Field of Science

Za'atar grilled chicken

Some time back a Turkish recipe for our dinner group called for za'atar, roasted thyme with sesame. After quite a search the package acquired had about 20 times as much as needed, so what to do with the rest? When this recipe turned up the condiments-imperative required that it had to be tried. The results were quite good, in fact excellent, so especially if you find yourself with lots of za'atar.
3 cloves of garlic (or use roasted garlic)
1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary chopped
1/2 tbsp fresh marjoram
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest
a few dashes of Tabasco
1/4 cup za'atar
4-5 tbsp olive oil
salt & fresh ground pepper
Blenderize into a paste. Spread on onto 2 chicken breasts or chicken thighs and marinade for 30 min. Grill chicken. Slice and serve with cumin aioli (Whisk 1 tsp ground roasted cumin, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 1 small clove garlic minced, & dash of salt into 1 cup mayo.).

Climate change "facts"?

Bob Carter is a geologist and a global warming denier. His recent opinion piece in The Age titled "An inconvenient fallacy" shows him using his own facts. Not being an expert on most of the issues, the Phactor will confine his criticism to just one fact. "Fact 3. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is beneficial. In increasing quantity it causes mild though diminishing warming (useful at a time of a quiet sun and likely near-future planetary cooling) and acts as a valuable plant fertiliser. Extra carbon dioxide helps to shrink the Sahara Desert, green the planet and feed the world. Ergo, carbon dioxide is neither a pollutant nor dangerous, but an environmental benefit."
First of all, does this guy think the Sahara is a desert because of the lack of CO2? OK, well, guess he doesn't garden or have house plants. Probably just a pet rock, and it seldom needs watering.
Next, the stuff about CO2 and plants is sort of OK, but when temperature gets added to the equation things change, and not only won't the Sahara get greener, the Amazonian rainforest might get a lot grassier, i.e., tree death may lead to a grassland savana replacing tropical rain forest. This change-over releases more CO2 because all those woody stems are store houses of CO2 that begin decomposing after the tree dies. This happens all the time, but if there are fewer trees to make wood, more CO2 will be released than taken up. Trees die because the rate of plant respiration continues to go up as temperature goes up, but photosynthetic rate tops out and then begins to decline. This means at higher temps more respiration, less photosynthesis. In one of the few long term studies, tropical tree mortality and average temperatures are negatively correlated; trees just respire themselves to death at higher temperatures. So our geologist is only correct if temperatures remain steady, but average temperatures are positively correlated to atmospheric CO2. Now of course the biologists who have been doing the study, my friends the Clarks, get their salaries and research money from grants, and their data and analyses that get published all have to get by lots of reviewers taking critical looks at their data, ideas, methodology, analyses, knowledge of science, etc., and they've been very successful for nearly 3 decades now. And in just 10 mins the Phactor let the air our of one of Prof. Carter's "facts". So who you gonna go with?

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years.

Today was a glorious day so all the more difficult to deal with a great sadness. The Phactor met Betty nearly 44 years ago when but a callow youth. She was a singularly strong willed woman even then and only got more so as the years passed, but yet she was not without heart or compassion. However she suffered no fools, so carefully did the Phactor tread in courting and wedding her eldest daughter. Her passing came quickly, and somewhat unexpectedly, a blessing of sorts because she greatly feared being an invalid. Betty was the matriarch of the immediate family no matter what her husband thought. It seems clear from this perspective that her eldest daughter will take over her Mother’s leadership role, but not with such a heavy hand as now the family is but her siblings. Considering what an outsider the Phactor was, a non-Irish, non-Catholic, academic geek, and all, she almost always treated me well, ordering me around quite nicely in the early days, but eventually actually acknowledging my value even if another son-in-law was always her favorite (that suck up). Her daughter, my wife, evolved a life style very much different from her Mother’s because she was a pretty strong-willed woman herself, but for all of that Betty never acted as though it should be any other way, even accepting our cats. Just as she would have no one dictate to her, she herself would not dictate, except maybe a little now and then. Betty will be very much missed by all of us, and things seem a bit grayer today, as if an entire color has been removed from the palette of our family.

Insect hummingbirds

A neighbor was waving her arms at something flying about the garden. A first glance it appeared to be a hummingbird, but was way too small (3.5-4 cm long) for our local ruby-troated hummers. It was a day-flying hawkmoth (Macroglossum) and they can hover, go backwards, and rotate on a axis just like hummingbirds. They are wonderful insects and pollinate lots of flowers, mostly those with long, thin corolla tubes because they have a proboscis as long as their body or longer. Hawkmoths tend to be active in the early AM or late afternoon/early evening (crepuscular), but this one is day-flying. Our local species has a greenish fuzzy abdomen (viewed from behind) with a black stripe, so they might be mimicking a bee for protection from birds, and in this case it faked out my neighbor too. Image borrowed from a birder blog.

More on personified plants

Over on the AoB blog an article demonstrates that thinking of plants as people is often misleading. "There are times when anthropomorphising plants can effectively hide what is so fascinating about them." Ya think?

Bicycle design & human anatomy

The design for the classic bicycle seat was actually found in a dungeon torture chamber. Not only is too little surface area supporting too much weight, but the nose-shaped front of the seat puts a lot of pressure on a fellow's johnson. This can lead to erectile disfunction that no little blue pill can fix. Of course the tight little shorts don't help any either and they never were flattering. A re-design of the seat, a nose-ectomy, can greatly allieviate the problem and improve comfort. Although interested in an academic sense, none of this is matters to the Phactor because long ago the self-imposed torture of the traditional seat, and an aging stiff neck, led him to be an early purchaser of a bikeE, a wonderfully designed, great riding, semi-recumbent bicycle. Not only is it comfortable because you actually sit on your buttocks, but rather than the force of pushing on a pedal lifting off your seat, on the bikeE it pushes your back against the seat wasting far less energy. And the much lower center of gravity and the ability to put both feet down flat makes it safer for us "middle-aged" guys. Unfortunately the company is defunct, bought out and shelved (?) so they are getting quite hard to find. So take note guys, an anatomically correct seat can keep everything in working order even if you can't get one of these.

The biology of Marriage

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council claims scientific validation for one-man-one-woman marriage. "Marriage is a natural institution—rooted in the order of nature itself.
The reason marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman is because it takes precisely one man and one woman to create a new human life. Marriage is treated as a public institution because it is in the public interest (not just in the private interest of particular couples) for the human race to reproduce and continue into future generations."

