Field of Science


A bird picture

Over at the Nature Blogs Network, TPP hovers just at the margin of the top 5% out of the 2150 blogs they monitor traffic on.  When you only consider plant blogs (flora), TPP is 8th.  It's amazing how many birdie blogs there are and how popular they are.  So you might think this is a blatant attempt to grab some traffic from the birdie blogs, but this is just so nifty: a plant owl.  Love things made from plants.  HT to Why Evolution is True.

Gun Rhetoric Baloney

The recent shooting in New York City exposes the empty rhetoric of concealed carry advocates.  These scaredy-cats want to be able to carry a concealed weapon anywhere and their usual rhetoric is to claim that these random terrorist shooters wouldn't have killed or wounded so many people if people like them were packing their heat. So there you are, enjoying a movie, and suddenly in the darkened room someone starts shooting;  BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! The confusion, the noise, the screams, the panic, the running, falling people, and our hero of concealed carry will calmly pull their weapon, zero in on the virtually invisible shooter and drop them in their tracks.  Sure.  Just for reference let's see how the trained professionals, and members of a well-regulated militia, did under much less trying circumstances.  Confronting a lone gunman in NYC, one plainly seen, two policemen fire 16 rounds and killed the gunman and hit 9 innocent by-standers.  Yes, real poster boys for the concealed carry movement.  There is the reality; under circumstances of random shootings lots of innocent people get hurt and it's very hard to argue that you're safer with more shooters around.  There aren't too many people who behave like the Will Smith character in MIB 1 when in the heat and confusion of the moment he only fired one shot at little Debbie while the armed forces blazed away at aliens of all sorts, but the ratio in the real world isn't that good. 

How to feel young and small

TPP's old friend Stan has been doing some traveling and he writes an interesting commentary, things that few people think about when visiting sequoias or bristle cone pines.  Go give him a read, and say TPP sent you.

Dipping a toe into the polluted waters of politics

TPP generally stays away from politics because this topic is just too depressing for an intellectual, science-minded, educator who supports social justice and real equality.  Still a few thoughts occur to me.  First, nothing said during a campaign should be given any credence at all.  Truth is always a casualty.  Right now so many pants are on fire that the heat will contribute to global warming.  Second, so how do you know what a politician will do if you can't believe anything they say?  You see how they behave, how they treat others, and their own.  With that in mind, we have the GnOPe party leadership, which knows Mittens has the nomination all sewn up, screwing over Ron Paul delegates so that no dissent would be heard whatsoever.  Now think about it.  If this is how they treat their own party members, delegates chosen by their own people, at their own convention, imaging what they could do, what they will do, to you if they gain control of Congress and the administration?  The GnOPe will not govern, they will rule as if they had divine right.  All hail Mittens the monarch and his empress of white, wealthy America. 
Oh, TPP feels much better now.  Still depressed, but not so stressed about it. 

Tropical evening

Today was a warm, humid, rainy day.  Now this is a good thing because things were just getting so dry again that TPP had to do some watering, and even then in a single week a holly shrub went from OK to suffering severely.  Rain is most welcome indeed.  Such weather is fairly rare in the midwest in the summer, but such days are quite common in the wet tropics and whenever they do occur they make TPP think of Costa Rica. Stepping outside one almost expects to hear oropendula, tree frogs, and the other sounds of the tropics.  As it is quite a few birds can be heard including screech owls this evening in counterpoint to the cicadas.  The wet tropics in high humidity always smells of decaying vegetation, and with so many dead plants and dropped leaves, the fungi are active, and so it smells like wet rainforest today. One of the funny things about the wet tropics is the necessity of having a nice light woolen blanket because with just a small drop in temperature, the dampness makes you cold at night, and only wool retains its insulating properties when damp.  Funny thing about this, but presently the longing for the tropics created by today's weather is quite strong.  It has been a bit over a year since last being in the tropics, and then it was quite a short visit in the rain forest, however it was intended a vacation, so vacation we did.  Like the tropics tomorrow promises to be a fairly warm and humid day.  Today may help get some patches of lawn repaired, and perhaps assist with some late summer and fall crops.   

