Field of Science


Gardeners delight - 2nd law of thermodynamics negates weeds!

After a while you get tired of trying to explain biology and especially evolution to people outside of the field, and this includes mathematicians like Granville Sewell. In a recent publication GS argues that the 2nd law of thermodynamics negates evolution because order increases and the 2nd law says entropy, disorder, must increase. Ah, but as has been pointed out to the critics of evolution every single time this comes up, the Earth is not a closed system which this law refers to. There's a constant input of energy. But Granville gets clever and says he's done the math to show that when "…all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments,[and] it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here."
Now the Phactor isn't a physicist or a mathematician, but let me have a crack at explaining this. Life itself has the ability to capture energy and grow which decreases entropy, locally, for a relatively short (on a cosmic scale) period of time. Life doesn't violate the 2nd law, it just slows down the increase in entropy, and no law says you can't do that. Eventually all the energy captured dissipates as heat increasing entropy. What Granville is arguing is that life is not possible, let alone evolution. Since he sees nothing entering the Earth that can increase order, evolution must be invalid. Let’s simplify things. Granville doesn’t understand biology or how life works at all, so he’s going to reject the whole thing. When a mathematician tries to unexplain biology, 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4, it equals baloney.
But as the Panda's Thumb pointed out this is great news for gardeners because weeds can't grow and increase in numbers in your garden. And Granville's got the mathematical proof! But here’s what will happen. This foolish paper, even after being thoroughly sliced and diced by better and more mathematical minds than mine, will become the darling citation of creationists and it will be touted as “science” demonstrating why evolution is invalid.

Very nifty animated evolutionary timeline

This is simply an unparalleled animated graphic of the history of the universe. And as you might expect it starts out showing very little and nothing happens until you click on the slider and start moving along the timeline. Lots of things happen and you may have to repeat some parts to get everything. Very clever indeed.

Berry-Go-Round #37 - February 2011

With no fanfare or trumpets, no banners or bugles, here’s February 2011’s Berry-Go-Round #37 , a blog carnival of the latest plant and plant-related blogs from here, there, and yon. The Phactor has always wanted to visit yon. Thanks to all the contributors; hopefully nothing got left out, and you discover some new things, some new blogs, some new bloggers.
Let us start with people who aren’t suffering from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, in February unless it’s their rainy season. What’s Mary’s line, er, vine, er, liana? We’re dying to find out, but it’s a serial blog to be continued. Go to The Accidental Botanist and enter your guess. Over at Beetles in the Bush, Ted got over the seasonal blues with bamboo orchids, and a reminder about conducting Google searches in the native tongue wherever you are.
That poi, poi boy Matt over at The Scientist Gardener blog provides information about that tropical starchy staple, taro, past and future.
Brushing aside any thought of the tropics, Seed Aside is still in full winter mode fixing seasonal soups here, here, and here, but with a catch, the botanical ingredients are only given by their Latin names! But to be consistent, perhaps it’ll need a pinch of sodium chloride. Eat hearty folks.
No one can resist the first flower of spring motif, but darned if this isn’t a bit pessimistic for an optimistic event. But the heart-warming aspect of this Slugyard blog is that skunk cabbage is a heat generating plant; good trick for early spring flowering even if they become First Flower for the Deer?. The Digital Botanical Garden featured that pre-eminent spring flower, the primrose, and how it's floral forms intrigued prominent Victorian botanists. Lastly in this mini-theme category, over at Anybody Seen My Focus? presents a somewhat under whelming spring flower, but it's Joan’s First Wildflower of 2011: Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). Hailing from that 3d world state of Wisconsin so oft in the news of late is Sonoran Trees VC spotted a parasite upon a parasite, and so on infinitum, one mistletoe species as an epiparasite upon another mistletoe (good eye there), so confirmed by my downstate colleague, Dr. Dan Nickrent, a renowned expert on parasitic plants. And still more Sonoran botany from Jade Blackwater at Brainripples, pinyon pine and junipers. That’s where all the little pinyon nuts come from, and you may be sad to learn that each one is a pregnant female!
Continuing on with edible plants John over at Fascinating Experiments provides a list of his top 10 foraging for food plants. A taxonomic note of caution for the would be wild foods enthusiast; be certain of your identifications because in some of these cases a mistake could be your last.
The Phytophactor’s haploid contribution to botanical blogging featured those under appreciated plants the bryophytes: liverworts, hornworts, moss, and sphagnum moss. In an unorchestrated demonstration of great minds thinking alike the very same week, Meristemi posted a blog about those conquistadores of land: mosses. Following along on this under appreciated plant mini-theme was Foothills Fancies' blog on lichens, those ancient little symbiotic organisms that seem to be able to grow anywhere, and may in fact have been among the earliest dwellers upon land.
This was far more fun, far more interesting, and far, far more informative than watching the Oscars. Now the Phactor would like to thank everyone, and, oh, my gosh this is too exciting, and of course thanks to my parents, my lovely wife, the creators of the WWW, Al Gore, and of course, those green stars of the show.

Wake up an smell the coffee!

Last night was a meeting of the dinner group that we have been part of for over 30 years. Naturally it's a bunch of academics, and although the dinner was superb (rack of lamb with pesto, rosemary roasted potatoes, gelatos with florentines, and so on, all things mighty and good), the conversation turned to recent world (everyone's a world traveler) and domestic events. The concensus was that everyone hoped that the "Silent Majority" still existed in the USA, the real mainstream, and that sooner or later they would get aroused. Now it's not that everyone thinks things are okey-dokey, but just that the right-wing solutions presently so fashionable are simple minded at best and counter productive at worst, not to mention an affront to tolerant people. So much to my surprise while the Phactor is cruising around the web this AM he discovers the Coffee Party. Whether or not this will help provide some balance, it's hard to say, but their message does resonate right now, and it's a good logo. It can't hurt. Here's their mission statement:
"We are Americans working to create a fair and inclusive society. Our members represent the diversity of thought, background, and circumstance that is found in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods of our country. We are a meeting place for Americans seeking common ground and collective action to strengthen our democracy.
We maintain our independence from all political parties and labels. Yes, we are non-partisan, but being non-partisan does not mean we will not take positions. It means that Coffee Party members will arrive at positions based on principles and facts; not on party affiliation. By seeking and spreading accurate information, we empower ourselves to take action and participate in government based on informed decisions.
The Coffee Party provides a place where men and women of all ages, races, physical abilities, and orientations can come together for a respectful and honest exchange of ideas. We believe that by talking and learning together - we can take action to solve the problems facing our nation. Along with national goals, we encourage Coffee Party chapters across the country to pursue local and regional projects chosen by their members.
As voters and grassroots volunteers, we understand that the federal government is not our enemy, but the expression of our collective will – and we pledge to both support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them. The Coffee Party USA believes that the influence of money, and the politics of fear and exclusion, stand in the way of a government “of, by and for the people.”
We believe in the Constitution and ‘the common good’, and will work to ensure that the voices of the people - not the power of the dollar - decide the policies and the direction of our nation.
Our love of country is not based on division. It is founded on our shared belief in democracy, equality, liberty, and justice. These are the ideals that define us as a nation. This is the heritage we wish to pass on to future generations."


What fox Mr. Knox? According to an insider at FOX "News" it's all a charade, a political propaganda organization who say "fair and balanced" with nary a fact check in sight. Well, duhhh! After all when Mr. Bluster, aka Bill O'Really is your intellectual shining light, your beacon of fairness and balance, still dizzy from spinning his ideological perspective, the bar is set very low. And of course this is exactly what people said would happen if a media mogul of a particular political bent decides to control the message. We seem to need a people's cooperative media with only one purpose, to report what is factually known while dismissing what is clearly crapola. Oh, no wonder the Tea Party wants to defund National Public Radio & TV. The biggest curmudgeon in my profession always used to say you need to have your crap detector turned on at all times. But it's getting hard to read or watch the news at all these days what with the red light blinking in my eyes.

