikes the flags. So getting a beam of energy to pull rather than push is quite a trick. Theoretically you could use a tractor beam to pull back your dog or kid running around without a leash, except it’d take a really big powerful beam; one with enough energy would incinerate the dog/kid just about the time it was beginning to tug on them. No one said there weren’t some bugs to be worked out.

1984 revisited - Legislating what science knows

The GnOPe war on science continues unabated. In an effort to strip the EPA of any power to regulate air-borne pollutants, especially greenhouse gases, a bill has been introduced by those towering legislative intellects Upton & Imhof that would define greenhouse gases out of existence as pollutants. Of course the problem won't disappear, but any need to take action will have been removed, which is more than anyone can say about greenhouse gases.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) tried to use a sarcastic reponse that you just have to love for all the good it did.
"Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet.
However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room.
I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Instead, I’ll embody Newton’s third law of motion and be an equal and opposing force against this attack on science and on laws that will reduce America’s importation of foreign oil.
This bill will live in the House while simultaneously being dead in the Senate. It will be a legislative Schrodinger’s cat killed by the quantum mechanics of the legislative process!
Arbitrary rejection of scientific fact will not cause us to rise from our seats today. But with this bill, pollution levels will rise. Oil imports will rise. Temperatures will rise.
And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. That is, unless a rejection of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is somewhere in the chair’s amendment pile."

The bill was approved just after. You might as well declare that the value of Pi is 3. Apparently to the likes of GnOPers you just don't know what the laws of physics will be like in the future. Legislators get away with this type of behavoir because there are no consequences; no one who matters (i.e., the voters back home) are calling them out on the carpet except those damn educational elites and they already know how to put them in their place. So folks, especially you who voted for them, you are to blame, and maybe, just maybe, everyone else out there who shares this planet should begin complaining about how stupid, easily misled 'Mercans are quickly making sure that our country will be a leader in degrading the only place we can call home. Sort of makes you proud, donit?

Visit to a Foodie Friend in Chi-town

It was just a brief spring break get away to Chi-town to visit the new digs of some friends who are in the process of relocating from college town to a Lake Shore Drive highrise. The Phactor couldn't live that way; rural roots go too deep. To celebrate our visit we dined at the Girl & the Goat run by famed Chef Stephanie Izard. It's located on Randolph St. between Halstead and Green in the old Chi-town produce market area, which is quite picturesque. A little produce is still distributed, but it's become a neighborhood for trendy restaurants. Girl & the Goat has a small plate menu which lets you try lots of different things from three different categories: veggie, seafood, & meat (goat). In general we gave the food very high marks; a few things were outstanding, a few were very, very good, and maybe two could have been improved with some small changes. Here's our sampling: Sauteed green beans & cashews in a fish sauce vinaigrette (great taste but wrong time of year for green beans which were slightly tough), chickpea hummus, goat feta, sesame & romesco fritters (wow!), large scallops seared in brown butter & garnished with goat sausage crumbles, shitake & winter squash slices (pictured - double wow!), fried wellfleet oyster with egg salad & capers (yum!), seafood (mussels, buttom clams, rock shrimp) fidoes in a saffrony sauce with pasta (oh, yes!), goat masala pizza (artisan goat cheeses, house yogurt, rapini, cipollini, & basil (it's to die for! Mrs. Phactor's favorite dish), roasted pork shank with truffled apples, spaghetti squash & truffle tapenade (pork was outstanding, something you'll judge all roast pork against, but the tapenade & spaghetti squash were just lost). And the Phactor would be remiss if he did not mention that his Old Fashioned cocktail was the best he's ever been served, anywhere (the secret may be that they use orange bitters - experimentation my follow). The atmosphere was busy, but nice; very good wait staff (you have to love psychic waitresses who just seem to know what you're thinking). All in all quite worth a visit next time you're in town. Girl and the Goat may be one of the 10 best restaurants in Chi-town all things considered, one of which is that a botanist can afford this, once in awhile.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow Wax Bells

Well, a day late and a dollar short, but that's because the Phactor was on the road, on the town, and out of touch. Here's a nifty herbaceous perennial called yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata), a native of Japan. In a partially shady area, this plant forms a large clump 3-4 feet tall. The nice thing is that it produces these 3 cm long yellow flowers in the late summer when not so many other things are flowering especially in a shady border. The corolla is quite thick and fleshy, although compared to some flowers, not especially waxy looking, and although this picture doesn't show it, mostly the flowers are pendent. Hardy to zone 5, it's a nice addition to a perennial border in front of shrubbery.