Sure, that's why different human cultures have viewed marriage in so many different ways. Clearly this fellow knows very little about biology. Mating just isn't so simple out there, why plants have something like 16 different sex expressions of which just one is "male and female" plants. Harems the norm among many animals, so a sultan's harem can claim the same; it's a natural institution. Pair bonding is in no way the norm, and promiscuity is everywhere! Does Peter wish us to castigate celibates or childless couples because they choose not to reproduce? And when a burgeoning human population can be found contributing to so many of our problems, indeed, is it in the best interests of future generations for the human race to reproduce quite so much? Of course, we all know that none of this actually matters; science doesn't support his position. It's all about religion and religious bigotry aimed at homosexual marriage, but rather than say "my religion makes me a bigot" they try to suggest science supports their position. In the small minds of such people as Peter, the only religious freedom is their religious freedom, and everyone else had better conform. Think carefully about political candidates who proclaim a religious motivation for seeking public office, especially those who say god told them to do it. Fortunately just enough legislators in New York State saw the issue clearly enough, without a religious bias, that our USA democracy took a small step forward. The rest of them would happily endorse their version of the Taliban.

Are plants intelligent?

It never struck me that they were intelligent at all. Meristemi asks, "Do plants dream of green sheep?" Clever, and clearly influenced by Philip Dick. Are plants persons? No, although this does not mean natural objects should not have standing or a right to exist, and people do not understand plants as capable organisms as opposed to inanimate objects. As pointed out over at the AoB blog, a primary instigator of such a question was Anthony Trewavas who wrote an AoB article in 2003 about plant intelligence, and others have talked about plant behavior, and there's even a society of plant neurobiology for the study of non-existent plant neurons, all perhaps as a result. "A simple definition of plant intelligence can be coined as adaptively variable growth and development during the lifetime of the individual." Plants of course to react to each other and various aspects of their environment, but calling growth phenomena intelligence, or even a behavior, still seems rather anthropomorphic, and it eludes me how this improves our understanding of plant reactions and communication. As pointed out sometime back, these terms have considerable baggage, unintended implications, and rather than understanding "intelligence" as meaning plants can grow in response to things such that they improve their chances of survival, people immediately begin talking of plant sentience. They should spend more time talking to their petunias. This all leaves me wondering if wading through Matthew Hall's book will be worth the time or not. Let me know if you have a go at it; for now the Phactor is giving it a pass. Such ideas can go no where good; bans on coleslaw and carrot sticks will surely be next.

Bird dispersal

Fruit eating birds are great seed dispersers. Small seeds pass through the GI tract and get depositied hear and there in bird droppings. Larger seeds and pits get regurgitated after the fleshy parts get ground off in the birds crop, and this often results in much larger number of seeds, and all in the same place. Bird behavior determines their movements, and as a result seeds end up in a non-random distribution. This becomes very evident each year when the weeds are removed from under a large bald cypress. Clearly this big tree is a favorite place for birds to roost after having eaten. Based upon the seedlings pulled, a dozen or more for every square foot, wild cherries were a big favorite, following by pokeweed. Other bird dispersed seed include hackberry and black raspberry. Fortunately this tree has a deep accumulation of organic material, and the pulling is easy, if you don't wait too long. Slowly the Phactors are gaining on the weeds, but soon travel will reverse all that. Ah, well.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Swamp Milkweed

Well, just like that the Phactor is two days late on posting a new fabulous flower. How does that happen? Milkweeds are much under appreciated as having beautiful flowers. The individual flowers aren't big, but they grow in some huge clusters and in some great colors too. As a native wildflower, one of the best is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). The native plant is quite handsome and a number of pretty vividly colored cultivars are in the market too. It's a bit of a struggle for our garden because of the late summer heat and accompanying drought. As its name suggests, swamp milkweed like a wet setting. This one was growing on a shore. And few flowers attract more butterflies than do milkweeds.

Seviche, ceviche? Lemon, lime?

As a fellow who has no facility for foreign language, some things have always been a puzzle. Now the lemon-lime thing has been fairly easy to figure out, mostly. In Mexico a variety of lima is consistently called limon, and in Costa Rica their limon is a green skinned, orange-fleshed lima as best can be determined by me. Real lemons are rather rare throughout Latin America it seems, however, in terms of cuisine, certain varieties of lime and lemon seem to converge and can be used almost interchangeably. Spelling of s/ceviche, and its pronunciation (silent e at the end? each or chay?) has eluded me as have the conjugation of verbs in French and Spanish. But no matter, the combination of fish and citrus juice denatures protein in a very tasty manner. And the Phactor should get busy putting this together for a party later instead of blogging, or he will have to answer to she-who-must-be-obeyed.

Refill or recycle?

Those of us of a certain age remember when milk was delivered or purchased and the bottles were returned and refilled. So was beer. Long neck bottles always had two burnished lines around the bottle from repeated trips through the bottling machine. Those of us who have been known to brew a bit now and again now covet such bottles for personal use. But then along came waxed board and plastic containers, each used one and only one time. Now if you would believe this, having kept and cleaned green, standard wine bottles for a period of either six months or six years or so, quite an accumulation of bottles has occurred. Indeed, a couple of hundred or so. One purported purpose is to have a local glass artist use them to construct an object d'art for our garden. But now an enterprising business, unfortunately at an inconvenient distance, will refill wine bottles for about half the price of wine in single use bottles. How civilized! How green! Now if only they would pick up the empties and return them filled! Once again, charging forward into the past.

Finish book, check. Well, almost.

The Phactor's real-life alter ego has been a busy scholar of botany. During May, two manuscripts were completed, one start to finish, one finishing up a 3-yr-old project, submitted and accepted for publication at a major journal within 3 weeks and put to bed. Electronic communications make such head-spining speed possible, and if you do not appreciate this then you've never dealt with typed manuscripts, hard-copy photographic plates, and the mail. A third manuscript submitted earlier this year was accepted with revision and those are nearly done. But the big, it's-been-going-on-forever, gorilla-on-my-back project is a book on plant diversity for a more general readership, and it's done, today, well, almost. A nagging little chore remains, and that involves getting copyright permissions and correct attributions for all the figures that do not belong to the Phactor or that are not in the common domain. Hardly had the process begun, and already an undeliverable email has bounced back at me. Doesn't that mean they waive their rights to exercise copyright? And then you find the perfect image, a truly excellent photo, and not unreasonably, the photographer would like compensation, but even modest compensation is out of the question when you have no picture purchasing budget. This means you end up relying on fellow academics to do you a favor. So will the end of June arbitrary deadline set for submission be met or not? Hard to say. But as Douglas Adams used to say, "I love deadlines; I like the whooshing sound they make as they rush by." Of course, publishing a book here in the twilight of books may be a foolish endeavor anyways, but it will still feel like something big was accomplished. Ah, but the Phactor has posted 342 (!) blogs already this year, and everyone knows that's where the action is! Please tell my chair.