Time to start gardening

It snowed last night, not much, just a white dusting, but as February winds down it's time to get the garden going. Some years ago the Phactor acquired a 4 x 6 foot cold frame (only about $70), sort of like a small greenhouse composed of a plastic tent over a frame so it can be easily assembled and disassembled. The greenhouse effect even in such a small structure is sufficient to get cold-tolerant garden plants growing. It works best when using planter boxes and a potting mix because they heat up faster than the soil beneath. Leaf lettuce, mesclun mixes, green onions, and spinach work particularly well and this is the route to some early salads. Leaf lettuce seedlings can also be grown for transplanting out of the greenhouse later to grow into those huge heads that they like to show in the catalogs. OK, this always produces way more salad than we can eat, but there are really only two amounts: enough and not enough. None of my neighbors are going to complain about receiving my over production, and because they wonder, too much asparagus is just a theoretical concept. Now to find the best bargain on potting mix and get things started.

Creating mythologies

One of the things the internet has done is connect previously isolated people with people who share their beliefs and viewpoints, no matter how far from the main stream they may be. The effect is empowering, and when coupled with perceived political success, fringier thinking comes out of the closet. Almost one hundred years ago, Bertrand Russell, wrote, "Individual passions, except in lunatics, produce only the germs of myths, perpetually neutralised by the indifference of others; but collective passions escape this corrective, and generate in time what appears like overwhelming evidence for wholly false beliefs." It's not that odd collective thinking didn't happen before, but it's just so much easier now, so much more prevalent now, so pervasive now. Aided and abetted by a non-descerning media, such mythologies when often repeated take on an undeserved and unmerited reality. And as a result, the majority of main stream thinkers, never having reason for organization before, finds itself wondering how to respond. HT to the Daily Doubter.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Clusia

Nothing like a tropical flower to brighten a February Friday. This is Clusia uvitana (Clusiaceae or Guttiferae) and the whole plant is pretty interesting. This species can grow like a strangler fig where its seedlings sprout up in a tree, its roots growing down and its crown growing up until it replaces its former host. Like figs it exudes a latex when injured. Most of the species are dioecious (two-housed), which means pollen flowers and fruiting flowers on separate trees. The flowers are fairly large, in this case about 5 cm across when open, and the perianth is very waxy, looking quite artificial to some respect. Pollen and fruiting (this one) flowers look similar. But the most interesting thing is that a resin exudate is used as the floral reward for small bees(lower left, look closely) who collect it for nest building.

Clever Affordable Housing

You might not want to live in one of these tiny houses, however if you were without shelter, and had little money, these are pretty amazing. It would cure your too much stuff problem. Didn’t realize our garden shed was potential rental property, and the knotty pine paneled 2nd floor of our garage (who knows why; it was done decades ago) could be a community center.

Alma Mater doing what it does best - hockey

The Phactor graduated from SUNY Oswego a very long time ago, and in that part of the country the primary religion is ice hockey. The cathedral rink occupies a prominent location smack dab in the middle of the campus only slightly over shadowing the library. The SUNY campus is in a beautiful place, at least during the summer, when the Phactor was in a factory earning tuition, and a rather bleak place during the winter, but lovingly referred to as Tundra Tech. Here's a PR photo of the campus for prospective students (Hmm, my dorm room window isn't visible in this photo. Have to get that fixed.) and a clip from the campus web camera this AM. Notice the difference. Yes, that's Lake Ontario on the horizon where the gray water and sky come together beyond the ice. So for the many faithful who endure it is only fitting that the Lakers (LA who? Where's their lake?) would end their season ranked number 1 in NCAA Division III. And if you don't like hockey, well, as we used to say, go puck yourself.

Eat your vegetables!

If your Mother didn't ever yell at you to eat your vegetables, well, let's just say it's a given part of growing up. Now of course my Mom's motivation was to get you to eat right, and it was such a struggle until you finally realized that your Mother's idea of cooking was to cook everything into submission, and when properly cooked, why vegetables were much better tasting and way more appealing. Funny, the only thing that was actually cooked properly was sweet corn, and that was my Father's special province.
In order to maintain good relationships with my colleagues in the pseudosciences, the Phactor tries not to criticize their research, but this particular study caught my attention (HT to The Thoughtful Animal).
Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children’s Enjoyment of Vegetables (Psychological Science 2011 Feb 1;22(2):190-6.)
The experiment, which included controls (yea!), involved giving children rewards (tangible but non-edible, tangible & edible (desert), repeated exposure without reward, and a control. Where was the yelling Mother? OK, pretty unrealistic, but still, OK. The experiment involved having children sample carrot, red pepper, sugar snap pea, cabbage, cucumber, or celery. Well, my plant oriented readers will notice right away that only the 3 Cs are vegetables (carrot, cabbage, celery). And psychologists still think sex and gender are the same thing too.
Ah well, Rome wasn't built in a day. Oh, yeah, the rewards worked. But, if memory serves me, so did yelling.

A Lame Holiday in February

Someone somewhere, but no one knows who, declared Tuesday February 22nd National Margarita Day. Nothing would please the Phactor more than to celebrate one of his favorite beverages, for which he has generously provided you with a tippler's recipe, but this holiday is just plain lame. You simply can not drink margaritas inside or in weather where you cannot sit outside wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It isn't done, at least not in the best circles, and personally, we do not travel elsewhere, and with perceptive and sophisticated readers, perhaps this is preaching to the choir. So what kind of dolt decided a day in February, a month whose only redeeming feature is brevity, would be a good time to celebrate the best uses of lime juice and tequila, either separately or combined? Clearly they are not of the northern temperate zone, and the southern temperate zone, what there is of it, has just never caught on to margaritas. Officially summer here begins when the Phactors can come home from work, sit on their patio, gaze at their botanical creation, and sip a margarita. Yesterday there were snow flurries, and you can't even have those in the same sentence with. Margaritas. Unless you are one of those low-life, low-class no-nothings who actually drink those abominations called "frozen margaritas". A shiver just ran down my spine and it had nothing to do with the cold. This holiday will be celebrated when the Phactor says it can be celebrated! So don't put all your salt on the sidewalks.

Recalculating, reconsidering, or maybe everyone says something good sometimes

Not a big fan of Ariana Huffington or the HuffPost; too little quality control. So never really cared much what Ariana thought about anything, particularly what she would do if queen of the world so imagine my surprise when she tromps all over media objectivity, the obsessive attempt to offer "fairness" in reporting to the point where rediculous ideas are equated to well considered opinions, where cranks are on equal footing with experts. Wow! Oh, but not satisfied with that, Queen Ariana would force people to disconnect from their constantly plugged in life style.
"Why? “Knowledge has three degrees,” wrote the third-century philosopher Plotinus, “opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition.” Our always-on culture has contributed much to the first two kinds of knowledge—science and opinion—but has in many ways taken us further away from our inner resources of wisdom. We need to pull the plug on our hyper-connectivity; to disconnect from all our devices in order to reconnect with ourselves." In other words take some time to think. The Phactor has been saying this to students for years that with their constant distractions and ever present audio inputs, they never take time to think, and it's a skill that must be practiced. If an idea or concept isn't immediately obvious as they look up from their smart phones, then you're a poor teacher. Not sure Darwin would have ever figured out anything if he'd had the internet and a cell phone. And maybe she wouldn't look too bad in a tiara.