Survival - Goal of the 1st week of the semester

Survived and here to blog about it!  At a previous faculty meeting several curricular changes had been approved, and in retrospective reflection they occasioned several more changes in a domino sort of effect.  So having suggested what needed to do be done, TPP asked about what sort of deadline we had, mind you this deadline is to submit changes not for the next academic year, but for the one hence, and the of course the deadline for submitting all of this was yesterday afternoon, yes, Friday of the first week of classes, just as if we had nothing else to do.  This certainly makes sense on the calendars of these administrative office dwellers, but leaves trench-dwellers wondering if they have any idea at all about what is going on the rest of the campus.  Last class of the week is a new class with 18 students and it only meets on Friday.  Decided it would be a good idea to have them attend a couple of seminars during the semester and the dept hosts three different seminars weekly at three different times, so guess what percent of the class cannot attend any of seminars?  50%  Yes, 9 of the 18 have class conflicts for all 3 times!  Annoyance.  One student will miss 5 of the 15 classes because of sports travel on Fridays, and he still registered for a Friday class.  Now this raises a puzzling question, our university has a football player (he's big enough) that majors in biology!  Another student has the perfect Friday excuse, a note from her physician that she is subject to sudden and debilitating migraine headaches.  Wonder if they occur more on Fridays than other days of the week.  Maybe a call to this physician would be amusing.  The rest of the details would not horrify you, only bore you, but that's enough to demonstrate that while Monday through Thursday went well enough, Friday was a terrible day.  At least some online curricular tools allowed TPP to meet the deadline, and without upsetting or annoying or surprising my boss.  Saturday has all the hallmarks of being a quiet, somewhat lazy day, and that couldn't be more perfect.

Table Manners

Right now is a tough time for flowers, the late summer ebb in flowering augmented by a summer drought, and a tough time to have time to blog, so the Friday Fabulous Flower is a no go this week.  The start of a semester is always filled with crazy, and deadlines, and crazy deadlines, and students, and crazy students, and - take a breath; hold it and exhale slowly.  Reach for the calm above the storm.  So a few short cheap blogs will have to do, so how about this for table manners?  This big lug, who belongs to the F1, is a cat with nothing but the best table manners.  Notice the calm, relaxed demeanor, the ethereal wa of the napping cat, the epitome of catness.  Isn't that what tables are for?  Isn't that what naps are for.  Isn't that what cats are for?  Notice how it all comes together, a wonderful oneness.

Sudden population shift

University towns are pretty nice places to live especially in the summer, then over the course of just a few days thousands of new residents move into town, and boy, do you notice the difference.  The traffic is much worse, and the driving is much worse, you see more accidents, and us poor pedestrians and bike riders fear for our lives at times.  The quite quiet, park-like quality of the quads change into swarms of activity and noise; one day the Gideons are handing out Bibles, the next day someone is handing our condoms.  The latter had more takers, but cookies or ice cream would have been an order of magnitude more popular.  Lots of fashion statements are being made, and very few of them are good.  Shorts are shorter than ever on women; men are still largely bumskies with no sense of style at all.  Some few break from the general trends to either over or under dress outrageously.  One such person almost caused an accident at an intersection by distracting the driver who veered toward the crowed sidewalk.  Gad.  Bicycles are more popular than ever, and too many fail to ride responsibly in terms of safety and rules of the road.  As a result some drivers get more aggressive producing a certain recipe for an accident.  50% of all students walk from place to place with their cell phone super glued to the palm of their hand and they nearly all are looking at it constantly oblivious to all else.  Maybe soon they'll have heads-up displays and the zombie effect won't be so strong.  The majority of students in my classes show up with good attitudes and great interest; a few don't.  Sad.  Students show up to tell you about their successes, new jobs, new experiences, new interests; wonderful.  Others stop by for help with their problems, their defeats.  Also sad.  The real sad ones don't seek our help.  Fortunately the former greatly out number the latter, but you do worry about the employment picture, and you hate to see so many bright, eager, young people seeking meaningful work, seeking work, wanting to make a difference and do something important.  At this age the Phactor was worried about integration and voting rights, atomic annihilation, and the Vietnam War.  Jobs were the least of our worries even though academic jobs were not plentiful or easy to get.  Have they ever been plentiful?  No.  And so this great population shift greatly alters all our lives, but something magical does still happen often enough that the job remains fulfilling. 

Real ginkgo forests

Ginkgoes and ginkgophytes (ginkgo like plants) have been around for a long time, 275 million years or so dating back to the Permian.  Presently a single species, Ginkgo biloba, is all that is left, but far from nearing extinction, its ornamental value has redistributed this species around the world.  All of these ginkgo trees are descendants of offspring from some sacred groves of trees protected by monastaries in China, and botanists have speculated for some time about whether ginkgo actually still exists in the wild or whether it persists just as a cultivated plant.  A report in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Botany (August, 2012, v. 99(8): 1408–1414.) has determined that a glacial refugium in the Dalou Mountains harbors natural fragments of ginkgo forest.  The composition of these forests finds that the same plants are still growing with ginkgo as found in the fossil record.  The image is of an 878 year old tree bearing some red feng shui flags for good fortune.  The oldest ginkgo in North America is in Bartram's GardenHow cool is that?  Maybe next they'll find Glossopteris alive. 