With June rains come mushrooms

There was a time the Phactor was quite good at the identification of fleshy fungi, but alas, not enough practice of late. The near record rainfall of June has begun producing quite a diverse array of mushrooms. This morning several Boletus bicolor had appeared over night along with a very handsome Russula emetica (dull red cap, snow white gill, white flesh, very brittle). Several others are not known by sight. Had to practice my fungal ID skills for a vet who was worried that a dog might have been poisoned by mushrooms in his owner's yard. And you always must worry about IDs when something is on the line. In this case it was a pretty easy one, Coprinus atramentarius, an inky cap mushroom that is edible unless you're drinking something alcoholic at the same time, and then it produces some most unpleasant symptoms (sometimes this mushroom is called the Tippler's bane). You can also make ink from this mushroom as they dissolve themselves into a black inky goo. Coprinus is quite well known for popping up quickly after rains. Unfortunately this provided no assistance to the vet because the dog was a non-drinker, but you feel bad for not having an answer.

Like many people he regarded most wild mushrooms as poisonous, toadstools. Now what do toxic mushrooms have to do with amphibian furniture? While in grad school a grand old man of mycology told the Phactor that "toad" was really "tod" (German for death), and stool was being used as in "stool pigeon", a decoy, thus implying that non-edible mushrooms were "death-decoys". Some people are way more mycophobic than others. A few years back the Phactor scored quite a harvest of horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis), a close relative of the mushroom of commerce as it's picture shows, except these grow in your lawn and bruise yellow. Some guests were treated to a wonderful mushroom sauce, and when one woman asked where these delicious mushrooms came from, and yours truly gestured to the side lawn, and said, "From under than oak tree.", she almost became physically ill from the thought of being accidentally poisoned. Well, as they say, you know they were good mushrooms if you wake in the morning.

Seduced by a tart

At times a man just can't help himself, and this is no prelude to an admission of extra marital affairs, illicit interactions with students, or inappropriate pictures on the internet. No, this was just having my head turned by what must be called a painted lady, in this case an azalea whose name is a bit tartish in a Victorian sort of way, "Hilda Niblet". How could this plant not have a female name? Unfortunately she's a bit too delicate for our climate and struggles mightily in one location and languishes in another, which is too bad because a low-growing azalea is ideal in both locations. For a smallish shrub, Hilda has big pinky-blushy flowers, but she only managed a single bloom this year, and that came 5 weeks later than last year. Given the snow cover this past winter and its general mild nature, Hilda's reaction is a bit puzzling, but she'll get another chance next year.

Honorific immortality

One way to achieve a certain degree of name immortality is to have an organism named after you. Generic names or specific epithets (2nd word of binomial species name) that are constructed upon someone's name are called honorifics. Botany is just littered with honorifics, some of which are famous (Linnea, Darwinia) and others which are rather obscure (Magnolia, Poinsettia, Nicotiana). And then sometimes honorifics are combined with a taxonomist's idea of humor like a new fungal species, in this case a sort of puffball (a gasteroid bolete) that was named Spongiforma squarepantsii. Of course this isn't the first species named after a cast member of that cartoon, there's a phytoplankton, as drawn, a stramenopile, named Shelton J. Plankton, but maybe that isn't an official species name. This is how to have fun with taxonomy.

Midwest Weather - Strange

June is already one of the wettest on record and it's only the 22nd. And the temperature seems to be fluctuating from well above to well below average. After two hot, muggy days, it's quite cool today. Now there's two things about this. One, models of global warming predict that greater vacillations will occur before the means actually change very much. As the Phactor has always said, you can average the weather, but there is no average weather. Now it seems the variance about the mean is getting greater, which would be a true prediction. Two, the bloody prairie loves getting all this water, and more short students than ever will be getting lost out there. This will make vegetation harvesting and data gathering a lot more work. Groan. On the good news side of things, the raspberries look big, the rejuvenating strawberry bed is looking good, and snap peas are getting ready to eat. Just about time to get out the buffalo (not bison) and till the rice paddy, too.

Monsters under the bed

If you think monsters live under your bed or in your closet, it's hard to sleep. But when you stop believing in monsters under the bed, they just go away. And so it is with media monsters too. When you stop paying attention to them they just fade away. They feed on the attention, and when not fed, they become malnourished and thin. As this happens they appear even more transparent than usual such that you can see right though them. And thus perhaps as the public's political fascination with Sarah Palin dwindled, and as the media attention waned during the bus trip to no where for nothing, or the type of attention she wanted was not what she got, her cross country bus tour ended halfway through without even visiting politically important states. So unless the media begins running around and clapping and reporting her every move, poof goes Palin. A lot more media monsters would go poof too if only the media would wait for people they report on to actually do something important before paying them any attention.

Gnu Math Making Change

My lunch today cost $4.23. The young man working as the cashier saw the 5-dollar bill and rang up the sale, but failed to notice the quarter along with the 5-dollar bill. "I can't do that", he said, "I already rang it up." Now of course what he was actually saying was, "I can't do the making-change math in my head." But the Phactor knows a teachable moment was present. "OK, I just gave you 25 cents for a bill of 23 cents; how much do you owe me in change?" Blank stare. "2 cents", says the manager. "Now I just gave you 5 dollars for a 4 dollar bill; how much change do you give me?" Panicked stare. "One dollar", says the manager. "But I already rang it up", said the young cashier. "It comes out the same", says the manager. But you have to know when you're defeated. So after taking back the quarter, the change came to 77 cents. Relief swept across his face. "Are you a business major?" "No, communications." That was my second guess.

Environmentalism is actually an act of self-defense.

Most people just don't get it. So here's Mother Nature telling it like it is. Protecting your habitat and nuturing its inhabitants is self-defense.

Stoopid! Dilution works!

Apparently the city of Portland Oregon thinks homeopathy works. After a security camera caught some fellow taking a piss into the city's reservoir, they flushed 8 million gallons of water down the drain. Now let's suppose this fellow really needed to go, and deposited 8 oz of urine into the city water supply. That comes out to something like a few millionths of a percent. In common parlance, that amounts to nothing, unless of course you think water has a memory and no amount of dilution matters, the basic premise of homeopathy. This is the problem when people can't think. Here's a demonstration of the problem that's totally appropriate to the problem, ah, but bet they didn't shake the reservoir to invoke the magic of water. The correct solution is to tell everyone you drained the water, and then just not do it because no one can ever tell the difference. Although in a very counter intuitive thought experiment, if you throw a glass of water into the reservoir, and it disperses evenly, what are your chances of getting at least one molecule of your original water back if you dipped in your glass?