Dear Lincolnland

Over 30 years ago, the Phactor entered into a contractual agreement with the state of Lincolnland and in return for my services certain benefits were my due. Mess with this and it will be war. Why does the Phactor deserve these benefits? Well, having earned a below average salary for over 30 years might be one reason, and for that the state got two and half months of free labor every year because out side of our 9 month annual contract, my pay came from grants, or the research and student training, my attendance at and participation in professional meetings, was all done gratis, to maintain and further my professional standing, and by extension my university and state. For over 30 years this academic bargain has been your faithful servant endeavoring to improve the institution of my employment by keeping its administrators honest, recruiting the best students, delivering the best educational opportunities circumstances allowed, initiating courses and programs, and the like. For all of this the Phactor has received several nice pieces of wall candy (awards, commendations), but if it's all right with you what this humble academic wants and deserves is his pension, every stinking nickel of it! And if the Phactor is to suddenly have a lot of retirement time on his hands, every damned minute of it will be focused on making life unbearable for the politicians and state administrators that jerked me around. So glad we understand each other, Lincolnland. Lincolnland?

Handle with care!

The capsaicin content of chili peppers keeps going up. The Indian ghost pepper and the Jolokia chili used to be the top guns, but now an accidental cross has yielded the Infinity Chili that packs a whopping 1,176,182 Scoville units of capsaicin. It burns just looking at it. Capsaicin is the oleoresin that makes peppers hot, and the highest concentration is found in the placental tissue between the fruit wall and the seeds, so be warned. This is weapon's grade hot. The University of New Mexico's chili pepper research center provided the pepper for a hot sauce, Holy Jolokia, and UNM gets a cut from every sale. The old chili pepper heat scale only used to go up to 300,000 scoville units, so it's been revised upward to accommodate these new chilis. And remember, these fruits are not real peppers (Piper) but Capsicum, but the Columbus' mistake in geography (the neotropics wasn't the Indies), and related misnamings has been carried through to modern times.

Berry Go Round submissions

Just a reminder, to the Phactor, and everyone else, if any of you spot a nifty plant related blog, do call it to my attention by email or via BGR submission because February is coming to an end, and it'll be round up time in just one week, and just because it's a short month, we don't want BGR to come up short. Thanks to everyone who has already sent something around.

Catalogue of Organisms

The Catalogue of Organisms part of the Field of Science blogs is unusually broad in its orientation for an entomologists, although perhaps there is still a bit of an inordinate fondness for beetles. But any fellow who would blog about Wolffia, the world's smallest flowering plant, and strangely also part of the Aroid family that have some truly gigantic inflorescences, although the flowers are still rather small, has to be a bit of all right. COO has even more of a systematic approach than the Phactor. So keep an eye out for his Green Taxon of the week.

Today's discussion - evidence & knowing

In a one last gasp exercise to transform students into thinking adults who know something about biology, we have senior seminar. Today's topic deals with how do you know something, and when it is OK to have your own opinion. And of course in science this all hinges on evidence. So to prime the discussion an essay was assigned about a 300 million year old rock. Now what makes this rather controversial is that most of the people who would deny the age of this rock are of a particular type of religious belief. Some blow back has already reached my email Inbox. So maybe it will be a lively discussion for a Monday in late February on a particularly gray day of falling temperatures all of which does so much to provide an uplifting attitude. So this will be a great day to hand back exams (mostly good, but with a few rather poor results) and essays marked up for revision (Hoo, boy, are they marked up!). This is always particularly amusing because in this day of spell checkers "they're misuses of simple words our to painful two bare even if there sound is write".

Blood Hound Wasps

This is pretty nifty; parasitic wasps can be taught to seek just about any scent, and they have a great sense of smell. This makes sense because these are tiny, stingless wasps, and they must find their prey, usually a caterpillar, a tiny island lut there in the sea of everything else. The female wasps lay their eggs in their prey and the larvae eat their host. Perhaps many of you have seen tomato hornworms, the caterpillar of an underwing moth, with a dozen or so white wasp pupae on its back (Go here for more info & image source). The damage having been done, the tomato hornworm is toast. Their sense of smell is so good a female wasp can detect if another wasp's larvae are already feeding within the host, and to avoid the competition, seek another host. Bed bugs are notoriously hard to detect and find, so these little wasps could be trained to seek bedbug pheromones. Then if you could get the wasps to reproduce on bedbugs you'd really have a great system. Maybe you can get these to go along with your TNT sensing plants! Can't wait until they come up with a kibble sensing cat. Oh, wait, already have those.

Trees killed over football

An Alabama fan upset over Auburn's win in a football game admited poisoning two 130 year old live oaks that Auburn fans like to TP whenever their team wins. What kind of deranged maniac takes revenge on trees over the outcome of college sports? They're trees; they don't know and don't care about what happened. But they're not just trees, they're 130 year old trees, and you can't just replace them. That'll take at least 100 years. This colassal jerk should be punished by never being allowed to see, listen to, or read about sports since clearly he is a menace when he does. This is one of those times when maybe the Phactor could live with throwing him to a mob of Auburn fans, after they been tailgating all day. In the spirit of plant myth busters, and letting the punishment fit the crime, maybe this fellow could be staked out over a bed of fast growing bamboo to see if the shoots really can skewer him? What else might we try?
35 years ago Christopher Stone argued that trees and other natural objects should have standing, a legal right to exist. While supposedly about football, this is actually a crime against nature. Trees of this age and stature definitely have a right to exist, and this applies to idiots who want to destroy some big tree so as to build a Walgreens or 7-11 or what not. One of the great curmudgeons among my colleagues, now deceased, refused to shop in a big box store, or any of its clones elsewhere, because it was built upon what had been a horse pasture that he liked. They have no respect, he said. And that's the point here; you have to respect big old trees. So you don't just kill them if they happen to be a bit inconvenient, like the shingle oak in the center of our driveway that you literally had to drive around to get into one side of our garage.

Sticks and stones can break my bones

Sticks and stones can certainly give me back pain. The dreariest part of a snow melt is seeing everything hidden and now left behind. With a yard full of large trees it's quite amazing to see how many limbs and twigs rain down over a 2.5 month period of winter. But a mild case of cabin fever sent the Phactor out to begin the spring cleanup, and having wrenched it a bit in an icy fall, my back is now complaining about the exercise of bending threatening spasm while moving limb to limb, a real pain. Took the younger cat out for exercise, on her long lead, and the rodents all took off when this inexperienced but enthusiastic and determined predator began making the rounds. She had a great time; squirrels and rabbits no so much. Off now to a wine tasting party, part of the endless socializing that occupies our leisure hours, don't you know. Ta.

A Green Oops

Green construction is a fairly new thing, and people are bound to make some mistakes. Up in St. Chuck a green roof of a parking structure collapsed as the heavy snow was melting. This particular roof was planted with native prairie species, and you have to think, guys, that bloody stuff is heavy. Clearly the architects had never had to harvest prairie biomass or collect divots of prairie sod from over 100 plots and then drag them to a car and then into a lab. If they had they would have known how heavy prairie is, especially when totally saturated. The collapse is unfortunate, but let's hope people learn from this misfortune and only plant their prairie on top of appropriately hefty structures in the future.