Fun with food - carved watermelons

The thing about carving watermelons is that you've got a pretty big chunk of material to work with in comparison to most fruits.  The first place TPP ever saw such remarkable fruit carving was in Thailand where carved fruit is a common feature at almost all fancy banquets and dinners.  There are culinary schools in Thailand where they teach fruit carving, and people become specialists in this skill.  No idea where all the carved watermelons in this photo essay come from, but they certainly look like the ones from Thailand.  Use this link to see the rest of the photoessay.  While quite handsome, in many respects the carved pumpkins featured previously were more creative; maybe Halloween brings out more of the macabre in fruit carvers.

Hay fever - It's ragweed, not goldenrod

At least once every late summer/fall season, TPP has to explain that it's ragweed that aggrevates your allergies, not goldenrod.  Funny though, don't think it ever was in one of my blogs.  Wonder why?  No matter, the Annotated Flora has done a very nice job of explaining about this complete with pictures, but probably, someone will still ask.  The general rule is simple: if something is gaudy enough for you to notice the flowers, then it isn't engaging in wind pollination and the pollen isn't getting into your nose.  The same problem occurs in the spring because some people are allergic to pollen from trees with inconspicuous flowers and they bloom at the same time as black locust trees.  But those big masses of white flowers are to attract insect pollinators, so unless a bee flies up your nose, black locust pollen isn't causing your hay fever.

On Bamboo

Bamboo, a name given to a tribe of perennial grasses including the largest of grasses, are marvelous plants. In Asia bamboo is ever present, an eternal reminder, “this is Asia.” Bamboos are gorgeous plants and the subject of much art. Bamboos range in size from giant bamboo whose stems tower 20 or more meters tall to small delicate woodland bamboos. Pandas love bamboo, people love pandas, so has anyone ever planted a bamboo without eventually regretting that decision?

The lure of a hardy bamboo was too much for TPP, so a Sasa or Sasella, hard to tell which, a bamboo of small stature (no more than 30” tall) with some shade tolerance was planted in the Asian portion of our garden. It was lovely. It was hardy. Even when the aerial shoots died over winter, you simply clipped them all off and new shoots appeared with the spring. But then you find the first shoot appearing well out into surrounding lawn, and you discover that this is the tip of a long, hard, steel-cable tough tiller, and you think, uh oh. And even within the confines of its bed, the bamboo begins to “eat” one of your prized yellow-flowered tree peonies. This is the last tiller it shall spread. It came as no surprise really because this is the way it is with many plants, but bamboos are some of the fastest growing plants, and they are much easier to plant than to remove. Your sharpest, narrowest shovel literally bounces of the mat of tough tillers and roots as if to say, “no, you won’t dig me”. Our Binford Sodbuster 5000, a chisel we invented for cutting out chunks of prairie sod was in my lab.  Fortunately the soil in this particular bed is fairly deep and this was the only weakness this bamboo had, shallow roots. A very well designed digging fork could be thrust, and thrust, and thrust beneath the bamboo, and then the bamboo was pried up, bit by bit until pruning shears could cut loose a portion of the clone. It became a contest of wills, a stubborn gardener vs. an equally stubborn bamboo. Ultimately the superior intellect, OK scratch that, sheer brute force won out.

Some very large clumps of hardy bamboo are now available, free, for a short time only. And the Phactors wondered, did we dare plant any of this bamboo elsewhere? Are there any neighbors that we dislike that much? Do we dare put it further out, perhaps along the rear boundary where the growth of its colonial empire may go unnoticed, for awhile, and perhaps look quite nice, for awhile, as it is a handsome plant, until you realize that even the ornamental sumac, even the Canadian anemone, even the plume poppy (NO, NO, this is really one evil plant!), were not such a problem. In the problem plant category, a 12 year quest to rid our gardens of a feral soapwort is not quite over, and the careful removal of Houttuynia was not quite so careful. Guess we are slow learners at times.  So glad we have no pandas.

How do you spell relief?

A cold front moved through, the one that almost doused TPP, and brought with it some much appreciated relief in the form of 2.5" of rain according to the official garden rain gauge and cooler temperatures, highs in the 70s and 80s, and night time lows in the 50s and 60s, low enough to put the cats back on the bed.  That's more rain than we had for the whole month of July.  Other than all the plants that have already died or died back, the gardens looked pretty good this AM, and the lily pond was absolutely full.  The change in stature shows how much many of the trees and shrubs were stressed.  A few plants had already resprouted from early rains, so hopefully this trend does not prove to be a fooler.  This should also help soybeans in our area recover some. 