Look what's "flowering"!

During a recent greenhouse visit a species of Ephedra was in "flower". Ephedra is a small shrubby plant of cool deserts better known as the source of ephedrine, and in Asia it's long been an herbal remedy for asthma and poor circulation. Here's several of the pollen producing cones. Branching structures that bear the sporangia and protrude out from among bracts that compose the little cones. The bracts occur in pairs and subtend the sporangia bearing axes each of which during development is enveloped by a fused pair of smaller bracts. So here's a pollen producing structure surrounded by a pair of modified leaves growing in the axil of a bract. That's pretty flower-like even down to having a perianth. Ephedra even has double fertilization, but both produce zygotes, although only one will develop, so no endosperm is formed. The genus is a member of the gnetophytes, a group of pretty strange plants that was once thought to have affinities to flowering plants.

Tropical day

Today would have been typical enough in the rain forest of Costa Rica, but while just as humid, and not all that hot, it was all the misery without any of the tropics. And the mosquitos were already bad around here, now with another 5 cm of rain no decline in their population is expected. It was a good day for weeding, except it was a bit muddy. So a sticky, muddy, sweaty, miserable day for gardening, especially weeding. Good thing friends invited us over for a late afternoon cookout so the Phactor had an excuse to quit yard work early. In the only amusing thing of the day, two young rabbits were chowing down on the top leaves of weeds that had been pulled from the raspberry patch.

How dumb is too dumb?

The Phactor remembers telling a conservative colleague that no one dumber than Reagan could ever be elected president, and then along came "W", and now people are encouraging Texas Gov. Rick Perry to run for president, and as put by Bill Maher, he makes "W" look like the smart one. Apparently there is no bottom threshhold at least for a discouragingly large segment of our electorate. This whole crop of candidates is so depressingly bad, and that's why, even though quite opinionated, the Phactor generally stays away from blogging about politics. It gets me down. It ruins my day.

Field trip - Iris

Here in Lincolnland we have the city of Princeton just NW of where the Illinois river decides to go south rather than west. Princeton is a lot like the city of the same name in the east except here there is no university of the same name. What is there is Hornbakers, purveyors of iris, daylilies, and hostas. Since the peak flowering season for iris happened over Memorial Day weekend when the Flyguy and Aunt Nan were visiting. Since Flyguy is an iris fancier, we mounted a field trip in spite of extremely iffy and troubling weather, but after crossing the weather front twice, once through a harrowing thunderstorm, it turned out OK because "it never rains on a field trip". Here's a picture of a little less than half of the iris display bed where you can walk up and down the rows with your order form checking off varieties you just have to have. In particular on this day, following a thorough pounding, it was easy to assess those with robust flowers and flowering stalks.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Rhododendron

Friday was one of those days when you set out to do too many things, and for reasons too difficult to explain, not to mention what some would call misplaced priorities, but still the Phactor will apologize for not posting a fabulous flower on Friday. The Rhododendron-Azalea season comes to an end in mid-June with the flowering of this Rhododendron, a big, old-fashioned plant that was well established on the property when we acquired the two. It tends to lean up against the chimney, and at 8-9 feet it dominates the back of this garden. The particular variety is uncertain (anyone?), but it has a wonderful quality largely lacking in most of the short, common varieties, although many gardens are too small, or too well kept, to deal with its size and more open branching habit. In particular this shrub is a welcome addition to the early summer garden by flowering well after all of the other Rhododendron/Azaleas. Now if only the laural oak under which it grows would stop dropping branches on it in fits of jealosy.

Comng soon - The world is flat

Any day now one of the GnOPe presidential candidates will declare the world flat, in accord with the Biblical views of their followers, and their minions will rush off to change Wikipedia entries that say "globe", "globalism", "globe", or "sphere". Apparently the present day conservative mind thinks they are entitled to their own facts, especially those facts that shore up conservative ideology, even if those facts were mere fictions, whereas facts laboriously gathered and documented that fail to support said ideologies are blithely discarded, ignored, or disparaged. So this is what GnOPe is coming to - a party of No-nothings, but ideologically pure.
GOP! GOP! Ignore the science; drink the tea!
Notice how it works both ways. This is a nice slogan for chanting at various gatherings, and since the Phactor holds the copyright, it can be bought for the right, far-right, price.

Why do cut flowers smell so bad?

A reader asks: “I've noticed that after flowers have been picked, they start smelling differently. For a long time I thought roses at the store smelled horrible. Then I noticed that the lilacs I pick will start smelling the same way a couple of days after I pick them. They change to the wonderful smell of lilacs to a horrible stench. Do flowers give off a death pheromone? Thanks.”
This is an interesting question, and the Phactor is uncertain he knows the answer. Floral scents are complex, and they often wane after being picked, and the most likely reason is simply they do not have as much water in their xylem stream, water under as much push-pull force to create as much scent after being cut. However, the transformation you describe from lovely to horrible stench is not something personally experienced. But no, there is no “death pheromone”, although decomposition does smell bad, and the cut end of bouquets can get pretty “ripe”. Perhaps some of my knowledgeable readers can suggest some alternatives.

Keeping track of little things

Some time about 15 years ago while doing something down on hands and knees out in our research prairie plot, a small number of green twayblade orchids were discovered. Besides being green, these orchids are only about 12-15 cm tall on a good day. So a species was added to the list of plants present bringing the total number of orchid species to three. Last week the current park director asked if the priaire still had 3 species of orchids, and while the other two are quite apparent and reasonable common, the green twayblade hadn't been seen in 12 years. And then just three days later while doing a species census on our plots, much to our surprise because this was an addition, and much to our even greater surprise because this was in prairie vegetation that is already over a meter tall, was a green twayblade orchid. Failure to observe this orchid for over a decade was not because no one was around, but simply because it's such a small and inconspicuous plant. This shows how hard it is to document diversity, and this would be a county record too, but the Phactor isn't going to kill an orchid to put a dot on a map. Yet no type of comprehensive floristic study has been done in this area for more than 100 years, so parks and nature areas don't know it they are gaining or losing species because no inventory, no point of reference exists. Some records, herbarium specimens, do show the loss of some plants, Indian paintbrush and yellow lady slipper orchids, for example. But 100 years ago no one was thinking about the long-term; most of the collecting was done to teach and learn taxonomy. Now in fantastic hind-sight the value of such collections is obvious. Unfortunately, now no one wants to fund such an effort so that in another 100 years someone isn't saying the same thing about us.

A narrow escape from a horrible place!