Friday Fabulous "Flower" - Euphorbia

As the days lengthen and the sunlight heats up the greenhouse, a lot of our tropical plants begin to flower. This is Euphorbia splendens and as the name suggests it is a pretty spectacular plant, with a cluster of spiny stems terminated by a helical whorl of leaves and very showy clusters of "flowers". This plant grew in the miserable little excuse for a greenhouse that was at my undergraduate college, and a particularly perverse botanist (Aren't they all a bit perverse?) let a pair of us struggle all afternoon to identify the family knowing full well we were making a fundamental mental error. Yes, we kept trying to sort out the flower's parts and nothing made any sense because the key separated out plants with milky sap without regard to flowers, and this plant readily oozes latex, and if we'd paid attention it all would have made sense. The flowers in this genus and family are small and unisexual, and in plants like this a number of flowers are clustered together into an inflorescence surrounded by a pair of very showy bracts. So those aren't petals or perianth at all, and the number of flowers per cluster isn't constant, so it seems you have different numbers of pistils and stamens. But did the Phactor ever forget this lesson? No, you only get to fool me once.

What controversy? Not an OK version.

Sally, Sally, Sally, what controversy are you talking about? In the interest of good science education an OK representative wants to protect teachers who wish to teach about the evolution controversy (and global warming among a few others), but where is it? Please be assured that the Phactor teachs about all manner of scientific controversies, where they exist, and being quite familiar with the evolutionary literature, he must ask, what controversy? Of course, there isn't one. This is the most recent thinly veiled attempt to permit religiously motivated cranks to present spurious objections to evolution, and any other science that conflicts with their political or religious ideology, in the name of quality education. And didn't we predict a flurry of such bills back a month ago? With such leadership and concern about quality science education how can the USA help but fall further and further down the list in terms science and math education. Hey, maybe we're climbing in religio-magic thinking in our race to role back the world a few centuries? But this is probably Un-'mercan.

Garden Freedom

It is truly annoying when someone trademarks a common term, phrase, or name. For example, anyone whose name begins with Mc (like all my inlaws) had better not get into the fast-food burger business and plan to use their name to label their product. And now the Dervaes' family of urban homesteading "fame"(Really? Never heard of them before.) trademarked urban homesteading and freedom garden and several more widely used terms that they certainly did not originate, but now apparently are using legal threats to protect "their" trademarks. For this reason, no link was provided, and this just goes to show you that even among gardeners you can have no-class low-life sods. This is shocking because most gardeners are decent enough people. It takes colossal chutzpah to claim common labels as your own, and this demonstrates something is wrong with the trademarking process.

When you elect dumb legislators you get dumb legislation

It's axiomatic that if you elect dumb legislators you'll get dumb legislation, and considering the results of the last election, this is only the beginning. The only great thing about this is that it's not Lincolnland. Out west in big sky country, Joe Read, a Montana legislator, has proposed a "global warming" bill that cranks up the dumb.
Section 1. Public policy concerning global warming. (1) The legislature finds that to ensure economic development in Montana and the appropriate management of Montana’s natural resources it is necessary to adopt a public policy regarding global warming.
(2) The legislature finds:
(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;
(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and
(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.
(3) (a) For the purposes of this section, “global warming” relates to an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s surface.
(b) It does not include a one-time, catastrophic release of carbon dioxide.

This seems to say: 1. global warming isn't happening, 2. if it is happening, then it's not our fault, 3. global warming is a good thing anyways, so why worry?, and 4. if global warming turns out to be a catastrophe, we couldn't have done anything about it anyways. It only left out a sneering na na nana. Here you have a legislator who wants a state to legally deny science probably to prempt any federal attempt to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. As Steve Allen would say, Dumbth, and to the nth degree. Good luck Montana.

Time to update my taxonomy and yours - Clubmosses

This is not a continuation of bryophyte seek; clubmosses are vascular plants. In fact clubmosses are the oldest lineage of vascular land plants, and those that exist today are sadly mere relicts of past diversity. Their taxonomy used to be pretty easy, and you only had to know a handful of genera, but splitters have been at work, whether justified or unjustified, and now the Phactor must learn some new names. Bother. Now Selaginella is not a particular problem, and as the oldest living genus, it’s taxonomy is pretty well behaved, but not so with Lycopodium. Quite a number of its species have been transferred to other genera. First, Lycopodium (top) now consists of those species of clubmoss that have aerial shoots arising from a rhizome, bristly leaves arranged helically along an axis, and sporangia borne apically in distinct strobili, cones. Some 10-15 temperate to Arctic species that lack a rhizome and bear sporangia along the axis subtended by unmodified, or largely so, leaves, and therefore lack terminal strobili, are now in the genus Huperzia (middle - Image credit Dave Webb via the BSA). And then there’s Diphasiastrum (3d image) which by having scale-like, over-lapping leaves along the stems making them look rather flattened. Tropical species of Lycopodium that are largely epiphytic, but lacking a rhizome more or less befitting their growth habit, are now called Phlegmaria (bottom - image credit: Heaton's Ferns). Careful how you say it.

Rocky times ahead in Lincolnland

Hah! You thought this might be about the terrible economic problems of our state. Nothing so boring as that. The lily pond on our estate is over 80 years old, and it needs refurbishing including the installation of a circulating system of a sufficient volume for its size. The old one was too small and too cranky doing too little too seldom. Our enthusiastic pond refurbish-er has just called to alert us to the delivery of much rock while the ground is still frozen hard. OK, this makes sense from the lawn perspective, and from the relief perspective because you don't want a heavy truck to harm the creeping charlie and because you want to add some relief to provide splash and a nifty place to hide all the filtering/circulating hardware. In case you don't know, relief does not come cheaply or easily in this part of the world where interstate overpasses, and the adjacent borrow pits provide the highest and lowest points around. So some portion of the state of Misery (having lived there, this is the correct spelling) is coming our way, and this is painful to contemplate primarily because when bought by the pound you have a new appreciation for the weightiness of rocks. Our pond refurbish-er has to be held in monetary check because while some splash will be nice, a visual and aural delight, what is not needed is a water park flume ride or a scale model of Niagara Falls. Ah, but since the Phactors don't play golf or tennis, and don't drive fancy new cars, and don't have kids in private schools, and don't believe in providing inheritances, we get to spend our "make ourselves happy" money on gardening, and art, and wine. That much rock should be make us very happy, as long as there's enough wine.

Worth while biological research

What makes this worth while research is that you probably only need a milliliter or two of the beer to do the research, so why waste all the rest of that lager? Had a colleague once that worked on gall bladder problems of swine, so after an experiment was finished, there was a lot of ham and bacon to go around. Then we had a fellow who worked on the pineal gland of lobster, so none of the good parts were affected in any way; waste not want not. Always thought their choice of research and organisms was nothing short of brilliant. HT to AoB blog.

Darwin Day Nature Photography Contest

To celebrate Darwin, the Horniman Museum (& Gardens!), the Grant Museum of Zoology, and the Society for Biology held a nature photography contest and the winners can be viewed here. Wow, that picture of lichen is fantastic, oh, and there's a frog sitting on top. Even in their own blurb the Horniman Museum left out the & Gardens part, and of course, the photographs are largely animals. But nice enough, but hardly representative of Darwin's work. He would have been in the & Gardens part. At least Darwin has been voted the 3d most important Brit ever. Let's see, is that after Elton John and Monty Python?

Can a boomer teach a millenial?