Seeking the perfect shrub

A long narrow garden ends in a round area about 4 meters in diameter next to our patio, and the lovely cascading Japanese maple that grew there died last summer, a victim of verticillium wilt. The tree was quite a focal point, and since Japanese maples are rather susceptible to wilt, replanting another right away isn't a good idea. The area gets morning sun, afternoon shade, and the idea is to not plant something of large stature which would block the view from the house to the yard and gardens beyond. Of course this area gets hot summers and cold winters, a lot of wind, so a certain degree of toughness is required as well as a minimum of zone 5 winter hardiness. So what to plant that will be aesthetically pleasing as a garden focal point and yet fit all the remaining parameters, and mind you, the Phactor gets quite bored with the ordinary, which is why there are over 150 different types of woody plants growing in our estate. So far nothing has suggested itself as a front runner replacement shrub. Your nominations will be accepted.

Go figure and 90-90 rule of project planning

The 90-90 rule of project planning is simple. The first 90% of a project takes up 90% of the time allotted. The last 10% of the project takes up the other 90% of the time. Publications are rather like this because figures are always the last thing to be finalized and finished, a fiddly fussy process that seems to take forever. This is compounded exponentially by the number of figures involved. So just when the Phactor thought he was over the hump and had all the figures ready for 11 chapters of a book, he discovers that all the figures were of the wrong file type (dang!) and then he finally remembers he sort of skipped over chapters 8 and 9 so as not to get bogged down in a spot where the figures were less finalized. This turned out to be something in the neighborhood of 25 figures that need to be checked for font of any embedded labels, resolution and size, cosmetic detailing, replacement with better figure, nifty changes to better illustrate something, and any way you slice it or dice it, several days of work. All but five were finished yesterday, and about 1/3 of all figures still need to be changed to a tiff format, and that's just about it for spring break. Trying to get a project like this done while classes are in session is just about impossible, but with a diligent effort, a very patient editor may well get this beast before the end of May. Of course field season looms and a prairie study site will need to be burned some time this week. But today is basically a day off occupied by waiting for a delivery of several tons of rocks (pond renovation project) and then off to Chicago for a nice dinner and evening out with friends.

Deny, deny, deny, then deny you deny.

Have you heard that congress is having hearings on global warming? This if a good way for politicians to become informed, to learn from experts, to find out about different ideas for action. But it's become a way to justify you initial ideology rather than a way to learn anything, and this is granting a big assumption which is that some of these people can actually learn anything. This is the modern way, the neoconservative way, of dealing with anything any expert tells you that you don't like. You deny they know anything, you deny anyone knows anything, you deny any scientific concensus and you deny any data presented, and then of course you deny you deny. It's simple effective way to deal with anything. Rather than argue about policy, about the consequences of action or non-action, you deny there's a problem, you deny there's any way to change the situation, you deny anything needs to be changed at all, and then you deny you deny it. If you voted for any no-nothing jerk like that, then you get everything you deserve, and the rest of us, the rational part of the population, well, we get screwed. There's a GnOP war on science, but they'll deny it.

Getting Serious - Climate change threatens Coffee!