As it happened, a social invitation took us to an unsavory side of town, so bad that initially the Phactor was surprised to learn we knew anyone who lived there, the Burbs! It was ghastly! First of all, it’s one of those places with a pretentious name, something like Eaglecrest, or Mountainview, or Cornrow, and only one of those has any relationship to realty reality. From the moment the car door opened, the monoculture of evenly mowed and neatly trimmed grass was over whelming, the waste of time and effort appalling, the peer pressure enormous. Trees were stuck here and there into this green carpet of turf like lollipops with neat little donuts of colored, oh yes, nothing natural here, mulch. And then the worst, all those poodled shrubs, neatly rounded, or sharply squared. Somehow a glass of wine found my hand; it was white, the wine, of course. The lovely hosts began introducing me, Mrs. Phactor being well known already, and in so doing said something to the effect that he, being me, has the most gorgeous garden. But compared to what? The whole development was just one step above a Walmart parking lot aesthetically speaking. Had the car keys been in my pocket, the Phactor probably would have bolted on the spot, and as it was, it required great will power to suppress the urge to scream and run, but holding out bravely, until about the time the smoked salmon was consumed, it being a necessary accompaniment to the wine, having had the wine choice made for me so the only correction was food choice, an escape plan was quickly devised, and with a thank you to our hosts, we carefully, least any harm befall us from gangs of roving lawnmowers and hedge trimmers, escaped back across the beltline into the safety and serenity of our urban setting. What a close call! The horror of it all still creates shivers.

The Blob - It lives!

Just as the Phactor was getting old enough to go to movies, scifi was all the rage, but the special effects back then were pretty cheesy, so you never got too scared. In 1958 The Blob featured a space alien (back when being alien always meant from outer space, not just somebody from next door) that consumed all life forms. Wow, what a concept! Oh, and who starred in that movie even though he wasn't really cool yet? So imagine what a thrill it was to find out that the blob really exists in the "body" of a plasmodial slime mold, a multinucleate sac of flowing cytoplasm that consumes all life forms it can engulf. See how similar they look? Plasmodial slime molds are the T. rex of the unicellular world, the most fearsome predator on the cellular world. The cytoplasm within the plasmodium flows back and forth in channels formed by stiffer cytoplasm (actins and actin binding proteins), and like waves coming ever higher on the beach with the incoming tide, the plasmodium surges in one direction or another allowing the beast to "crawl" in a amoeboid fashion. The biggest (This one is only about 20 cm across.) and most impressive makes its appearance just about this time of year because people have been spreading bark mulch around garden beds, and all those bacteria and fungal spores are just so tasty, waiting there to be engulfed by a blob of cytoplasm in the form of Fuligo septica, often affectionately called "dog vomit". Often the plasmodium is bright yellow when they appear, but exposure to light stimulates spore formaton resulting in a change in pigmentation and the plasmodium will darken to a brownish mass of spores.

When did life get big?

Macroscopic fossils, fossils big enough to be seen with the naked eye, appear in the late precambrian, and they come in a surprising variety, but if the Phactor remembers correctly, and with a check in the literature indicates he does, actually the oldest macroscopic fossil is a seaweed similar to red algae that dates to 2.1 billion years ago, not some 600 million years ago. Now this was not actually very spectacular at only about 2 cm tall, and since red algae are basically filamentous, it makes sense that they were among the first large organisms. Even at such a size, such a tiny seaweed would tower over a microbial mat community like a redwood towers over a moss. So actually life got bigger a lot eariler than many people suggest. This was the second of two big episodes of size increase in the history of life, the first being when eukaryotic organisms appeared allowing cells to be considerably larger than prokaryotic cells. Multicellularity allowed organisms to be even larger resulting ultimately in blue whales and redwoods.

Species diversity - Prairie community

Our census of species found in each plot of our study continues. So much fun to figure out one grass from another when they aren't in flower. But what's interesting are several general relationships. One, addition of mineral nutrients in a nutrient poor environment, reduces the number of species, more grass at the expense of forbs. Two, removal of a hemiparasite, a green plant that nonetheless is an obligate parasite, reduces the number of species, more grass at the expense of forbs. Three, the presence of a non-native, invasive species, increases the number of weedy species, and reduces the number of prairie species. A present the species census is about half done, and the Phactor hopes his back holds up, although in a rather counter intuitive manner, the tall vegetation plots are harder to do than the short stature plots, which differ by about a meter in height now.

Weed with an attitude

Honey, would you be a dear and remove a couple of weeds from my perennial garden? Sure. What a epic struggle! The weeds in question were pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), and they were 6 feet tall with roots all the way to southern hemisphere. The tap roots were actually larger in diameter than my forearm, and the bloody shame of it is that there's nothing good you can do with such a nastily toxic plant. Why a fellow can work up quite a thirst pulling poke. And how do they get so big so fast? Looks like we neglected the garden for years, but not at all. Our might weed wrench doesn't work on them either because the herbaceous stems, as big as they are, are too soft for the jaws of death.
Innovation: Saw a fellow pulling up big old tent stakes with a nifty device and pulled them using a small motor driven puller. So what about hooking up weed wrench type jaws to such a motorized puller? Any handy inventor types out there to whip up a prototype?

Lettuce - crunch time

It's crunch time for leaf lettuces. If you planted lettuce early in the season, then by now it's bolting, and since it's laticifers are maturing, it gets disgustingly bitter. Laticifers are the cells or ducts that produce latex, milky sap; hey, the genus is named Lactuca after all. This happens because the shorter nights of June induce a change in growth, a shift from juvenile vegetative growth to a mature reproductive growth, and lettuce is only edible in the juvenile form. One way to push the season a bit, is to plant some lettuce later, and then grow the late lettuce as fast as possible because this seems to prolong the juvenile growth phase the most, although some varieties respond better than others. In particular the oak leafed varieties seem best at retaining the juvenile rosette growth form, but you must watch it closely, ready to harvest at the moment you detect any bolting. After this, you just have to wait until August and start planting all over again.

Floral Art

This is extremely cool. Flowers, in shades of white to green, clustered into fields, floral pointalism, a mosaic of flowers, and the effect is really nifty. What kinds of flowers are being used here? Chrysanthemums? Wonder how they get each and every flower to be in position just so? Unfortunately this is from a photo image site, so no information hardly at all about the image except the floral show at Ghent. How big do you suppose the circle is? About 40 flowers across, maybe 5 cm per flower, so 2 meters?