In an article on teaching the millennial generation, the author concludes, that "the onus is on teacher educators to develop pedagogically appropriate teaching and learning strategies for their millennial students". Should this worry the Phactor since he still thinks he has a few more years of teaching left before retirement? The answer is quite simply, no. Once again someone who studies education has got it exactly bass-ackwards. Now even a semi-Luddite such as myself has adapted to using new technologies in teaching and studying organisms. And no question this is a different generation used as they are to constant input and distraction, instant gratification and communication, social networking and other impersonal interactions, and their multitasking, all of which seems to result in frequently distracted, easily bored students who have trouble paying attention or concentrating on a problem for more than a minute. OK that's the problem, and you ain't gonna fix it by changing your pedagogy to accommodate it. Sooner or later you still have to know something, and in botany that means spending enough time working with plants, observing plants, and thinking about plants that the knowledge is deep enough and complete enough to be useful. So rather than worrying about how to pedagogically adapt my teaching to accommodate the habits of millennial, the Phactor is going to work at breaking their bad learning habits. Hey, it can be done; no one watched more TV during their youth, and some of us actually turned out to be productive intellectuals, or what passes for intellectuals these days.

Botany for St. Valentine's Day

Plants are named after just about everything and everybody, but it seems none are named after St. Valentine. Perhaps that’s because there were 14 martyrs named Valentine, and not only were they martyrs, but then they were deleted from the Catholic calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. Is this why Valentine’s day is on Feb. 14th? Perhaps plants are not thought to have valor? You’d think part of the floral giving tradition would herald to the beheading of at least one of the Valentinian martyrs, but no. In terms of specific epithets there are lots of cordata (heart-shaped), cordifolia (with heart-shaped leaves), and cordiformis (heart-shaped), but doubtful that had anything to do with the valentine heart motif. So here’s the best a poor old botanist can do for Valentine’s day, on short notice, a great big old heart-shaped bract of the genus Anthurium, a member of the aroid family where a big attractive, modified leaf, a spathe, is often associated with a very phallic spike of rather insignificant little flowers. If you look closely at the spike (spadix) you can quite easily see the individual flowers.

Bad Bunny Buffet - Winter Eats

One trouble with lots of snow cover, it encourages the bunnies to turn to bark and twigs for food. Now even though a couple of miles of rabbit fencing protects many trees and shrubs, there's always something that either isn't protected, something we forgot to fence, or a convenient snow drift that provides access to winter fodder within. A meander around the estate suggests that oak-leafed hydrangeas are bunny favorites. Neither a red spirea nor a flowering quince will need any pruning some spring; they've been quite neatly cut back. That's twice now for the quince; you'd think we'd learn. Although hardly an effective counter measure, our long-haired kitten whose breed hails from nothern latitudes wanted out for a walk, and this snow is sort of weird stuff, but let's go look in shrubbery for rabbits anyways. Who can argue with that? At least it tries to earn its keep. And a free-loading squirrel got quite a surprise because this predator climbs trees! What fun to be a young cat, even if harnessed to a long leash.

Bryophyte week weird connection

El Conquistadores. Too busy this week to keep up with favorite blogs, or would have noticed that merstemi was also blogging about bryophytes, in this case, mosses or their like, as the conquerers of the terrestrial environment. Do we have some strange connection spanning decades and oceans? Probably would have noticed this earlier if my Italian was not worse then my Spanish, which is worse than my French, and the Phactor has no facility for language, unlike the colorful prose of meristemi. So there you go. Click on over and have a look.

A beef with Homeland Security

Lots of people seem upset by having their bodies imaged or groped while trying to fly, but this troubles me little. Yet homeland security is becoming annoying when they interfere with tradition. For a great many years now the Phactor obtains a nice brisket of beef around mid-February, and from this a most excellent corned beef is produced in time for St. Patrick's Day much to the delight of his most totally Irish mate. Since there is no actual need to go to Ireland, you may be wondering why homeland security is vexing me, and it deals with a simple component of the pickling mixture of corned beef, and bombs; good old saltpeter, potassium nitrate. Now the fact that something can be made into bombs is nothing more than an extreme nusiance; the fact is the quantities required are quite different. Each gallon of pickling brine requires only 4 tsp of saltpeter, and that isn't enough to even make a decent firecracker let alone a worrisome bomb. Once again the paranoid idiots who get paid to protect us have no sense of proportion. No plane has ever been highjacked by nail clippers or threatened by a fifth of rum, yet we all suffer the consequences because someone imagines the potential danger. One is reminded of Officer Obie taking away Arlo's shoelaces. So it's bloody hard to get even tiny quantities of saltpeter, and this is a real threat to homeland security because without a decent corned beef once a year, anyone might get violent (and they'd be Irish!). Think perhaps some experiment will require 100 g of KNO3 from the chemistry storeroom, each year.
Should any of you wish to give this a try. Get yourself a beef brisket, stab it all over with a big fork and then submerge it in brine. Each gallon of brine contains: 2 cups kosher or canning salt, 2 cups dark brown sugar, 1.5 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), 4 tsp potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Dissolve in 1 Qt of water and dilute to one gallon. Use a large plastic, stoneware, or enameled metal (with no chips) container. Add 1/4 coarsely crushed pepper corns, 1 tablespoon allspice, and 6-8 cloves of garlic lightly crushed. Weigh down the brisket with a plate or stone (nice clean one), cover with plastic, and put in a fridge for 3-4 weeks. To cook: Place in a large pot & cover with water. Bring to boil and simmer until brisket seems tender (1-3 hrs). Cool in liquid. Place on a rack in a shallow baking pan. Bake for 30 mins. at 325 degrees. If desired top with mustard-ketchup sauce.

Darwin Day - Evolution is a biological necessity

Things change; this is a fundamental principle of biology and one of the big scientific insights of the 19th century. Organisms alter their environment, and then life must change to adapt to the new conditions; living organisms must evolve or go extinct. Evolution is a necessary aspect of life; you cannot explain biology without it, unless of course you wish to deny biology a history. The back and forth interaction between changing environments and adaptation means life has a history resulting in organisms that possess a myriad of ways to succeed at making a living in the natural world. Biologists make a living explaining both.
Now if only the Phactor can get the rest of this book done.

Bryophyte week - why Sphagnum matters

If your knowledge of Sphagnum moss starts and ends with the bale of soil additive in your garden shed, then this may come as a surprise. Sphagnum is a significant component of plant communities at high latitudes. It's a pretty nifty moss because it can hold 20-30 times its own weight in water because it's "leaves" (leafy organs called enations) are a reticulate network of chlorophyll bearing cells (stained green) surrounding large dead cells that take up water by capillary action. In a manner of speaking they are an aquatic organism that takes its water with it. Sphagnum bogs accumulate significant amounts biomass which means they are carbon reservoirs. Decomposition is very slow because of the low pH (acidic) and the cold climate. Eventually Sphagnum compacts into peat, which sometimes gets dug, dried, and burned to cure barley malt used to make Scotch whiskey. But as temperatures go up and winters get shorter, all that stored carbon gets released at a faster rate as shown by a number of studies way up north there in Scandinavian countries. Global warming vs. whiskey; OK, that's a non-starter as an issue. But this shows how cumulative small changes can result in a tipping point were all of a sudden carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises really fast, and everyone finally goes, gee, that's not good, but now it's too late.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Darwinia

As long as the celebration of Darwin Day has come a day early, might as well go all in and provide a most appropriate fabulous flower, one with the honorific generic name Darwinia (D. macrostegia), a member of the Myrtaceae (myrtle family) and native of Australia. This image was borrowed from an Australia native plant webpage. Like a number of other members of this family in Australia, Darwinia is a shrubby plant with small, tough leaves and living in a low-statured woodland community that we call a heath. Someone (not sure who the author is) did OK by Charles with this handsome plant. Ah, it was George Bentham, who transferred this species to this genus.

