Field of Science


New Year's Resolutions

An important part of making resolutions is that you don't make resolutions that you cannot possibly fulfill, resolving to do things that are nearly impossible for you, and you end up beating yourself up about these failures concerning your failures.  Once you get this clearly in mind, making resolutions is a much more positive activity.  So here goes.
1.  Always make time for your cocktail hour.  How sad that some people don't seem to be able to slow down or let up enough for a simple cocktail hour.  When else do you get to walk around and appreciate your garden.  Here we keep an open mind; it is possible some cocktail could actually displace margaritas.  Nahhhh.  But here in the winter a few new drinks have proven pretty good: a champagne cocktail flavored with pear brandy, an aperol sour, lemoncello-lemon-& bitters (this is more of a summer drink). 
2. Always take time to enjoy and appreciate your garden even when it's far from perfect.  Weeds happen, so don't obsess about it.
3. Don't waste time or resources on lawn, which is not and never will be a monoculture.
4. Eat well, but don't over eat.  TPP likes good food, but portion control is something he is learning.
5. Take time to savor meals and drinks. 
6. Blog about at least one recently published botanical research article a week.  Hope this is something all you readers out there want. 
7. Don't worry about the entropy increase around your house; hire people to reduce the entropy. 
8. Reorganize some garden space to optimize use of the sunniest places.  Who said you can't grow herbs or tomatoes in your sunny front garden?  If they did say that, it shows a lack of imagination.
9. Make more lists to keep track of all the things you tend to ignore or simply forget.  The memory cells are limited, getting fuller and older.  Too bad our brains don't come with USB ports.
10. Find at least 10 new not-run-of-the-mill plants to add to our personal botanical garden. 
11. Take time for a real vacation.  Under consideration are southern Germany around the holiday season and New Orleans after some professional meetings. 
12. Get a cat; you deserve their special kind of attention.  This is especially important if you find yourself alone.  They share your bed, talk to you, and help you keep their daily schedule on schedule.
Well, let's not overdo things.  Too much self improvement isn't good for you all at once.  For this reason TPP hasn't checked on last year's resolutions to see how poorly he did.

So long and thanks for all the Archaea

Can't do any better than this title stolen from a colleagues blog.  For those of us who teach about big patterns in biological diversity, one of the giants, Carl Woese, has died.  His research produced a complete revolution in phylogenetic theory, and he lived long enough to see how important and successful his contribution was.  To explain briefly, the differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes was long considered to be the great diversity divide.  Organisms either had nuclei and membrane bound organelles (chloroplasts and mitochondria), eukaryotes, or they lacked them, or "came before them", i.e., pro- karyon (= nucleus).  Prokaryotes were more or less synonymous with bacteria, and eukaryotes were all the rest of living organisms.  But Woese's research showed that a group formerly called the Archaebacteria were actually a distinct lineage and that these Archaeans, as they became known (misspelled in this old lecture figure), have a more recent common ancestry with Eukaryotes.  80s ribosomes typical of eukaryotes are twice the size of 70s ribosomes because of two large insertions, one in each of the two ribosome subunits.  Archeans have one of the two insertions, but not the other, thus the relationship diagrammed above.  Prokaryotes used to be called Kingdom Monera or Monerans, but now this taxonomic hypothesis is falsified because it no longer consists of a single evolutionary lineage.   


EXTERMINATE!  EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!  If you have no idea what this means or who says it, or the significance of this police box, then just stop here because the rest of this will be meaningless, and we must suspect that you have only recently emerged from the cave you have been living in these past few decades.  But if you know the difference between Cybermen and Solarians, then this is important stuff.  Yes, you can get the complete list of Dr. Who villains and how many times they've appeared in the series.  How else can you possibly hope to retain your scifi geek credentials if you don't download this data?  How fondly TPP remembers his Tardis coffee mug where the heat of the coffee caused the Tardis, disguised as a British police call box, to dematerialize.  You're welcome, of course.