High end shade-grown coffee production in Columbia is threatened by climate change: higher temperatures and uneven rainfall. Last year's coffee production by growers like Luis Garzon was down by 25% from their high production in 2006, but in fact growers had planned to increase their production by 40%. Coffee is a very finicky crop; it doesn't like the temperature to be hot or cold, and it likes regular rain fall. And this is the exact problem that people have yet to grasp; climate change will affect you! It will change what and where certain crops can be grown. Now you can raise fuel prices to over $5/gallon and it won't matter a bit to the Phactor, and we'll be paying what the rest of the world pays. For many people suddenly your commuting life-style, pitiful as it is, and size of your vehicles will matter. Too bad. It was time for a reality check, and you were living in a dream world. But now we're talking coffee, and that's serious, very serious. Hell, it's bloody addictive! If the elected bozos don't get off their bums and do something meaningful about climate change, a mighty army of very irritable people will be hunting them down. Understand? Coffee! This is serious!

Little green and purple things

So many blogs and so little time. It's quite fun to see what fascinates other people enough to blog about it, and the more so when the blogger is biological and actually includes green (and purple) things. Phil often has won plant ID quizzes and a link is provided to his Digital Botanic Garden, but while my intentions have been good, his tiny, tiny things blog (Beyond the Human Eye) has never been mentioned. My bad. To start out, you may want to see why certain flowers are purple. The image is of petal cells before a sweet treatment. The Phactor loves microscopy, but his aged equipment, while optically just fine, is stuck in the now totally dead film era and no $$ are forthcoming to fix the problem and go digital. And speaking of microscopy and looking at the wonderous little things that abound (remember - mostly unicellular) the Skeptic Wonder provides a window on these little known and under appreciated beasties. This one features cryptomonads, little solar-powered, armoured battleships that have a distant common ancestry with the brown algae.

Is nuclear retaliation ethical?

Most of you did not live through the peak of the cold war and the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. But the Phactor went from ducking and covering and building bomb shelters in basements, to integration race riots, to the Vietnam war. Small wonder most college classes and all grades seemed irrelevant. So what is the USA policy on use of nuclear weapons now? Against who do you retaliate if the attack is from a terrorist organization? What does the USA do if two other nuclear states some of which seem way more prone to rash action start trading big boomers? Is retaliation of the nuclear sort ever ethical? It does not seem so when the consequences are so dire.
In the certainty of some political circles these days it takes guts just to ask the question, and don't expect subtle nuances of reasoning in the answer. Reading this it bothers me anew that any one person should have such power at their finger tips whether you trust our president, this president, or not. And it's not just our concern, USA citizens' concern, because inherent in the presidency is the power to affect virtually everyone. What would the world think if USA voters gave that power to a simple-minded woman from Alaska or that fundamentalist preacher/politician from Arkansas who might well believe in an apocalyptic world view. If a little voice said, "This is God, Mike, I want you to use your power to bring about the apocalypse now." Would he stop and think that was a weird thought, or be true to his faith? Unfortunately the world we live in makes it important to know. Damn, that's depressing.

Who wants to live without this? Catnip Bubbles

With only cats voting, nobody in the Phactor household wants to live without catnip bubbles. Yes, these are like regular bubble-blowing bubbles, but laced with the active ingredient in catnip. So not only do these cool bubble thingies float around and disappear when you biff or pounce on them, and they smell so darned good. Everyone thinks they are grand fun, so this product is soundly endorsed by all le chats noirs that indulge sharing their house with us.

How did we live without this? Plastic wrapped bananas

What an innovation! Del Monte you've done it again! You've wrapped individual bananas in plastic creating a marvel of redundancy, but the amazing, truly stupendous part of this is that you're marketing wrapped bananas as a "green", environmentally friendly product. And what kind of a mind thinks that putting a non-biodegradable plastic wrapping around a biodegradable banana skin is environmentally friendly? Business major, Marketing. Nuf said? Could anything be more ridiculous? Could anything be more bananas? (Sorry about that, it was just too much of a temptation.) Here it is in their own words.
"Mother Nature may have thought she came up with the perfect packaging for the banana, but the man from Del Monte has other ideas. Del Monte’s new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill. The packaging is also recyclable.”
OK, now all of you who call the local green grocer and have your banana delivered really need to reconsider this practice and think a whole bunch about your life style. (OK that one was a reach.) Only a marketing person could add superfluous packaging and then say it will reduce waste going to landfills. Here's your new electric grapes; they'll save energy. Hopefully this venture will be a short-lived failure, but now that the Phactor thinks about it, individually plastic wrapped Idaho potatoes have been around for a couple of years now and why? You only want one potato, only buy one. And it doesn't need to be plastic wrapped to either bake it or microwave it, and in fact if you don't unwrap it you get a mealy, soggy thing like those foil-wrapped baked potatoes served in mediocre restaurants. At any rate, let me conclude by saying the man from Del Monte has other ideas OK, but they're all stupid.
HT the Daily Show.