Friday - Darwin (a) Day Early

Yes, yes, Darwin Day is tomorrow, and so is Abe day and Sister Day, to note all the birthdays of any significance. But today we can host an openhouse for organismal biology students and have some birthday cake. Tomorrow is Saturday and students will not be found, in academic buildings, and beer and cake were never a good combination. To celebrate here is a nice celebration of Darwin from the cover of the American Journal of Botany. "Many of the portraits of Charles Darwin have become iconic—the bearded, somber and pensive force behind one of the most important paradigm shifts in the sciences (and in our understanding of the human condition). However, he took much pleasure from some of the images produced. Darwin commented on the portrait shown on the cover of this issue: “I look a very venerable, acute, melancholy old dog; whether I really look so I do not know.” The color images surrounding the Darwin portrait are representative of the papers included in this bicentennial issue and include studies from paleobotany to molecular developmental genetics, anatomy to pollination biology, and systematics to analyses of patterns of diversification and the reasons for angiosperm success. The back cover illustrates the 1879 letter of Darwin to Hooker in which he uses the phrase “abominable mystery” [a reference to the origin of flowering plants] and on which this issue is based. The mix of old with the new brings to light our progress on solving the abominable mystery on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Oil painting of Darwin by Walter William Ouless, etching by Paul Aldophe Rajon, 1875." The complete works of Charles Darwin are online.

Bryophyte Week - Confusion about moss

There's lots of confusion about moss. Clubmoss is a vascular plant. Reindeer moss is a lichen. Moss champion is an alpine pink, a flowering plant. Rolling stones grow no moss and Kate moss isn't even a plant. And then there are the real bryophytic mosses. So hard to know what you think of when you think moss, but to assist, here is one of the Phactor's favorite illustrations, from back when botany wasn't just accurate, it was pretty, Ernst Haeckel's famous illustration of moss diversity (Kunstformen der Natur, 1904). Although few today approach Haeckel's stature, one of my ever creative colleagues used moss, all genetic varieties of Funaria hygrometica, for the cover image of the American Journal of Botany (vol. 99-11). Yes, that's a petri dish. Small world, huh?

Acoustic Botany? Not hearing much.

Who hasn't thumped a melon to determine if its basso tones resonated with ripeness? But acoustic botany is sounding a little bit too new agey for the Phactor's tastes. Consider this statement: "Mankind altered nature for hundreds of years. Think of flowers and mind altering weeds." First sentence true. Second, um, not so. OK we've kept mutant sterile roses alive, and some plants do produce hallucinogens, but none because of human selective activities. Cannabis doesn't make THC because of humans, sorry, it isn't all about us. The rest of the brief narrative suggests the author really doesn't know very much about botany or the genetics of plant breeding. But maybe they can thump a mean melon, otherwise the Phactor isn't hearing very much.

Lack of Rigor in Higher Education

NPR is rather late to the mark in continuing news about a study that found an awful lot of college students weren't learning much, at least as judged by some standardized exam, and that a lot of students found college easy and not much work. Now there are several thing the Phactor can say about this. One is the problem with student evaluations, one of those feel good, empower the people, ideas from the 60s, and who couldn't see or predict the problem with this. The Phactor had one particular faculty member for a course in his 1st and last semesters in college as an undergrad. He was an infuriatingly arrogant and a total curmudgeon, and he's still difficult to deal with on a good day. Given the opportunity to evaluate him, his head would have been put on a platter. But given the perspective of another 10 years in the business, and what a difference. He was a pain in the ass, but a brilliant instructor, years ahead of his time, and uncompromising in expecting your best. The basic lessons really influenced my thinking, although generally the Phactor is liked pretty well in comparison. In junior colleges, many small liberal arts colleges, and in parts of many large public universities, student evaluations reign supreme, and if you push students too hard, make them work too hard, and generally demand a lot, you'll likely be looking for another job because the lower-life forms masquerading as administrators place too high a value on student satisfaction. As noted by Richard Arum, "There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high." Duh! This is called pandering. Fortunately, and this is not to instill any complacency, but the study did find exceptions among the sciences. The biggest adjustment shock for junior college transfers into biological sciences is the amount of work we expect and how thoroughly we expect they will know the material. Q. "Will you give us a study guide for the exam." A. "You have a detailed syllabus of the topics we've covered, you have the reading assignments, and you have the lecture notes. Why do you need a study guide." Q. "To tell us what to study!" A. "All of it." Q. "All of it?" A. "Yes. See how simple that is?" This is a student who is used to teachers who say, oh, but you don't have to know that. Then why the hell did you cover it? This is a student who is not trying to learn, but merely studying to just pass the exam. A soft underbelly certainly exists in academia; low rigor people in low rigor disciplines. The Phactor won't point any fingers but studies at our institution showed that we had one department that gave an average grade of 3.88 out of 4 for every student in every course in their curriculum. And they were all from Lake Woebegone? A colleague from a prestige school in N. Carolina whose name rhymes with Luke, was called in to a dean's office where it was explained that all our students are above average, so why are you giving students Cs? They didn't do anything and richly deserved to fail, but I was a softy in grading them because I'm only a graduate student. So much for being impressed high GPAs from "elite" schools. At least at our big public U's students are still free to fail, but with so much emphasis on retention and graduate rates, expect push back. Dean: "We want to readmit student 824, and they got a D in your course." PP: "Correct." Dean: "Will you consider changing the grade?" PP: "What? Why would that ever be done?" Dean: "So we can readmit them." PP: "You mean to falsify their academic record so your decision to readmit doesn't look so bad?" Dean: "I can go to your dept. head." PP: "Can they change my grade for that student?" Dean: "No, but maybe they can make you change your mind." PP: "Not very likely." And you start nominating them for jobs at other schools so they can demonstrate the Peter Principle and become someone else's problem.
My upper division majors courses often average right around 3.0, a B, above average, which you might well expect among 3d and 4th year students taking elective courses, but they still must earn it. The bottom line is simple when faculty abdicate responsibility for standards the game is lost. And people, and here you may insert politicians/trustees/administrators, think perhaps tenure isn't important; maybe you can guess why.

Bryophyte Week - Hornworts

Dr. Chips upped the ante in his comment to yesterday's bryophyte blog; he's seen and recognized a hornwort in the field! Take that my fellow naturalists. Only one genus (Anthocercos) is mentioned or illustrated in most textbooks, even ones on plant diversity, but there are 5 more genera, or if you really dwell on minutia, up to eleven genera in all. Basically the problem is that hornworts are small and they tend to grow in wet and very dimly lit conditions, and how often do you go looking around in such places? With a thin, rather irregular ribbony thallus they closely resemble liverworts and the gametophytes of some ferns. The only really distinctive feature readily seen without a microscope is the columnar sporophytes (the "horns"), which are the diploid generation. For the most part these sporophytes are dependent upon the maternal gametophyte, but under certain conditions the sporophyte can persist as a free-growing organism after the maternal gametophyte dies. In terms of complexity, the gametophyte is hardly more complex than some green algae, and indeed it has only 1 chloroplast per cell, a very algal character. So let's get out there, down on your hands and knees, and scout for a new genus to add to your plant diversity life list. Image credit: U. Hawaii.

Bryophyte Week - Haploid Holiday

Last week's blizzard day generated a laboratory crunch this week. Even in a survey type class, it takes more than a three-hour laboratory period to cover bryophytes. Typical, bryophytes just get no respect. So the rest of the morning will be spent rounding up the live specimens from the greenhouse so that they may be tortured all afternoon. As always Riccia seems to be missing. It always seems to get rediscovered, but usually too late. However you can always count on the marchantioid liverworts. Here's a nice image of one from the field showing the broad (~1 cm) ribbon-like thallus. The photosynthetic chambers each with a central pore are nicely evident, as is the dichotomous branching. Liversworts are quite uncommon anywhere in the maize and soybean desert; this image is from Washington near the home of the infamous Dr. Chips, who lurks around this blog from time to time. Like all bryophytes, and unlike all other land plants, the organism is haploid so that 2nd set of chromosomes is so over rated.