Prairie - early June status report

Already the tall vegetation part of our research prairie has vegetation shoulder high (1.5 m) and so dense just finding the plots becomes a problem, and of course one of our experimental treatments is nutrient augmentation! So the cool wet weather had produced a bumper crop of vegetation. Pale purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, wild quinine, false indigo, and green-fringed orchid are all coming into flower now. Unfortunately an invasive legume, Lespedeza cuneata has continued its relentless spread and this does not bode well for this little restored prairie, which otherwise is very high quality. A very rare and seldom seen orchid in this area, Liparis loesii, green twayblade, was recorded in one of out plots, a first. It had been 12 to 14 years since last seen, of course, it's 4 inches tall. Recording the species growing in each meter square plot takes quite a bit of time, and so our efforts will continue for another week or so. We could use some student help, short ones, so they're closer to the ground, but then keeping them tied together so they don't get lost is a pain. The real challenge is identifying the grasses & sedges when they are not in flower! Oh yes, some fun!

Friday Fabulous Flower - Foxtail Lily

This was quite a surprise. Last year we got this bulb, and up came some leaves and they died down pretty quickly, so either dormant or permanently dormant, and then we planted this new ornamental pine right next to that location having completely forgotten about the bulb, and so it was a surprise when up came quite a whorl of leaves followed by three nice big inflorescences of this foxtail lily (Eremurus) and it's quite a floral display. Maybe some more of these will have to be added to the garden.

The hotness of being a botanist

Middle aged men who think they are more attractive to women than they actually are may be afflicted by a "hotness delusion syndrome". You think? Firstly, the Phactor is well beyond middle age, and never had any illusions of being "a gift to women." Having spent the last 40+ years working on college campuses, surrounded with young women, it hit me right around the age of 40 that as a sex object the Phactor had become invisible to young women. Curiously, young women pay more attention to me now than then, perhaps a manifestation of the "harmless grandfather syndrome". When you say botanist, the bar isn't set real high on the expectations of being your being hot, especially on the male side because remember as a profession a great many of my colleagues are female, a higher proportion than any other scientific field, and nearly all of them good looking (covering my bases here), especially the lovely Suzanne. Without question though the best looking botanist is a paleobotanist, and he's so good looking you could get a gay flash from his flowing, perfectly-coiffed platinum hair, his Gallic profile, adorned in a cream colored blazer over a plum colored shirt, and so on. He's so perfect he could be a werewolf from London. So with this obvious exception, most of us are geeks, some less, some more. This became quite obvious when after hearing a lecture from a noted science educator who extolled us to make science "cooler", thereby deflating her case because nothing is less cool than saying "cool", to attract more kids into careers in science. Now in high school, how many of the cool kids were actually top achievers in life? Based on my experience, one or two; the rest were a flash in the pan who topped out in grade 12. At the end of the lecture the Phactor asked for a show of hands from those 200-300 people in the audience who were actually "cool" in high school, and exactly one person professed to being cool, and yes, she still exhibits some of those cheerleader hallmarks at times, clearly an exceptional exception, oh, but she married a chemist, a dead geek giveaway. The rest of us were geeks. So in a way you must pity these poor people who were terribly impressed by their own hotness in their youth because it wanes, it lessens, and then what have you got besides some old pictures? This is how formerly hot people get their lives in a mess; they can't face reality. But you take a guy like Al Franken and you can be pretty certain he knows how he looks and figures it's way better to get ahead by being smart and clever than to be a has been high school hunk. So clearly what people should look for in their botanists, in their leaders, in all walks of life, are geeks who know who they are. So everyone can be quite certain that the Phactor has no sleazy phallic photos phloating around on the internet, unless perhaps we be talking about aroids, titan aroids! Talk about hot!

Teaching Evaluations - Filed away

Let me tell you about teaching evaluations. Students are quite good at telling you what they like and what they don't like, and mostly good evaluations correlate negatively and rather strongly with how difficult or how much work is involved, especially in non-majors or introductory courses. This is part of the problem when your supervisors pay too much attention to student evaluations without understanding the dynamic. When faculty are rewarded for good student evaluations, it leads directly and inevitably to pandering. Fortunately the various chairs of our department (seen them come, seen them go) have understood that you don't want to see universally rave evaluations, and of course, you don't want to hear that faculty are rude, inattentive, disorganized, etc. either. Fortunately the Phactor regularly polarizes classes, and fortunately the lazy, poorly motivated ones are out numbered on the order of 3 to 4 to one in my classes, so over all my evaluations are very good, but with enough flack to demonstrate that no pandering is involved. One of the big problems in junior colleges, and even many small colleges, is that student satisfaction is the supreme accomplishment. This is not a recipe that produces a challenging learning environment. But that's the way it goes. Students haven't changed that much over all these years; they still like and dislike the same things, but with some creative approaches, you can optimize the number that you can cajole into working hard enough to really learn something.

When is a flower not a flower?

Some flowers are quite strange, and some are not at all what they seem. So let's begin at the beginning. It seemed like a good idea when a shallow cement basin was discovered during an archeological dig in our garden to preserve the structure and convert it into a boggy habitat. This didn't go particularly well initially, but presently the current residents (marsh marigold, cardinal lobelia, bishop's weed) are doing fairly well if squirrels would leave things be. The toughest of these is the bishop's weed (Houttuynia cordata) which wouldn't be all that attractive if it were not for cultivars with varigated leaves. This is easy to grow in wettish areas making quite a nice ground cover, and in fact having it confined in concrete isn't such a bad idea. At any rate, while not it's most spectacular feature, it flowers here in early summer. Now actually what you are looking at are very very small flowers on a spike, a columnar inflorescence, subtended by four white bracts that have the appearance of a perianth making the whole thing look like a flower. Actually only the flowers on the lower third are open. Aggregations of tiny flowers into spikes is typical of the lizard tail family.

Weedism vs. anthropocentric botany

This was awhile ago, but scholarship got in the way of blogging showing some misplaced priorities, but still this deserves a reply by way of understanding how things go.
Over at
Casaubon’s Book, the Phactor added a comment stating that “Weeds were any plant growing where you didn’t want it, ” and Darwinsdog jumped my case:
Who are "you" (or "me" or "we") to say where a plant should or shouldn't grow? I say inoculate the planet from orbit with the propagules of everything, and let flourish what will wherever it will. And let be out competed and go extinct whatever will. How about that? If it works for humans, why not for every & all other organisms? What's with such blatant anthropocentrism?” Oooo!