America the Ignorant

TPP lived in Misery, a Midwestern state with southern tendencies, for two of the longest years of his life.  It's easy to be cynical about state level politics, but this is a truly amazing level of nonsense even for these knee-biters.  As part of a state constitutional amendment allowing people to pray, a right they've always had, is the following clause designed to assure people remain pig-ignorant with my apology to any swine reading this. 
My own particular understanding of religious freedom enjoyed by USA citizens was that you were free to believe anything you want, however you are not free from encountering differing beliefs or discomforting ideas.  Sounds like Miserians think differently, sort of a new take on "where never is heard a discouraging word".  Well, if religious bigotry is OK, one must suppose that religious ignorance is OK too.  Will this affect history classes if the student has been read David Barton history lessons for bedtime stories?  A Christian Scientist goes to medical school, so how that will play out?   Wonder if it ever occurs to such people how desperate it makes their faith sound?  After all, students are not required to "believe" in evolution, just understand it.  And if just understanding something you don't believe shakes your faith or is so terribly discomforting that you should can not bear it, well, it's not a very impressive demonstration of your faith, is it? 
And it's not just Misery.  Here's what a KY state representative Ben Waide said after finding out the state science standards included evolution (because it's part of the ACT) but not creationism.  "The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science—Darwin made it up.” Waide went on to say that “Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny.”  Why it makes you wonder what biologists have been doing in the 150 years since Darwin if not testing his hypotheses thousands of times, and without falsifying it.  This is an expression of pure, distilled ignorance delivered with the righteous indignation of a true believer.
Yes, people we here in the USA are at the dawn of a new dark age.  This country used to value education as the way to get ahead in the world, to make yourself, your community, and your country better.  This gives you a hint, a peak, of what the theocratic USA will be like, and it's not a pretty picture.  How depressing with for all of this to hit the news just as a new semester is starting. 
HT to PZ Myers.

Close call

While heavily overcast this AM, it was not exactly threatening, so TPP road his bicycle to work with the usual stop at a coffee shop.  During the 10 min ride to the coffee shop, it had turned very threatening, the kind of threatening that has people watching the clouds for rotation.  "Looks like rain", says a friend.  Ya think?  The coffee shoppe steam queens were in no hurry, working in doors as they do, chatting up customers as they do, making smiley faces on your latte as they do, and the storm was very close by the time the coffee to go was ready to go.  Fortunately my building is only 3 blocks away, and when necessary, the bike can go faster than usual.  As TPP pulled up to the door, the first rain began to fall.  A close call, but TPP would have gladly taken one for the team if it meant rain.  Still you do not want to be out in one of these mid-western thunderstorms; they truly are a force of nature even the relatively tame ones.  The really nasty green growlers are just plain scary and they can generate some very violent weather very suddenly.  As they go this mornings storm is pretty tame, and it is raining.  This will help the fall crops (bush beans, lettuces, bok choi) and maybe get some late produce from the eggplant, peppers, and okra.  Hope the students moving into dorms saw it coming in time. 

How to run a university - not like a business!

Politicians and businessmen are fond of saying universities should be run more like a business.  Just at the moment, TPP is not going to explain why this is just a plain stupid idea, even more stupid than the idea that a successful business man would know how to run a university, or a country, for that matter.  No, at the moment my immediate problem is getting enough seats in a classroom for students.  This is not your classic case of demand exceeding the number of seats, this is when the number of students enrolled (24) is based on the number of stations in the room (24), and you discover 4 days before classes begin that 4 of the stools, which get a lot of wear and tear, and were cheap crap to begin with, are broken beyond repair such that even young bodies could not endure them, and another 2 of the hodge podge of stools replacing cheap piece of crap stools broken earlier will not work (too short, two arms that get in the way, broken casters).  Now of course in a business when something your customers have paid for, e.g., seats in a classroom, are lacking, you quickly buy new ones.  So you call your department chair, who calls the dean, who calls the provost (Provost Plodder, you may recall, charging forward into the past) only to discover that this educational expense is the responsibility of the department who delivers the services the students pay for.  Now here's where the university greatly departs from any know business model of operation and in a most important way.  If this were a business, the department WOULD GET THE REVENUE (TUITION) IT GENERATED!  But the university central administration keeps all the tuition, in part to pay us, but what about the departmental budget, those real educational expenses?  Well, that budget hasn't changed in 20 years.  So each new budget asks for things you cannot presently afford, and with more high ranked items than any other department in the college, not one single item was funded.  Nada.  Yes, we pride ourselves on a quality education here at U. BTOC (Bring Your Own Chair).  Now least you think maybe a biology department is a charity case, if you figure out how much tuition the department generates, and then subtract the personnel lines, the salaries, there's over $5 million dollars left, and this is money to cover the cost of education.  Wonder if any of the administrative units that were reconfigured, redone this summer, installed with new fancy new office furniture have any left over stools?  The paying customers need a place to sit. 

Yikes! Mass Migration!

College towns are nice places to live most of the time.  Tomorrow is one of those days you learn to dread.  Thousands of students will migrate in tomorrow, mostly freshmen, mostly dorm residents.  The whole town will be a giant traffic jam most of the day, cars filled with students, student stuff, and suffering parents.  Students these days just have more stuff, they need more stuff, and they take it all with them.  Fortunately the bike trail is off limits to cars, and the back routes will stay open to bike traffic of us savey locals.  It's a time to be extremely careful driving because some student texting away is very likely to walk right in front of you, and distracted/impatient/inexperienced drivers unfamiliar with the area will be flooding the town.  TPP has already witnessed an accident involving student drivers were running a stop sign by accident resulted in T-boning another car filled with students.  So watch out!  Students descend on us tomorrow! 