Pineapple Fiber

When you say pineapple, everyone thinks of that succulent tropical multiple fruit. But like all monocots, the long narrow leaves of pineapple have parallel vascular bundle fibers that run their length, and unlike the better known coarse structural fibers of Manila hemp from Musa textilis sisal and henequen from species of Agave, pineapple fiber is quite fine for a structural fiber and can be made into very lustrous, light-weight fabric. And of course once you've grown your pineapple fruits, the old leafy stalk gets removed so make way for new shoots, and mostly these get burned. Sounds like a win-win situation, but then again it sounded that way when someone proposed making paper and other fiber products out of corn stalks left after harvesting. Nothing much seems to have happened with regard to that either. The very nice pineapple image (couldn't find mine) was borrowed from here.

What controversy?

"Tis the season where newly elected representatives try to impress their supporters and actually deliver on campaign promises by proposing dopey legislation. So New Mexico hearlds what may be a bevy of similar bills in other states for the purpose of protecting teachers who "teach the controversy". Now of course, while their bill makes some attempt to suggest other controversies, anyone who's been in the biology business for some time knows that this is the latest way to allow biology teachers to teach creationism. When last the Phactor was asked if he could "teach the controversy", my initial reply was "What controversy?" Please to under stand, controversies are great things to teach and diversity is full of competing hypotheses, some quite controversial, and some of which get falsified and some of which still complete with each other, but what is not a controversy is whether evolution is a scientific theory paramount to explaining and studying biology. If creationism were just wrong, it wouldn't bother me so much, but it's a useless idea. It doesn't lead to any new understandings. It explains everything the same non-testable way. Saying so annoys creationists who then carp about how "materialistic science" is done, suggesting it would be so much better if we just believed certain things or held them to be true no matter what the data show, and in the process totally ignoring the fact that science as a way of knowing has been the most successful one ever invented, and if you're going to propose some other way of doing science, you'd better have some damned good examples showing how much better it is. So what about the "controversy"? It's an invention, a religious invention. And this can be pretty easily documented. Science knows nothing of this controversy, which is to say that the thousands of research articles published each year in biology are all in one way or another evolutionary and make not one wit of acknowledgement to any such controversy, but the general public and its elected officials are easy to fool and mislead. Was it the head of the Texas state's education board who said he was tired of academic experts telling him what was true. Evidence be damned. Why, just tell everyone there's no evidence of evolution at all! It's a wonder this country can do anything right at all. Of course those of us on the front lines know all about the controversy because we get students so taught in our classes. And it's why we try to explain how things are. So for all you teachers out there who may be confronted by such legislative nonsense here's a useful document, the statement on evolution from the Botanical Society of America.

Correct Prediction Sort Of

Well, my prediction for the Stupor Bowl was off a bit although Green Bay did win. Yea! My prediction that the game would be less than stellar play was also spot on, but it was actually a pretty interesting game, not because it was so good, but because things kept happening that made the outcome uncertain. Of course all the pre-game garbage and the half-waste-of-time were avoided, and that helped maintain my interest alot. After seeing that a bleached blond pop diva was to sing the national anthem (bad timing on judging the actual start of the game), the Phactor remarked that they never get anyone who can actually sing to sing this rather difficult song. And sounds like this was a spot on prediction too. Can't actually bring myself to listen. Wonder who her favorite founding father is? All of them probably.

New faculty, expectations vs. realities

Our department is trying to hire a new faculty member, hopefully one of several new positions to help us recover from a perfect storm of retirements, senior faculty leaving for other/better opportunities, and fiscal delays in filling empty positions. These were all bright, capable people and we scared the everyloving stuffing out of at least one of them. This particular candidate was a powerful researcher in a medical school environment, which means their knowledge of, concern for, and ability to interact with undergrads is about as vast as the Phactor's knowledge of neurobiology. Interesting to note that PZ Myers' institution has a similar problem compounded by geography. Morris isn't the edge of the world, but if you stand on top of the hood of your car, you can see it from there (so says a colleague who escaped Morris). Now part of the problem was a search committee blinded by grants and publications, all well and good, but the university expects us to teach undergraduates as 40% of our job. Outstanding research programs are not at all impossible at our institution, but since it's not the end all and be all of your existence, it is a harder thing to accomplish. Part of the trouble is applicants who have no experience with institutions like ours and therefore unrealistic expectations about the job. But as long as you hang out with people who think having to teach undergraduates is a measure of professional failure, you got a mental problem. My long time mentor has spent his entire long career at a 4 yr undergraduate college and it was a big surprise to many of his colleagues at big-time universities to find out that he had mentored more students into the profession of botany and most of them. It's not where you are but the impact you have.

Stupor bowl prediction

The big problem is that this particular football game is over-hyped and therefore bound to disappoint, and as it comes at the end of a long season after a bit of a delay, quite often teams and players do not deliver peak performances. As neither a Steeler or Packer fan, the Phactor has no favorite in this contest. The reason for this is that both of these are real football teams. Football is a game that has its roots in the bad winter weather rust-belt of the upper midwest and northeast. So deciding which team to root for was simple: look at their industry and weather. Cheering for San Diego or Miami? You must be kidding! Now you see the problem: Green Bay - Pittsburgh; it's a tossup really. Cheese heads are cooler than Terrible Towels, but that's thin. Only in Green Bay would friends invite you out to dinner and then take you to a bowling alley for a perch fry. Maybe you do have to favor the Packers. Afterall what else could possibly shorten the winters and lift spirits in Green Bay? Well, there's bowling, and ice fishing for the perch to eat at the bowling alley. So being able to talk about one damned fine stupor bowl game for decades seems only fair.

Is skeptical thinking negative?

While leading a discussion about alternative medical therapies, the Phactor observed something to the effect of "Having a skeptical perspective keeps you from making such errors in thinking." One of my students then commented, "I hate being so negative. I hate approaching everything by saying "prove it"." Interesting. Is being skeptical widely viewed as being negative? Hmmm. Well, do you view being gullible as positive? In the discussion that unfolded the conflict arises with respect to personal testimony. Your friend/lover/parent/sibling/ tells you they XYZed and it cured their MNOs. Most certainly you do not respond by saying, "Prove it." You just have to think it. As a hardcore skeptic, the Phactor never doubts the sincerity of such advice; they are trying to help, and the best you can say is, thanks, I'll look into it. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Phactor suggested to a person in the 3d tier of our social circles that she "may have benefited from a placebo effect" and it resulted in a frostiness that lasted the rest of the evening. Later her husband told me on the QT that he agreed. So no need to be unnecessarily confrontational, although in this particular instance, after relating her treatment and cure, she asked what others thought. The correct response is to ask for a bit more wine, s'il vous plait.

Are you smarter than Bill O'Really?