As fast as greased bladderwort

Bladderworts are one of those really cool carnivorous plants that most people seldom see, and if they do they see the flowering stalks, they fail to notice the tiny bladder traps under water or in some instances under ground if the soil is very wet. Like other carnivorous plants, animals, little tine animals, are trapped to be decomposed/digested for nitrogenous wastes in habitats with low nitrogen levels. The Phactor has watched them through a microscope and they are wonderfully entertaining, but here is a high speed video to show how the really work. And boy, do these bladders suck. Here you can see the bladders on highly divided branches below water. The bladders are no more than 1 mm across.

Like that's so groovy, man.

Here's a web site that will blow your mind; it's dedicated to psychoactives and that means it mostly deals with plants and fungi. Even though a child of the 60s the Phactor was not drawn to psychoactives having seen too many messed up people; the worst were a mess before dabbling in psychoactives and it only made them worse. The postings are extensive including quite accurate botany and history, some of which is very interesting. So turn on your lava lamp, light some incense, pour yourself a nice portion of whisky (yes, alcohol is a psychoactive depressant!) and settle down for some interesting reads. Far out, but no mention of the Fabulous Furry Freak brothers. Bummer. Never heard of them? Click over an play 'Feds and Heads'.

Sri Lankan Dinner

Last night the Phactors and some friends received the payoff for purchasing a Sri Lankan dinner at a charity auction. Nothing like wonderfully aromatic and spicy food on a rather cold and surprisingly snowy night. Our hosts did a fantastic job of constructing an array of dishes that were a feast for both the eyes and mouth. This is one of the benefits of having been a Peace Corps volunteer; you can really absorb and appreciate the culture, and one of our hosts had become quite enamoured with their food much to our benefit. Sri Lankan food is similar to southern Indian food as you might expect, but nonetheless distinctive. The Phactor has traveled through both Kerala and Tamil Nadu and so knows his southern Indian food, and it was interesting to compare and contrast without getting too analytical. Food is probably the most interesting and in some respects easiest part of a culture in immerse yourself in. The most interesting dish at last night's dinner was a curry of boiled eggs. Who's up for a field trip? Here's a web site that can provide you with more information about Sri Lankan food.

Panama hats

The field season is approaching and the Phactor needs a new hat, not that you actually have to have a reason for a new hat mind you. If you are in the market for new head gear, of the Panamanian sort, here's a helpful link. Many people don't understand Panama hats. First, what country are Panama hats made in? Any true devotee knows Panama hats are made in Ecuador. And if you really know your stuff you'd know they are woven from leaf fibers not of palms but of cyclanths. Nothing is as classy as a classic Panama hat, but white hats won't stay that way long out in the field, so save that one for wearing to your favorite beach-side bar. And then please, don't order a girlie drink and spoil the effect especially with a bit of gray at the temples. Field work calls for more of a hybrid, Aussie design - Panama construction. Aussies like their Akubra's and the Phactor has had several. Wonderful hats, but like all fur-felt hats too hot out in the field, but you have to love the styles. So this Snowy River style Panama may be just the thing. After all if you can't get good data, you can at least look good.
Some of you may have noticed that these are not the most economical hats, but quite frankly any Panama hat under $50 is just not worth owning. Everyone will just know it's a cheap-ass hat. Although not shown here the upper end for Panama hats can take your breath away. Top end Panama hats have a fiber quality that makes them feel like a soft fur felt, not floppy, but supple. The Phactor tried on a very nice hat in a rather high-end shop featuring tropical men's clothing (Hey, you've got to have Hawaiian shirts to go with a really good hat.), and Mrs. Phactor admired the way it looked. But the style just wasn't right. The ever helpful clerk slithered up and directing me gently by the elbow said, "Sir, we have several other styles in Panama hats in the same price range over here." And what is the price range? "$1500 to $3000, Sir." "We don't have much call for the more expensive Panama hats." And if you are wondering, those are upwards of $5000. So fellows, if you wear some sad baseball style sports or seed company cap, they just scream "low-class clod"; wearing the same backwards lowers your estimated IQ by at least 20 points. Even one of the cheapy Panamas would be better. Now back to shopping.