Fall Semster Approaches

The Fall Semester approaches.  Classes begin next Monday, TPP thinks.  The department secretaries usually remind me.  Everyone in a college town knows this, so the inevitable question arises: are you ready?  Well, of course not!  But TPP is as ready as he needs to be.  You see we're talking students here, and to be ready only means you must be out in front of them, and when it comes to readiness, students are amateurs and faculty are seasoned professionals, wily veterns, fast to the mark and quick off the start (sounds like some olympics influence creeping in).  Now perhaps the questioner intended the question as in, are you ready for a change, ready to get back into the classroom (TPP never ever teaches classes in the summer.)?  No.  There's plenty to occupy my time and interest my mind outside the classroom, and generally you learn more there.  Of course, at the end of the month, this month, there will be that little thing called a paycheck, and for that reason, TPP heads back into the classroom, where if all goes well, a few students get convinced to get out of the classroom and really start learning, and this happens just often enough to be gratifying.  What is not fun are all the other things that start up at the same time: faculty meetings, committee meetings, meetings on meetings, reports, retorts, surveys, and so on, because everyone wants everything from everybody to show that they are important, useful, and necessary, and since each of them is only asking for one thing, they see no problem, and those of us on the receiving end have the first couple of months of the semester sullied by such stuff.  This is without question the worst part of the job.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Coral plant

Better late than never with the Friday Fabulous Flower; our internet service has been a bit flaky lately.  At any rate with the late summer flowering doldrums upon us, and so many plants damaged or dormant or just toasted because of the heat and drought, a quick peak into our glasshouse revealed a plant that really likes the heat, coral plant (Russelia equisetiformis).  This common name probably comes from the coral pink flower color of many common varieties.  The specific epithet means "form like Equisetum" or horsetails.  The resemblence isn't obvious to me, but the drooping stems of the subshrub (shrubby but not really woody) are nearly leafless and those that do occur are in whorls.  That must be it; reduced leaves in whorls.  Some time back Russelia was in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae), but that family has been fragmented and combined with other families on the basis of molecular studies, so now this genus is in the Plantaginaceae, the plantain family (not the banana kind, but the lawn weed kind).  This sort of surprises people because the plantains have non-showy flowers and therefore showing little obvious simliarities to bird pollinated flowers like this genus.  As a hummingbird plant, these flowers do not show the bilateral symmetry typical of many of the insect pollinated flowers associated with snapdragons.  These plants find a lot of landscape use in the tropics and subtropics because they are pretty tough and droop attractively from planters and raised beds.

10 signs you are getting older

Well, this is a pretty dorky list.  However TPP is quite proud, even with a birthday breathing down his neck, that only two of those 10 categories fit at all (along with my jeans).  Based on observations of my acquaintances, who are generally getting older too, some of the signs you're getting older might be:
1. You have no idea what's on television after 10:30 pm.  2. You don't recognize people in the celebrity pages any more, and what you consider "oldies" in music and movies are all over 40.  3. You travel to foreign countries on tours (oh, the horror of it!).  4. You greet your friends by asking them when they're going to retire.  5. Waitresses and clerks automatically give you a "senior discount".  6. Middle aged people start holding doors open for you.  7. You think your Subaru Forester is a pretty flashy vehicle.  8. Fund raisers want to talk about your legacy and remembering them in your will.  9. You debate about replacing deceased pets.  10. None of your friends have any kids in school.  
Well, with such a young readership, TPP doubts any of these resonates loudly.  What was missed?   

Science Education Standards: Can New Recommendations Help 'Mediocre To Awful' States?