A Saturday Slowdown

What a strange day!  The Phactors don't actually have anything on their activity schedule, and of course, not much in the way of gardening going on, although the post Christmas flood of gardening catalogs has started arriving along with their promisory pictures, so we find ourselves sitting here at the breakfast table along with the kitty girls watching birds, drinking coffee, and chatting with siblings around the country.  Such days are rare, but on occasion welcome, so we plan to pamper ourselves a bit.  A dinner has been planned centered around a new recipe for peppered pork and pears.  A lot of cooking was done leading up to Christmas leaving awash in cookies and Italian meal leftovers, neither a bad thing, but it's our other favorite activity after gardening.  A nice cedar bench awaits in the basement for some needed repair.  Keeping a long-haired kitty out of wood glue is an interesting challenge when she's trying so hard to be helpful.  Ah, a sister-in-law who teaches special education in CT not too far from Newtown is telling us how terrible it really was, worse than what people saw in the papers, and how huge the impact was on the survivors some of which may suffer from PTSD.  Dreadful.  Perhaps we'll treat ourselves to a movie on a big screen something we don't do all that often.  So if your life is more interesting than this, well, tell us in the comments.

Friday Fabulous Flush

Quite a number of tropical plants flush red, which is to say that the new foliage appears pigmented from pink to red, a topic TPP has touched on a time or two (here and here), but never this particular plant.  This is Pereskia, a large shrub to scandent vine in the cactus family.  Yep, it's got regular leaves, although a bit fleshy, and here they are on new shoots, sporting a bright pink color, anthocyanins that probably have a protective function according to one of my best buddies, David Lee.  At any rate, this is more colorful than it's flowers which are a light greenish white.  This genus is one of the basal lineages of the cactus family more or less showing you what the ancestors of this family looked like.  These plants can be seasonally deciduous dropping their leaves during dry seasons.  The older leafless stem looks a bit more like a cactus except that it doesn't remain green and photosynthetic like more succulent cacti. 

The best mango?

TPP is blogging while eating some lunch and being careful not to spill soup into the keyboard, again.  But the best part of today's is an ataulfo mango.  These are simply the best mango we get in our markets, period.  There are of course a lot of different mangoes, and TPP is no expert, but among the dozen or so varieties that he has sampled, mostly in the tropics, the ataulfo is simply the best.  The fruit is a bit longer and narrower, sort of kidney shaped, and with a thinner pit than the usual varieties you see in North America, at least in the more civilized parts that get mangoes in their markets.  They turn a nice lemony yellow when ripe, but mangoes are at their best just under ripe when the flesh gives ever so slightly when given a firm squeeze.  The flesh is virtually non-fibrous right down to the pit and it has a very smooth texture.  The taste is sublime, a robust, sweet-tart tropical mango fruitiness you just don't get from any other fruit.  If you've never ever tried a mango from a market, and you see these, do give them a try.  They are TPP endorsed.  Hey, growers and marketers, you are welcome, and you can show your appreciation by arranging for TPP to get a regular supply. 

Filthy dirt

Experimental work with plants takes some planning and some time.  Nothing magic about plant growth so you just have to wait, but time to get a glasshouse experiment going.  And so an energetic student ready to get underway with the next experiment asks, "Where do I find the dirt?"  Thus they innocently gave voice to a common misconception.  TPP answers, "You find dirt under your finger nails, and in certain kinds of books, movies, and websites."  "Perhaps you mean soil?"  Soil and dirt are not the same at all.  "Does that mean my research proposal has to be changed?"  "Yes."  Careful consideration has to be given to the soil used for experiments.  Sometimes you can use a commercial potting mix, or just make one, but a potting mix is not at all like the soil these plants naturally grow in.  Soil is more than just a whole bunch of eensie weensie rock particles and organic matter, it also contains microorganisms to the tune of about 8-10 million per cubic centimeter (for the non-metric, a volume about the size of a sugar cube).  Not only that, but the plants growing in a particular area can greatly alter the soil microflora to their benefit and perhaps the detriment of others, and in particular that includes invasive plants.  This produces some problems in the experimental design, but let's let that go for now.  Fortunately your mentors were thinking way ahead and soil (sod actually) was dug 2 months ago and set aside in anticipation of this experiment; soil from our research prairie, soil affected by an invasive plant, and soil from an adjacent grassy meadow, so a very practical consideration is next.  Those buckets with great big old chunks of sod need to be screened to remove rocks and root systems and in the process reducing the big old chunks into a much finer texture.  It's a great student activity for a cold winter afternoon.  So, no dirty thoughts, just become one with the soil.  Wonder how many hits this title will generate of people looking for real "dirt"?  We'll see if the data for click ins and outs, i.e., zero time spent reading the blog goes up.  Something like this happened a week ago when the daily traffic at TPP jumped up by a factor of 3 for no particular apparent reason producing quite a blip in the data.