March Snow - Signs of Civilization

It has been showering snow all day, and while it won't accumulate, it makes the day dreary as early March days often are. Saturday's quest was for gorgonzola dulce to use in a very interesting pasta for tomorrow (and probably the next couple of days too). Thirty years ago when we moved to this little part of heaven on Earth it was a total gastronomic wasteland. The "best" Italian restaurant around served ickily sweet bread; totally disgusting. And for a fellow who grew up in areas of New York state with very large Italian populations, it was unthinkable. Decent cheese, imported cheese, real bread, and decent wine were just AWOL and required a road trip to Chicago. What a difference a generation has made. My quest required but a single stop. Maybe it will snow tomorrow too, but cooking cheers me up. As will the cheese and ciabatta bread. These are signs of real civilization.

What are the odds?

A few types of mechanical devices are the bane of my existence. They exist to torment the Phactor. The largest category is anything powered by a small gasoline engine. With only one exception, they are a constant bother working with an inverse reliability to your needs. But the data points are building up, and presently the score is 9 to nil. Why do all smoke/carbon dioxide alarms sound their battery or instrument failures between 1 and 3 AM? All things being equal shouldn't they die with equal frequency during all hours of the day? Of course at a civil hour the blasted things would not jar you from a sound sleep with an adrenaline-induced heart attack. And then after the situation is put under control by ripping the innards out of the offending device, she who sleeps like a log mutters, "did something happen?" They do not make an alarm loud enough or persistent enough to alert some people who would die in their sleep if there really was an emergency and they did not have an ever vigilant partner looking out for them. And the bed cats are no help at all going from panic mode to are-you-going-to-feed-me-? mode as the situation is resolved. So what are the odds this happens by chance?

Plant ID the hard way - a quiz

One of the most common requests the Phactor gets is "can you identify this plant"? My professional alter ego once got a call from the local poison control center and they had a kid who had eaten a plant with, wait for it, red berries and green leaves. Wow, does that narrow it down to about 300 species. Are the leaves alternate or opposite? Silence; they are MDs after all. OK, have your security drive it over to my lab, and what arrives is one berry and one leaf. Fortunately that actually was enough, but it gives people the wrong idea about what is needed, besides one hell of a lot of experience, to ID a plant. So here's the latest challenge. Can you ID this plant from this photo from a reader in Saudi Arabia, which won't help a bit because as most of you know people seldom ever ask about native species? It doesn't help that the picture is out of focus, but no one said this was going to be easy. The genus seems pretty certain to me, but the reddish calyx, yellow corolla are a new combination in my experience. What are your thoughts?

Friday Fabulous Flower - White Butterbur

The white butterbur (Petasites albus - Asteraceae) is a not a really spectacular wildflower, but it is an early spring flower often found blooming right at the edge of snow fields at over 1000 metres in altitude here in Linconland. The scenery is the view in the opposite direction from where this spring flower was photographed. Now that's spectacular! Who would have expected that? Oh, wait, that's actually Switzerland. Sorry, it's easy to get confused what with all the similar places around like Lake Zurich, Lake Geneva, the mountains, and all.