This may come as a surprise to many readers, but the USA scores rather poorly in science and math education in comparison to many other countries.  And independent think tanks rank many states’ science standards as poor to awful. 
Several states present evolution as unsettled science—“according to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection,” say New York State's standards.  Such iffy, wishy-washy standards are a green light for some poor science teaching.  Good old Lincolnland gets a D for its science standards, which don’t even use the word evolution, although things are couched in statements like “describe processes by which organisms change over time using evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, embryology, the fossil record, genetics and biochemistry”.  This was done “to be less controversial”, as if evolution is still a matter for debate. 
Standards are a very tricky thing.  If you remove standards and just let teachers teach, a lot of good things are going to happen, but a lot of bad things will happen too.  You’d be amazed at how many high school teachers are iffy to downright negative about evolution; many of them actually think in all fairness alternatives should be taught so students can make up their own minds, as if things like this are up to the individual.  In Missouri students may soon be able to avoid any subject, any topic, that might be troubling or bring them to question their core beliefs.  The GOP platform in Texas wants to abolish critical thinking entirely!  Is the USA on a path to pig-ignornance?
So high science standards are important because they determine how curricula and courses are shaped, however if you mandate too many things, then it becomes a check list for your average teacher.  Really good teachers will figure out how to educate no matter what.  In my youth the state of New York had regents exams, state-wide achievement exams in a number of subject areas, and if you were college bound you took these exams, and if you passed them you got a NY State Regents diploma.  We also got a regular high school diploma, but it was a consolation prize.  Our best teachers figured out how to push us along such that the regents exams were the easiest thing we’d done all year.  The worst teachers plodded along topic by topic to cover all the “necessary” things.  Terrible.  So science standards should present levels of knowledge, concepts, but not too many specifics. 
Still a great deal about science education rests with having really good teachers.  You see science is not just a subject area, it’s a process, but many high school teachers have never done science.  And if you don’t know how some knowledge is acquired, how we know various things, what is taught can begin to sound like “this is what we believe” to which others will say, “well, we believe something different”.  A science teacher that hasn’t done science is just like having a swimming coach who can’t swim.  Put that way it seems pretty ludicrous doesn’t it?  You may wonder why this is the case, and the problem is really quite simple, a 4-year education degree has so many education requirements that the amount of science students take is minimal.  There isn’t enough time in a 4 year degree to do anything else.  TPP was assigned to a blue ribbon committee to consider how to upgrade teacher education.  Since no one else was offering any suggestions, TPP suggested that all high school teachers get a regular undergraduate degree in their subject area, and then get certified by getting a master’s degree in education.  In other words, treat them and educate them like professionals, a radical idea.  The idea of having no undergrad degrees in teacher education was too much for this committee to deal with, and it has been reported that they continued to meet, to no apparent success, but you-know-who never found out about any subsequent meetings. 
If a professional educational plan were adopted students on their way to teaching science would have more courses in science and have time and the opportunity to do some research, to experience the process of science, and without question this changes how you view and how you teach science.  Our biology department actually looked into such a change, but we were told it was a state mandate that we have an undergraduate degree in teacher education.  Maybe that committee did have an effect! 

Planning a symposium in Louisiana

Next summer the botanical meetings will be held in New Orleans, and TPP is looking forward to the food and music, oh, and the botany.  Good planning, go to Louisiana in the summer, but probably that's when academic types, especially students, can better afford it with off-season rates.  So some of us been thinking, how about a symposium on evolution titled "Yes, Bobby (Jindal), evolution is real".  It's hard to believe Jindal falls for the "it's just a theory" line; it's easier to believe he that he would play religious conservatives for political reasons, but why not take him to task?  So we can have some fun with this.  Maybe we invite Dr. Donald Aguillard to speak.  He's the superintendent of the St. Mary Parish School District, but if his name sounds familiar it's because he was the lead plaintiff in the Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court Case in 1987 that ruled the teaching of creationism in public school science classes is unconstitutional.  Jindal has made news by giving vouchers, public money, to private religious schools who are under no such prohibition.  They can teach all the anti-science stuff they want.  So maybe the botanists get a bit uppity for a change.  If you want to know what botanists think about all this, here's the link to the Botanical Society's statement on evolution, which is pretty good even if TPP was the primary author.

Lawn chair tree

No sooner had the wooden motorcycle post gone out than a colleague called my attention to these people ("Pooktre") who grow furniture and trees that look like people.  TPP has always had a fascination for things grown from trees (footbridges from fig roots, tree houses, and towers too), and growing chairs is strange and wonderful.  Clearly this is not an enterprise for the hasty person.  You think, "I'd like to sit here on my patio and look at the garden."  But rather than pull up a chair you plant a tree and begin pruning and bending, and you wait a decade for your chair to grow.  So you'd better be really, really certain of which way you want to look.  And same goes with planting the table (yes they've got one) so you have a place for your drink.  Too bad if you want to rearrange things.  This takes a fair amount of imagination combined with some practical knowledge to get trees to grow this way, sort of practical large scale bonsai.  You hope this is just a hobby because it doesn't seem possible anyone can make enough money growing furniture.  Enjoy. 

Mail from alternative universes

Not everybody is happy with the idea of exporing other planets for evidence of life.  Everything about cosmological biochemistry suggests that life at the simplest level is going to be pretty common in this universe, so any evidence of prior life on Mars would be quite encouraging, but sounds like this is pretty threatening to people who don't rely on biology to explain life.  And how exciting that other people (Faye Flam in this case) get such interesting mail. 