Saving Faculty Time - An Administrative Fairy Tale

This is the time of year when you have to report, on the basis of a calendar year, what you accomplished over portions of two academic years and the summer in between.  So when your provost introduces a new system for reporting your productivity based on the premise that it will save you time you know you're about to get hosed.  Provosts do not care about saving your time; they want things to be easy for themselves.  So clearly the new system called digital measures is actually so they can quickly and easily generate a bean-counting report, and no question about it, Provost Plodder is a real bean counter.  TPP's rough estimate is that with about 10 times as much effort, a fraction of the information usually reported has been digitally measured.  In an effort to really evaluate quality teaching, teaching evaluations have been reduced to a single average number, not even average numbers in a list of categories (like when TPP got low evaluations for exams in a seminar class that didn't have any exams!), and no written comments either, just one number.  This is a banal as it gets and something TPP predicted would happen when teaching evaluations were introduced.  They want abstracts of your presentations, in 30 words, when the standard of our field, and many others too, is 300 words.  They want an abstract that's just twice as long as the title, and re-writing an abstract is such a time-saver!  And of course, any form that attempts to be a one-size-fits-all form across an entire university is destined to be a piece of crap, difficult to use, and of limited value.  Such forms generate apparent data because you are forced into entering things in some boxes in certain ways such that apples, oranges, and pencil shavings will end up being compared.  Apparently their idea is that as soon as you generate a bean (A student answered a question today; it was answered.) you run right off to the Internet and record the event digitally, so at the end of the year, you just push a button and an annual report is generated!  This way you waste little tiny bits of time throughout the year rather than writing a report at the end of the year.  It's hard to even figure out where to put some of the standard stuff let alone non-standard (yes, even in this day and age!) stuff like blogging, and other dubious activities.  Each and every entry wanted some piece of information that had to be looked up elsewhere to save even more time.  After all this is some form of public out-reach, an educational tool, largely botany, but edumacating people about higher edumacation too.  TPP spent as much time as he was able, and more time than it deserved.  So, if my provost reads this, digital measures really, really bites.  The most obvious piece of data is that this company is really selling this product like hotcakes, and the assistant provost who oversees the introduction will certainly be given a really good evaluation for this accomplishment, if they can find the right category.  Oh, there it is: Big Wastes of Time and Money: progress in assessment.

Bicycle design - forkless bike

When we were kids, we routinely took apart and rebuilt bicycles to raise the seat and handle bars to ridiculous heights, but mostly just to have fun and learn about the physics of falling.  However there was only so much you could do with the materials at hand and a welding torch.  As a long time cycler, who himself has a fairly novel bike (a BikeE, not to be confused with an Ebike), cool bicycles have always been a fascination (bamboo bike, conference bike, school bus bike, rickshaw bike), so imagine how disappointed TPP was that Santa didn't leave one of these forkless bicycles.  Imagine if you were tasked with designing a bicycle without a front fork (which by the way, if you are missing a front fork from a bicycle, one seems now to have been incorporated into a neighbor's new garden sculpture, which is not to suggest they took it).  Some designs are so ingrained, it takes and illustrates real creativity to come up with something new, like a forkless bike, which then takes on a certain strangeness by just being so different.  Maybe next year.

How green is your Christmas tree?

Maybe this is a little late to help this season, but here's something to think about.  Our "live", or rather slowly dying fir (they have been cut after all.) is quite green and fragrant the more so that we buy cut trees early and put them in a bucket of water to maintain hydration as much as possible. This is usually about the time the rhododendrons and other shrubs prone to winter damage get "wilt-proofed".  This waxy spray also works great on cut trees and other cut greens, e.g., wreaths, to slow their dehydration and reduce the falling needles.  It also helps if the part of the house where you put the tree on display stays on the cool side at night and isn't in the direct blast of hot air from your furnace.  TPP regularly gets asked about whether real trees are better than artificial trees from an ecological perspective, and the answer is quite simply, yes.  Christmas trees are a sustainable, renewable crop on a seven to eight year cycle.  No one goes out and cuts trees from forests; they are a crop grown here in the northern portions of the USA or in the Great White North, that nice country above us.  Although this year a neighbor who decided to remove an offending blue spruce from his yard used the top for their Christmas tree and the bottom for their yule log.  Now artificial trees do last for years, but as Mrs. Phactor puts it, they have no fragrance forever.  They are made of metal and plastic, difficult to impossible to recycle, and probably manufactured in China.  So how green is all of that?  So have no guilt or even second thoughts about buying a real tree each year.  Tree farmers are depending on you. 