An old cartoon shows a dog at a computer saying to another dog, “The niftiest thing about the internet is that no one knows you’re a dog.” And maybe that explains why darwinsdog seems to dislike a human perspective so much. However, in one sense, and only one, is the charge of my being “blatantly anthropocentric” true. The current success of weedy species is completely a product of human activities. Just as a thought experiment let’s do as this cur suggests and let the chips fall where they may after inoculating the entire Earth with weeds of all sorts, with no regard for what humans want or need, and now, based on a knowledge of ecology imagine the outcome if humans were not involved.
Weeds in a biological sense are adapted to disturbed habitats, so there are two kinds of weeds, natural ones, and those that exist because of our activities, and without the agricultural/horticultural activities of humans disturbances largely disappear becoming smaller and less common. Nature produces disturbances too but as patches in a much larger landscape although some patches can be pretty big. Weeds grow fast and produce lots of offspring that are very good at dispersing, a necessary response to surviving in a patchy environment. A few weed offspring must find a new patch of disturbance because the patches themselves are short lived, replaced by a succession of organisms among which weeds are poor competitors. Initially weeds would have a field day, but their success would be short-lived as a success of better competing organisms began to push them back into the patches of disturbance that would naturally occur. In the long run, weeds would be put back in their rightful place. Weeds would be a minor element in the landscape as a whole, but only a very small population of gatherer-hunter humans would be able to make a living in that type of environment. So to take anything but an anthropocentric perspective simply ignores the current state of affairs, or you end up suggesting the human population should be reduced to pre-agricultural levels, which is a pretty drastic reduction. So our survival demands that we decide what plants will grow and where, up to a point. And this is my point, as it now stands, with vast tracks of land disturbed by human activities, we have provided vast opportunities for weeds, and we either let them take over, briefly, before nature relegates them to their proper place, or keep them in check in favor of our pet plants. If darwinsdog wants, he can have all the weeds recently removed from my asparagus for din-dins, while keeping my pet plant for myself. After all that’s the balance of nature, even if darwinsdog doesn’t seem to understand it.

Do tigers stalk your garden?

It's not exactly a jungle out there, but this particular tiger does stalk our garden, the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. With a wingspan of some 8 to 15 cm it's hard to miss, and in a diverse perennial garden, the adults find plenty of appropriate flowers for feeding. A corner of a side yard tends to light up with very late rays from the setting sun and butterflies, particularly red admirals and tiger swallowtails, often put on quite a mating/territorial flight displays, spiraling columnar flights of 2 or more butterflies, as many as 15 red admirals at times. One of the reasons that tiger swallowtails may be so common is that members of the magnolia family are their larval food plant (and maybe rose family too?), where their caterpillars feed, and big tuliptrees are quite common in our neighborhood, not to mention the Phactor's magnolia collection. Females can be black and confused with black swallowtails.

Making sense of scents

One of the Phactors favorite early summer plants is Magnolia virginiana, sweet bay. In our area is grows as a large shrub, and rather than flowering in a big, all at once bang, it produces a few flowers for a couple of weeks. Among all of the cultivated magnolias, this species probably has the smallest flowers, 8-10 cm across when open, but what a display! But it's not a visual display although the creamy white perianth is pretty enough; it's an olfactory display. In the early evening and through the night, the recently opened flowers flood the area with a magnificent fragrance, almost intoxicating. If the air is still you can pick up the distinctive odor from 30 or 40 feet away, even further if you are down breeze, and that's with a human nose, not the keen sensory apparatus of an insect. When you actually stick your nose right up to the flower, the scent is almost overpowering. And it's very difficult to describe, spicy-floral-musky-pheromony type of scent. Wow! That's why you plant these fairly close to your patio. They attract an array of small beetles who find the flowers by following these plumes of scent and then sort of blundering into the cup shaped flowers.

Determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes

An interested reader asks, "What's the difference between determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes?" First of all, understand that in the temperate zone tomatoes are grown as an annual, but actually they are sort of a scandant (sprawling) viney plant, but they aren't hardy. Most plants are indeterminate, which in the most general sense means the grow throughout their lives because plants have meristems, perpetually juvenile tissues. Most "old fashioned" tomatoes were indeterminate, so they just kept growing and they could get pretty big. The stupid things sold as tomato cages in most garden stores are laughable. My local good old boys garden store makes their own out of heavy fence and they stand nearly 6 feet tall. Tomatoes easily out grow them. Once had a cherry tomato grow so large it got pruned with hedge shears and we were harvesting 2 quarts of tomatoes a day at peak harvest. So such tomatoes will produce until the season gets too cold. Determinate tomatoes were bred to be a better fit for small gardens, and more importantly to produce a peak crop, something very useful for mechanical harvesting for process tomatoes. So determinate plants grow to a certain size, then flower and fruit producing a lot of fruit over a short period of time. So each has their advantage, but even still most tomatoes get bigger than most people think.

Strange animal

You have no idea sometimes what strange beasts roam your domain. This one has yet to be identified what with 4 eyes in the middle and an undetermined number of appendages; 3 ears maybe; black with little while splotches here and there. And people wonder why they can't figure out what they're looking at with purported photos of big foot. This critter was shot at close range and the quarry was dead still, nearly lifeless, typical enough just after breakfast, performing a primary duty of guarding the furniture. Oh, no, it just divided! If this beast is capable of continued binary fission there won't be enough kibble, or couches, to go around.

Not a good year for Iris

So far this hasn't been a good year for the Iris in our gardens, in particular, Mrs. Phactor's German bearded ones. Some years the displays have been magnificent, but a combination of pests, and problems, and what not, decimated her poor babies. Even some of the most reliable ones have barely produced. The pond renovation has left the I. pseudacorus high and dry, but it will be back. The Siberian iris must need replanting because they did little. I. cristata bloomed OK, as did a couple of dwarf bearded iris that are particularly reliable. Here's a new one in that category, sort of a new take on old iris, but it's quite prolific. So we'll dig them all, treat them for pests, replant them and fence them in, and maybe next year will be better.

On the weed war path

A late spring and a sudden transition to summer (drinking an iced coffee) has done nothing for my humor or my field work, but the weeds have done quite well, and so the Phactors have declared war upon weeds. Please notice that there was a formal declaration of war after we were invaded first and we only wage war to protect the homeland gardens. Here are the worst offenders: Indian strawberry, creeping charlie, oxalis, tillering grass, and the usual array of woody weeds: wild cherry, hackberry, sugar maple, redbud. In shady areas there can be 100-300 woody weed seedlings per square yard, and if you don't get them young, you end up with many less, but much harder weeds to remove (all hail the weed wrench!). The next step will be re-mulching lots of beds and paths. One good trick for gardens and paths is to put down either two layers (2 sheets) of newspaper or one layer of construction paper under the mulch. It decomposes but blocks weeds quite well for a season. This is particular important around shrubs and trees that do not like the fabric weed barriers, which are only useful under hard scape. Here's the real secret about weeding; get Mrs. Phactor going. She's a demon on weeds, sort of gets to a point where she just can't stand the sight of them any more, and shazam! Oops, caught taking a blog break!

I love the United States! (I'm just not going to protect it.)