Assessment versus teaching - again

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published a commentary that chides teaching faculty for not embracing assessment. And if we don’t embrace assessment, how do we know our students are learning? Do “we rely on evidence that is dubious (teaching evaluations) or circular (grades)”, they ask?
Well, girls, why are you so interested in this issue? Oh, yes, their commentary is actually flogging their soon to be published book on assessment, so you know of their deep commitment to learning. Once again the Phactor will pull on his boots and wade into this issue because he continues to wonder why to these women presume faculty don’t know when students are learning? You think we read about it in student evaluations? Hardly. Why would you think grades circular when those grades reflect levels of learning in evidence after extensive assessment? Basically it means they don’t trust faculty to do their jobs. Or maybe things are way more subjective in their disciplines? Granted the ABCs are not a nuanced reflection of my extensive assessments, but graduate schools and employers don’t want to read my essays discussing those nuances about various students in various courses; they want a quick short-hand of relative learning, grades. When asked for recommendations, the long version is provided. No, what these twits want is what many administrators want; some sort of broad assessment "instrument" (their word, not mine) that can be used across disciplines, colleges, and universities, although they admit that neither the National Survey of Student Engagement nor any other standardized assessment instruments, blunt as they are, can capture disciplinary knowledge and approaches to critical thought. That ladies is why they bloody well need disciplinary experts like me! My basis for reaching a conclusion that students have learned something is based upon their relative abilities to meet learning measures of several sorts including their answers to exam questions.
Here’s an example from just one of my disciplinary exams for an undergraduate course in plant diversity in its entirety less the more objective portions (definitions, factoids, etc.).
1. Chloroplasts and mitochondria are two of the cellular hallmarks of eukaryotic organisms. Evaluate the hypotheses that account for these organelles based upon observations and testable predictions.
2. Complex metabolisms appear to be constructed of smaller, simpler, ancestral components, some of which adopt new functions. Use photosynthesis and phylogenetic hypotheses to illustrate this concept.
3. Relative to the chemistry of the Universe how usual are the elemental components of life?
4. Ribosomal RNA sequence data provided biologists with a new phylogenetic understanding of all living organisms and had a major effect on our definition of Kingdom Monera. Explain.
5. Chlorophyll is composed of what type of building block molecule? What does phylogeny suggest about the hypothetical origin of chlorophyll? How does it differ in function from its presumed predecessor?
6. What are extremophile organisms, and why might our perspective of what is extreme be somewhat skewed? Why is the biology of extremophiles important to our understanding of early life on Earth?
7. What is the carbon biochemical fingerprint of life and what does it tell us?
8. Why is actin and actin binding protein so important in the early evolution of eukaryotic organisms?
9. For the longest time no fossil evidence of life was known prior to the Cambrian when fossils of large conspicuous organisms suddenly appear. How was fossil evidence of ancient life found? How old and what kinds of fossils were found? Then evaluate the sudden appearance of fossils.
Now having read those do you think students who can answer such questions have failed to demonstrate any learning? Think you could pull the answers for an exam like that out of the air and BS me without having done adequate reading and study, and learned something? Do you think the instructor incapable of discriminating objectively among excellent, good, poor, and terrible answers? Oh yes, and then later concepts are built upon these concepts, so cramming and purging won't do the trick. Do you still think you can capture disciplinary knowledge and critical thought on some sort of assessment instrument that doesn't simplify it to the banal? Sorry ladies, you sound clueless about the depth, detail, and sophistication of disciplines and that is the only gap that exists between teaching and assessment, so best leave assessment to us, the real professionals.

Lamarckian evolution of cat thumbs

The Phactor has long contended that what prevents cats from becoming lord and master of all they survey is lack of an opposable thumb, which didn't stop one of our long term companions from working on door handles, cupboard doors, lids of containers, closed boxes, and the steel reinforced combination locked kibble safe. If ever obsessive desire and need for a thumb could result in thumbs, well, this cat would have been all thumbs. It has been a long time since a commercial this funny has come along. You keep expecting one of them to say, rhetorically, "Got milk?"

First Flower of Spring - A Tie!

March 2nd is early for the first flower of spring; it's more like the last flower of winter. And wouldn't you know it, two of the usual contenders tied, both opening their first flowers on the same day. And talk about spectacular floral displays; virtually 100% of students and faculty walked right by without seeing a thing. How's that for observant? The red one, witchhazel, is easy enough for most temperate zone folks, but maybe you didn't recognize silver maple, which is pretty easily missed.