Mall victory!

The Phactor has done it!  Christmas shopping is all done, and no expense was spared.  A dinner party and other festivities have been planned and provisioned.  And in the process a significant victory has been achieved;TPP never set foot within a shopping mall, and this for someone who cannot get going on the holiday season until academic semesters are history is significant because no small amount of procrastination is involved as well.  Firstly, local stores in the small commerical district of our city are supported first.  Second, then to find the items to please all the women in my life, TPP seeks stores that are not part of a mall.  While online shopping has a great fan in Mrs. Phactor, a busy woman, TPP hasn't done much online shopping except for some hard to find plants.  Malls are like the casinos of shopping, they are designed to keep you shopping with nothing what so ever to distract you from this task.  With the particular mental disorder that this represents, TPP really does not like to shop, and when shopping is necessary it is done as quickly as possible, unless, of course, the location is a nursery or greenhouse.  It's like trying to dine pleasantly by yourself; it just can't be done.  And rather than enjoying your meal in a leisurely fashion, you find yourself hurrying to finish.  Little temptation exists for me in malls because there just aren't very many things sold in malls that are desired, however in this case the shopping was not for myself.  One thing to note is that sales clerks and other store personnel have been very pleasant this year.  How nice.  Does that come with advancing age?  Maybe sales have been good.  Now hopefully, TPP's effort will be rewarded by the happiness of the giftees.   

Trying to be good, but birdies were in the bush

Our kitty girls have been trying to be very, very good.  Things like sleeping together on Mrs. Phactor without playing biffy games in the middle of the night, and not eating each other's food, at least while a food referee is present, helping with wrapping paper and ribbons, and not bolting out the door as soon as it is opened, especially when cold air and snow blows into their faces.  These are cats after all, so the behavior bar can not be set too high.  Now to prevent idle paws and boredom, the best winter entertainment is Cat-TV, the ongoing show just out side our windows produced by squirrels and birds hanging out at all the feeders.  So much is going on, so much movement, and all of it just out of the reach of cat paws.  A thistle feeder hangs from a balcony railing just outside the sunroom windows, and since it only has 4 feeding stations instead of the 40 or so that it really needs, the waiting line forms a few feet away in a tall rhododendron leaning right up against the windows on the lee side of the house.  The broad window sills make for a good perch for birdy watching, right there at the end of their noses, so close that you'd just bet that if you jumped up there real fast you could grab one of those birds.  So what were those glass candle sticks doing there anyway?  Did you just move them there from the mantle to make room for decorations because we never noticed them there before.  So you know we didn't mean to; it just happened.  And probably it wouldn't have made any difference anyways, so it was just an innocent little mistake.  And does it matter if we take a ribbon or two from packages for some play?  After all nobody else has been playing with them ever since you wrapped that gift up. 
Ah well, keeping breakable things in safe locations is our part of the "we'll be good" program. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Icy!

This is a pretty cool phenomemon that not too many people have seen because 1. you have to be out and about in early winter, 2. you have to have a lot of herbaceous perennials, 3. just the right weather conditions, basically a very frosty night after milder weather, and 4. you have to be somewhere with all of these things together.  Without going into a lot of detail, basically when root pressure continues to push water up a stem which has been cut or ruptured by freezing, the water can form elaborate ribbons of ice as it freezes in cold air.  And hey, they sort of look like flowers.  Obviously the ground temperature has not yet reached winter temperatures.  At any rate some of these formations are pretty cool and have caught the imagination of a geologist here in the upper midwest. More pictures and more information here via Jim Carter.

