Field of Science


New Year's Eve - 2011

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

Friday Fabulous Flower of the Year

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

The Phytophactor Person of the Year - Jon Stewart

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

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

New Hampster devolving

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

How a university works - administrative leave

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

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

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

Botanical Santa

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

Merry Marathon

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

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

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

Friday Fabulous Flower - Galphimia glauca

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

Gifts of the Magi - down to two?

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

Winter Solstice

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

Exotic Image - Shadow puppets

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

Holiday break?

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

Holiday help?

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

Network of Food Flavors

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

O'Really - more of the same

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

Life is tough

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

Friday Fabulous Flower - Dombeya spectabilis

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

My cup is half full

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

Grading exams, evaluating students

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

All we wants for Christmas - a new bird record

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

Higgs Boson is not quite what was expected

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

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

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

Dear Santa

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

The Social Season

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

Who gives a fig?

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

Rats with tails - squirrels

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

Friday Fabulous Flower - King's Mantle

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

Political retirement in Lincolnland

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

Holiday season retrospective

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

Horse hockey!

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

What is a well-landscaped campus for?

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

Mole Poblano - spicy chocolate sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasonal transformation

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

Friday Fabulous Flower - A Corpse

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

Botanical booze

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

Academic prestige

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