Good old Mitt announced his intent to run by saying, "I love America." Who doesn't; they're great continents. This already shows so little understanding of the relationships of our country, the USA, to the citizens of other countries occupying this hemisphere (they get annoyed that we coopt America for our own) that you already know his foreign policy will be a disaster. Since Mitt and other GnOPers love this country, no question they will do anything to protect it, except look out for the environment. A GnOPe wish list has been compiled (by the NY Times) and you can see it and some comments over at Treehuggers. Warning: the short version is simple - give energy companies anything and everything they want, and ignore science, period. Sounds more like Mitt should have said, "I love corporate America, the rest of it just doesn't count." We know where you're coming from Mitt.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Spiderwort

Several varieties of spiderwort (Tradescantia, named after a botanist of the 1600s) are flowering in our gardens, and they are quite charming, trouble-free plants. Funny how they look more purple to the eye, but always photograph more blue. Anyone know why? The spider part comes from the hairly stamen filaments. Now go get yourself a microscope. Put a few of those hairs on a slide in a drop of water, putting on the cover slip so as not to trap any air bubbles, and have a look. The hairs look like beautiful purple pop beads. Each bead is a cell largely filled with a big vacuole (think water balloon), so the cytoplasm is displaced to the edges and margins of the cell, sometimes looking like strands pressed between the vacuole and the cell wall. This is a good place to see cytoplasmic streaming. And this was the first place a biologist ever saw a nucleus in a cell! Oh, this is a good trivia question! Who was the biologist?

Berry-Go-Round #40

Another roundup of plant related blogs from the month of May has been posted by a generous blogger, so there should be lots of flower pictures, and you won't be disappointed, except of course for the blogger dope who wrote about sphagnum moss. No flowers there. So click on over to Sitka Nature and wander around a bit.

Street tree - Japanese lilac

Here a suggestion for a small flowering tree to plant along a boulevard, a Japanese lilac tree (Syringa reticulata). While bigger than lilac bushes, these trees are small, usually no more than 20-25 feet tall, and slow growing, so buy the biggest one you can afford. They bloom later than "standard" lilacs, late spring and early summer. In particular the plumey affect of the inflorescences as they transition from green to creamy white is very handsome. On our campus they make nice landscape trees between buildings and sidewalks, and because they are a convenient size, they seldom out grow their spaces, or not quickly at any rate. The flowers are quite fragrant, but a bit muskier than standard lilacs. This is a great tree to plant when you've grown tired of flowering crabs and Bradford pears.

Top 10 New Species for 2011

National Geographic has constructed a list of the top 10 new species for 2010: it consists of one bacterium, 2 fungi, and 7 animals. This is about par for things in biology these days: no plants. Now don't get the Phactor wrong here; some of these are pretty cool organisms. The iron metabolizing bacterium is actually sort of ho hum, but it was found "feeding" on the Titanic. This is not really an unusual metabolism. One of the fungi is an aquatic mushroom, and who knew they could do that? No question that's one creepy leech. But no plants. It's a good bet that they didn't even try very hard to find one.
So here we go, Yasunia is not a new species, it's a new genus with 2 new species, a member of the laural family from South America. How about them apples? A new genus! New genera you don't just get every day like new species. Hope that evens up the score a bit!

What's in a name? Strawberry?

The origins of plant names is fun, fascinating, and frought with ambiguities for those who choose to figure some of them out. English as a conglomerate of languages has more than its share of strange word origins. Strawberry is one of them. Now the genus is not much of a problem. Fragaria - clearly from the same root as fragrance, and, oh, do ripe strawberries smell good! But what's straw got to do with these berries? Perhaps this is one of those sound alike sideways changes that are so perplexing. Maybe they were strewberries; to strew meaning to sprawl along the ground, which certainly describes their growth pattern by runners, stolons. Even more interesting is the Shrewsbury Cake, sort of a short bread cake with a strawberry jam layer in the middle. Could this have been a strewberry cake, rather than a confection named for a small city in the UK? Well, who knows, and if you have some ideas to add, well, do tell. But the Phactor just picked a couple of quarts from our little patch, so guess what we're having for dessert?

How a university works - summer salary

Most of us work a 9 month contract, which means we get 8 monthly paydays, and two half-month paydays (August & May). There are 3 ways to get paid 11 months of pay. One, get the university to pay you your 9 months of salary over 11 months. This is for people who have serious issues with making and keeping to a budget. Two, get a grant that will pay your salary for 2 months. Three, you can teach one or two classes in the summer term. The Phactor is no dope, so option one is out. The number of times the Phactor has had that much grant money can be counted on the fingers of one hand, so generally #2 has become quite unrealistic. And quite frankly once the Phactor figured out how the university calculates your salary during the summer, #3 was out because not only is the summer time for research and scholarly activities, who wants to work for half pay! Yes, that's right half pay. How can that be right? Well, here's a quick lesson on how faculty get paid. The university says faculty must teach 12 FTE (fulltime teaching equivalents) to get our monthly salary, which for purposes of easy calculations, is $4000. A 3-hour course that meets 3 hrs/week is 3 FTE, so you could teach 4 3-hour courses, which comes to 12 contact hours with students a week for the 15 week long semester (and what with a little before and a little after is 4.5 months long). So you decide to teach a 3-hour summer course, so the university says, that's 1/4th of 12 FTE so you get 1/4 of your monthly salary or $1000, BUT you only get that for the 2 months of the summer session. OK got that so far? Do you see the problem? You've got 45 contact hours to fit into 2 months, so you must meet the class 6 hours a week to do that. Now let's compare the results of teaching 1 3-hr course during the regular semester and during the summer session. During the semester you'd get $1000/month for 4.5 months or $4500. During the summer session you'd get $1000/month for 2 months or $2000. Now students pay the same tuition for 3 credit hours, but in the summer the faculty member teaching the course gets about 45% as much salary as during the regular semester. What a deal! An administrator once disputed this calculation, and after putting it all down on a white board for him, he simply said that isn't correct, but couldn't tell any of us the error. Now it's not that old U of Lincolnland is paying the Phactor all that much anyways, and no question, the Phactor can be bought, just not cheaply. This caused a serious problem, a bit of a rift in fact, between the Phactor and a rather tutonic chair who said PP might have to teach in the summer whether he liked it or not. But since no 11 month contract was forthcoming, contract negotiations broke down. He had difficulty accepting that he could not afford my services, and could not treaten or brow beat me into signing the contract. This all left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth regarding summer teaching, and having vowed to never do it, the Phactor has proved unwavering. How fortunate that Mrs. Phactor keeps me in a comfortable style affording the luxury of saying, "No."