How comforting to know that $2.5 billion of our tax dollars are being wasted (sorry, “invested”) to find evidence of life of Mars. The critical clues will be traces of water. And we all know what that means. Just get yourself some carbon (and a few other things) and JUST ADD WATER, and voila, LIFE!
Silicon is the seventh most abundant element in the universe. The planet Mars apparently has a heavy dose of it. Should NASA then say that Mars has the ingredients for computer chips and laptops, with the intended implication that computer chips and laptops may have self-assembled on Mars in the past, or might in the future?
“There's almost unanimous agreement that Mars once had conditions suitable for life as we understand it, he said. If life never arose, he said, scientists will want to know why not.”
NASA wants to know why life did NOT arise on Mars? As if to say NASA knows why life DID arise on earth? Incredible!
Then, the finale. This unintentional but damning indictment of the evolutionists and origin-of-lifers and all of junk science: “Anderson said he won't be disappointed if Curiosity fails to bring us any evidence of past life. "You have to be careful that you don't confuse what you want to see with what you are seeing."

Here's Faye's responseHello. I’d like you to know your letter reached our universe with success. I’ve been particularly conscious of parallel universes in the last week since I started reading “Why the World Exists” by Jim Holt. This book blends physics and philosophy to explore the question of existence. There’s much discussion of parallel universes in which the constants of nature and perhaps the very laws are different from ours.
Do you have philosophy in your universe? Is your universe apparently expanding? Ours is accelerating. Isn’t that the weirdest thing? And we’ve just confirmed that our space is pervaded by a Higgs field which gives elementary particles mass. What kinds of particles do you have in your corner of the mutliverse?
I’m intrigued that in your universe evolution is “junk science”. That’s mind-bending for us here on Earth because natural selection is such an elegant process, it’s hard to conceive of a universe in which life would emerge and not be subject to it. How does it work out your way?
Your universe seems to have quite the negative attitude toward space exploration. Where does that come from? Do you have other planets in your solar system? Do you have solar systems? You must at least have Google translate, since you message reached me in English, though I think you might have a few glitches. Anyway, nice to hear from you. Keep in touch.

Oh, Faye, such a good reply.  So nice to be friendly with alien intellects, but unfortunately such minds are all too common around the USA.


Mileposts are nothing really but reminders of how far we've come and how far we have to go.  Sciatic Pain has just become the 100th Phactor Phollower, and although the nickname is not very auspicious, judgement will be reserved.  He looks nice enough, except maybe on a dark street corner late at night, and he likes weird stuff, and every now and again TPP likes to see what things register on his weird-stuff-o-meter.  The 100 phollower milepost has taken almost 4 and a half years of blogging to reach, so TPP isn't hasn't set any records and isn't exactly hauling them in like a big tent evangelist, but phollowers keep signing up at the rate of about one every two weeks.  The very first phollower was a nephew who felt sorry for his uncle's blog that had no followers at all.  It's like putting some money in a basket before it's passed around to psychologically encourage more donations, and Mrs. Phactor keeps saying, "Don't encourage him, he's bad enough as is."  So thank you phollowers for the encouragement; thank you to the chatty ones, and the silent ones.  Although no plans are being made to greatly alter blog content, TPP has lately avoided politcal comment altogether because it's just been too damned depressing to think about.  Even garden failure and drought are less depressing.  So must run.  It's TPP's turn to cook dinner, and 2% of you will be there.  

How many wooden nickels do you need to buy this motorcycle?

TPP has long had a strange fascination with wood.  Technically wood is secondary xylem, and it's what makes trees possible.  Unfortunately it happens to be very good for building and making lots of things, so human desire for wood has done lots of damage to trees, forests, and our environment.  Still you can marvel at the stange things people make out of wood, but this one is quite amazing, a motorcycle made from wood.  That includes the gas tank which is made from an old wine cask and wheel rims.  The cows' horns (handle bars & exhaust) are sort of cheaty though, but something tells me this guy isn't a purist about anything.  More Flintstone than anything else.  Oh yeah, have your garage checked for termites before parking your wooden bike.  And you don't want someone to try to "chop" this bike! 

A Beautiful Day

Today is a beautiful summer day, an occurrence that has been in short supply this year.  Last night after being missed by the first round, a second set of thunderstorms delivered 1.75" of rain to our gardens, without damaging wind or hail, and this is the first time in over 2 months that our garden plants, those that aren't brown already, are looking well watered.  The down pour also filled the lily pond.  Presently, at about 1 pm it is pleasantly warm, breezy, and the cicadas are providing quite a chorus.  Ms. Phactor is out for a walk around the gardens with her kitty who has been cooped up during the stifling heat.  The last significant rainfall was 3 weeks ago, and for a week this rain will do, and either the drought will continue or not; long range forecasts are not optimistic.  As produce beggers, friends with some better garden fortunes gave us a bag full of oriental eggplants, and up the street a gardener/farmer was selling big, beautiful tomatoes for 25 cents each.  Not sure the Phactor can grow them that cheaply.  While a great help to gardeners, this rain won't help most of the maize farmers, but maybe the soybeans will recover.  For at least the next few days the oppressive heat will abate, and some optimism returns although this type of weather in this region could become common place due to global warming.  If this is a taste of the future, it's a bad vintage.  Still nothing like enjoying the present, sitting on your veranda (yes, wireless signal is strong enough!) and posting a light weight blog.