Life is tough all over

Things are tough all over!  And particularly in this season, you hate to hear stories of peoples' economic woes that break your heart, so how can anyone even think of raising taxes on the richest few percent of people in the USA to help improve income for the federal budget?  You just haven’t thought about all the problems of having that much money.  Rich people in Newport Beach already have an onerous taxation problem.  Imagine the nerve of the city to charge dock owners a fee for mooring their yachts or sail boats on public water ways maintained by the city, and probably the Army Corps of Engineers!  Why in some cases the mooring fee is going up 3000%!  After all you pay way upwards of a quarter of a million for a boat, sort of an entry level scow, and then the city taxes you for the linear feet of dock space you need at a fair market value.  How unfair is that?  Can you imagine having to payon average $700-$900 a year for a place to park your basic necessity of life, your big-ass boat?  It costs more than that to park a car in Chi-town for a year! This recalls an old adage, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.  But who are we kidding here?  These are big expensive toys are moored in front of some of the priciest real estate in the country, and these job creators are bitching about a few hundred dollars to keep their harbour dredged out.  The other 95% of the country, especially us residents of the great midwest, just don’t understand how hard life is in Newport Beach.  After all we're talking about the cost of maybe 3 or 4 cases of decent wine.   

Whither goes the Field Museum of Natural History?

The Chi-town Trib greeted us this morning with the news that the FMNH was aiming to reduce its curatorial and research staff, and refocus its mission, to deal with budgetary realities.  Unfortunately it takes quite a curatorial effort to deal with 25 million natural history and cultural specimens, and budgetary problems beset many institutions these days especially here in Lincolnland.  Such big collections must be curated, and used, or they begin to wither away, and this makes you wonder whither goest such an institution?  TPP has responsibility for a relatively small natural history collection, under 100,000 specimens, and it is quite a task.  Thank you, thank you, volunteers and interested students!  Our collection has a simple mission to function in support of teaching; the collection only makes modest contributions to science, although plans are to improve its importance for evaluating conservation efforts locally.  Large collection based research has largely passed out of the research realm at academic institutions because most academic administrators see museums and other collections as "rat holes into which we pour our money" (direct quote of a former president).  Big scale collections research only remains viable at a few museums and botanical gardens, and as a result, this is where floristic and taxonomic studies and other such large scale research must be done.  One wonders what the new director, formerly a university president, has in mind when he says these cuts are a means of narrowing and refocusing the FMNH's mission.  When major collections fall into disuse they begin to get treated as "dusty attics of junk", a foreshadowing of their over all demise.  Collections are of little value if they aren't being used for research and education.  The details have not been forthcoming as yet, but this news is rather ominous and will not be greeted optimistically within the scientific community.  The status and scientific standing of this research institution is in jeopardy and they have a unique role that is not duplicated at academic institutions.  Should you wish to sound off, here's an online petition, but without knowing the details, it strikes TPP as a bit knee-jerk, although the worst is anticipated.  A few years ago Fairchild Tropical Gardens did a similar thing; their trustees decided research was expensive so their botanical staff was "retired".  Fairchild remains a pretty place to visit, but as a prominent botanical garden, it is a shadow of its former self.  Is this the future of the FMNH?    

Cycad "flowering"

A check through the glasshouse found a number of our small cycads coning, mostly species of Zamia.  Here's a small specimen of Z. pumila showing the full display of seed cones at the time of pollination.  Not too much to see, but enough.  Note that near the top of the cone, the cone scales, aka megasporophylls, have separated a bit leaving a narrow zig-zaggy opening around the top of the cone.  Similar openings are found further down the cone too.  Cycads are very ancient seed plants, more ferny than other gymnosperms, and while ancient, they turn out to be insect pollinated.  Small beetles carry pollen from other plants bearing pollen cones to plants bearing seed cones where they carry pollen inside the cone where it makes contact with pollen drops and gets pulled inside the ovules (aka megasporangia, aka immature seeds).  After this pollination period, the cone closes until the seeds are mature and ready to disperse.  Pretty exciting, huh! 

Winter storm approaching

Our first winter storm of the season is approaching and should arrive just about when TPP starts his walk home, and just in time for the Chi-town evening rush hour.  As mentioned before this will set some new records.  December 20th is the latest day ever for the 1st measurable snow fall in Chi-town beating the old record of December 16th making it something like 290 days between measurable snowfalls.  The snow and cold are not actually the problem, but here in the great mid-west this kind of weather always come with wind.  Snow falls are seldom the nice, pretty things you think of; they're howling nast things with a wind chill factor of epic proportions. One great mental lapse had us out in Chi-town on a single digit night with a -50 degree chill factor!  It hurt.  Hmm, in the time it has taken, about 3 hours, since this blog entry began and now, the storm is actually here and white stuff is coming down.  So two new records: long time without any measurable snow fall and latest date for the 1st snow fall.  No surprise then that 2012 will headed toward the warmest year on average since the records have been kept.