Clearly a rhetorical question; you most certainly are. Yet of all the high profile conservative commentators, O'Really (this nickname derives from my general reaction to his conclusions), he seems by far the most intelligent. Ah, but when it comes to discussions of religion, he displays a contemptuous and willful ignorance that the Phactor has come to associate with true believers who without thinking think themselves rather smart. The Phactor once was challenged in a post-lecture question period. "Which came first the chicken or the egg? Answer that with evolution!" OK, the egg came first. A number of lineages evolved oogamy far before vertebrates ever appeared. But if you speak specifically of a chicken egg, then do you define "chicken egg" as one from which a chicken has emerged or one which has emerged from a chicken?" And answering that question will solve your problem. "You ask for questions, I give you a question you can't answer, and then I get ridiculed." Yes, well, actually the question was answered, and it's the kind of question that deserves to be ridiculed in that it was an intellectually dishonest question, it was meant to "put me in my place", and my response showed how ridiculous it was, and now you're upset. Sorry. Next. One of my failings is an absolute intolerance of willful ignorance. So how delightful when Starts With a Bang takes O'Really to school on his stoopid attempt to one-up an atheist with the old canard "explain this" which is nothing but a god of the gaps argument. And the cherry on top of the sundae is at the end of the post is the clip of Colbert "defending" his idol Papa Bear O'Really. Hey, we got a new contestant for are you smarter than a 3rd grader. And mostly this was written for all the "pinheads" (anyone who disagrees or criticizes O'Really) out there who actually think you can learn something, unlike O'Really. It is a national shame that this man can have such a following.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Frangipani

To get a fabulous flower this week of illness and snow required a trip to our teaching greenhouse to see what was enjoying the heat, humidity, and short days. Here's a great component of UTF, ubiquitous tropical flora, that was mentioned in passing the other day. The common name is frangipani (Plumeria rubra), a member of the dogbane-milkweed lineage. Dogbanes quite commonly have their corolla lobes arranged like a pin-wheel. The numerous varieties of this ornamental shrub range in flower color from deep rose to white, but the rich golden yellow with white is a favorite, and is sometimes called Mexican frangipani, which is where it is native. Now if you carefully scratch the flower's image, and smell, well, you won't get anything, but the rich perfumy fragrance is one of frangipani's best qualities, and why it is named after a famous Italian almond scented cream pastry.

How did we live without this? Printer-Toaster

While looking for a new gadget, this happened along, and the Phactor is astounded. How did we ever live without a printer-toaster? Humans have always been on a quest for materials upon which to make their impressions: cave walls, stones, clay tablets, animal hides, papyrus, paper, and now, finally, toast! This toaster connects to a USB port and you may enter designs or even news articles and have them printed on your toast! The applications seem endless. Imagine how many people will now be able to see Jesus' image on their piece of toast! It's a miracle OK. Oh, but what of us people who like PB and J on their toast? Guess you have to hold it upside down to read the news. Put you lovers' image on your toast; hmmm, they look good enough to eat! Your spouse could provide you with inspirational messages at lunch time, e.g., "Make some more money, honey." But it's never going to replace my laser jet. You know how much bread it would take to print a book manuscript?

Principle of limiting factors & kitchen cupboards

The Phactor is rather easily bored, so it is best to keep him busy, and what better activity for a snow/sick day than making some cookies. This is where the principle of the limiting factor comes into play: no chocolate chips (they were used up in making a truly decadent cranberry pecan tart) so no chocolate chip cookies, need molasses so ginger snaps (my Mother's recipe) are out too. So you begin seeking very simple recipes, and even then just made it under the wire (only 2 eggs in the house) for some snickerdoodles. That's how it goes sometimes, but generally the Phactors keep a pretty well stocked cupboard and pantry and freezer and wine cellar, so when intrigued by a recipe for worcestershire sauce and its many bits and pieces, everything needed was right on had. Oh, and do try this recipe, it's wonderful. But be warned you may never want store bought again. The ketchup and mustard recipes on the same page are pretty good too.

Civil Unions permitted in Lincolnland

We citizens of Lincolnland don't get too many opportunities to brag, but in approving civil unions for same sex couples, Lincolnland got one right. Gay people have always been among our circle of friends and acquaintances, and many of them have been couples for nearly as long as the Phactors, yet without any of the legal protections of actually forming a couple. Locally the argument has long been framed as one of religious freedom. Religions that condemn homosexuality, oppose same sex marriage or civil unions. So when last this came up it was necessary to ask the speaker why under the auspices of religious freedom couldn't our church (Unitarian) marry same sex couples since no such prohibitions existed? Ah, well then came the blather about the slippery slope, the danger this posed to "real" marriages, and the downfall of society. So what about our religious freedom? Well, you all know that in the USA religious freedom is taken to mean the freedom of the majority religion to do as they damn well please and everyone else had better allow it. But try to even the playing field, and suddenly the majority is persecuted. The poor dears. A rather prominent citizen here abouts went on an anti-gay rant, and somehow a stage whisper leaked out, "What a bigot." And they said, "Well, that's what my religion says and what I believe." OK, so you're a religious bigot, fine, but a bigot none the less. There was a fine round of applause.

Blizzard of ought-eleven - dug out but bogged down

Takes a special knack or some uncommon fortune or something to get sick days to come on snow days, but the Phactor has done it. Had enough energy yesterday to finish the digging out although it took 5 person hours to do it, and one of us wasn't feeling so hot especially as the day wore on. But it's hard to enjoy a bit of time off, or worse, difficult to accomplish anything useful, when your head feels like it's going to explode and you can't breathe. But no rest for the wicked, the car won't start, and Mrs. Phactor only discovers this after driving it to a morning appointment. So must arrange to get a tow. What a pain. However, things do sort of look nice after a big snow like this. Here's a thread-leafed sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera), which is sort of weepy anyways, coated with snow.

What kind of person are you?

It's a cold snowy winter day and you decide to make some soup using a corn/rice chowder dried mix someone gave you as a present. So you make the soup, it smells pretty good, and as you take a teaspoon of soup to taste, there right at the very top is a nice plump larvae of a what is probably a warehouse grain beetle. Oops. After picking it out and having a look around for any more, and failing to see any, do you:
1. throw the whole pot of soup away anyways.
2. give the soup to your dog.
3. keep quiet about your discovery and feed it to your kids, while having a sandwich yourself.
4. go ahead and enjoy the soup, extra protein and all, so long as they aren't wriggling.

The Fruit and Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna

While catching up on blogs meristemi over at Erba Volant pointed this out, and what a hoot, squeak, squall, and toot. Yes, musical instruments made out of fresh fruits and vegetables to make Onionoise. If you ever wanted to play 2nd zuchini or 1st leek, well, here you go. The imagination begins to run wild. You could tune your carrot recorder by just nibbling on the end. The videos and sound tracks are lots of fun. Of course, they don't know what to call celery's collenchyma, and they refer to fruits as vegetables, which makes you wonder if you had musicians laying sod if you'd have to keep reminding them the green side goes up. Enjoy.

Blizzard of ought-eleven

A lot of snow fell last night, although nothing compared to the snow belt of my youth, but definitely the most snow this area has had for years, and the most snow that the Phactors have had to deal with since passing the 60 yr landmark. And it all has to be shoveled, not pushed or shoved, but shoveled, lifted and thrown, step by step. Two person hours of travail yielded a drive cleared from the house to the garage, and taking our civic responsibility as land holders seriously a cleared sidewalk. The bird and squirrel feeders were restocked much to the satisfaction of all the feathered or furred free-loaders. The drive from the house to the street will have to wait until later. Besides our union demands a coffee break about now. Our street is an E-W artery passing a hospital, so it gets attention early and often, but seriously there's no where to go until tomorrow anyways. Without work or gardening to keep us occupied, the Phactors will turn to their only other activity, cooking. The heavy snow cover will insulate lots of plants as the bottom drops out on the temperature tonight (-7F, -22C) in the inevitable Arctic blast that always follows such storms. Now for some coffee.