Hybrid F1 produce

The first summer produce obtained from TPP's kitchen garden this week amounted to a small hand full of cherry tomatoes and a 4 inch long cucumber.  The combination of heat, drought, and herbivores has rendered this one of the least successful gardens in a long history of gardening.  Even the foundation bed garden next to our apartment in Australia, the one that went from sunny to shady when the sun's transit shifted its position from the north side to the south side of the E-W oriented building.  When you grow up in the northern temperate zone, you don't think of such things the first time you live in the tropics.  So this year is at the rock bottom.  This is also the year that the F1 had the opportunity to have her first garden.  It's quite modest in size, but inside a well fenced yard that keeps critters at bay, as if any would risk dealing with the Bear, her very large cat, so her little garden looks great. At any rate the F1 feels sorry for her parents' suffering in the decrepitude of their garden and has brought over a care package consisting of cucumbers, a rather weird zucchini, and assorted tomatoes.  How nice that her garden is doing so well she can afford some payback.  If our garden this year was her first garden, she'd never plant another zucchini seed. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Little things in small packages

Nice little things come in small packages, but we often over look the small flowers around us because so many of our ornamental plants have been chosen and selected to have big flowers.  Here's a flowering shrub whose flowers hardly get noticed because even in axillary clusters they are a pretty small display. 
An individual flower is only 2-3 mm across.  This shrub flowers on new wood, this year's growth, and sequentially from bottom to top of the branch.  Long time readers have actually seen this before because TPP featured it way back in 2008, but in October when it's fruit display was at peak attractiveness, and long after it had flowered.  With summer flowering generally diminished by the drought, these flowers were getting plenty of attention from insects.  Fruit eating migratory birds like these shade tolerant shrubs' fruits a lot.  In the tropics you see more bright blue-purple fruit colors than in the temperate zone.  By now you've probably figured out or check the link to discover this is an azure beauty berry (Callicarpa dichotoma).

Plug-in electric conversion kit for you car

In the old days, we used to mount old lawn mower motors on our bicycles to give us a power boost.  There was no direct drive just the friction of a motor-turned drum against the bicycle tire, but once you were moving it could scoot you right along.  Well, this invention reminds me of that, sort of, and it is such a clever way of converting just about any car to a plug-in hybrid with a kit that turns you rear wheels into brushless electric motors.  One of the inventors explains how it works in a video.  The really cool thing is that they think you will be able to convert your standard car to a plug-in hybrid for about $3000.  Since most people do most of their driving around town at speeds below 45 mph, they estimate such a kit will increase you gas mileage by 50 to 100%.  And even cooler, this innovative invention came from Middle Tennessee State, your basic public university, and not even one of your flagship institutions.  How to go Blue Raiders!  Or will it be Green Raiders from now on?  Why not?    

New academic year = new policies

Somewhere there is a stone tablet that forms the foundation of the administration building, and craved into it is only one rule: Thou shalt not begin a new academic year without at least one new policy.  This makes you want to avoid any emails coming from that direction, but they sneaky, they send them via the department chair to forward to us, and every now and again the chair actually has some useful, or interesting, or important information to share, so you dasn't ignore them.  So our great institution has a new policy that allows students to challenge their final grade "...if the student has a reasonable belief the grade was assigned in an arbitrary or capricious manner" they may file a formal challenge to the grade.  Now virtually every student has from their perspective a reasonable belief, an unfortunate choice of word, because clearly a matter of faith is based upon no evidence, that their grade was too low.  They've squeaked out a narrow B on one of 4 exams, their highest grade, and thoroughly believe they were doing "B" work all semester, and you have to show them the numbers.  Actually this doesn't worry the Phactor very much because my grading is done as fairly as possible and if performance isn't up to par, students are dragged aside to discuss it.  But still this policy just screams of annoying situations, reviews by the chair, reviews by some blue ribbon committee appointed by the provost, and that all means time, and justifying what you have done.  And each and every time going through the same thing.  On the other hand, every now and again, a faculty member stiffs a student, or even a whole class, by using some sort of random number generator to assign grades.  The Phactor got a D in psychology from a lame duck faculty member, an experience that has unfairly colored my perception of the whole field, and your only recourse, should you be dissatified was to spend your good money to take the course over again.  Told them none of my money would be so wasted on repeating psychology, but you then live with the damage to your GPA, which in the Phactor's case had suffered plenty of other damage.  So what will come of this new policy remains to be seen.  Why next they'll let students evaluate the faculty!