Seasoning starter kit

The morning newspaper had side column suggesting a list of 10 must have seasonings for the brand-new, novice cook.  Having a deep philosophical conversation before consuming your full titer of caffeine is not a good idea, so the Phactors decided this was safe to discuss being fairly mundane.  First, the initial assumption must be that this starter kit is for someone whose idea of "home cooking" is to put the frozen pizza into the oven.  Second, what kind of things do "novice" cooks first begin to try?  Doesn't entry into cooking usually begin with confections; things like brownies and cookies?  Even the Phactors seldom make red pasta sauce from scratch anymore.  Maybe a salad dressing is easy enough, and certainly seasonings for grilling or frying meat.  Third, obviously these are in the dried not fresh seasonings.  So here's the newspaper's suggested list of 10: salt, pepper, bay leaves, onion powder, garlic powder, seasoning salt, dill weed, summer savory, parsley, basil.
Granted the Phactors have an herb garden, but TPP can count on one hand the number of times he's used summer savory in the past decade.  And while we use a lot of dill weed in marinades and dips (OK that might be the reasoning for the seasoning.), it's not on my top 10 list of necessities.  Of course presently the Phactors go through an alarming amount of coriander, cumin, and tumeric, as well as a lot of cinnamon and oregano.  We use a lot of paprika, chili powder, dry mustard, and hot red pepper (flakes & powdered).  Parsley is an essential, but it's never out of season and it's never dried.  Wouldn't even a novice cook have onions and garlic bulbs?  If you're cooking something that calls for onion and garlic, why use powdered?  Is this asking too much of a novice?  After all, salt is on the list.  Checked a really simple cookbook and oregano and dry mustard were common enough, but garlic powder, onion powder, summer savory, dill weed, basil, not at all.  So here goes, the Phactors' starter kit: salt, pepper, oregano, basil, cinnamon, chili powder, dry mustard, red pepper flakes, cumin, coriander.  You have to encourage people that cooking is an adventure, right?  Your imput and justifications are welcomed. 

Get Reddy to get Madder

Applied versus basic research is not really an option because to be really innovative, applied research has to be defined loosely enough to allow research to wander a great deal.  So you're interested in better lithium ion batteries?  Who isn't?  How many do you have?  The number would probably surprise you.  Use your smart phone to search for an answer.  So now a  researcher comes along and says, we need some $$$upport to investigate pigments in natural dyes.  So do you figure the cell phone people will pony up?  How about all the tablet and laptop manufacturers?  How about hybrid car companies?  Sounds like a sales pitch that just won't fly.  Well, the USA army isn't all that imaginative at times, but someone was smart enough to support such basic applied research.  A materials research group at Rice University headed by Reddy has found that a pigment in the ancient plant dye madder (Rubia tinctorium; image of madder dyed yarn) can be used as an organic component to make more environmentally friendly rechargeable batteries (here's the publication).  The pigment would replace the cobalt used in today's lithium ion batteries, which for safe recycling should have the cobalt extracted, and that's after the expense of mining and smelting the cobalt, which is also not very environmentally friendly as it releases stuff like arsenic, and trouble of manufacturing cobalt cathodes requires high temperature. So this is really big news; research that will have benefits well beyond the military.  Glad they didn't decide the results were classified.  

Citations - Scholarly Beans

When you publish in science, you must place your research into context, that is, you must show how your work relates to all other work relevant to your study and findings.  This is no small task and the list of citations in some of TPPs publications runs well upwards of 100.  This is somewhat easier to keep track of now, heck, it's a whole lot easier to keep track of now than at any time in the past.  In the early days of my career we'd spend at least one day a month shifting through a major research library looking for publications of interest, and maybe 2 or 3 days a year looking yourself up in the Science Citation Index.  Now good old Google Scholar not only tells you how many other authors have cited your publications, but how many citations each of your publications has had.  TPP is by no means a major publisher, but as Captain Jack Sparrow pointed out when called the worst pirate I've ever heard of,  "But you have heard of me."  So indeed my modest enough record of scholarship generates something on the average of 50 citations a year, and GS alerts the author to these citations because any publication that cites your work is likely to be a study you yourself are interested in.  When the titles of these publications pop up in the email, it's usually not too hard to guess which of my publications were cited.  Then TPP gets this: Capillary wave propagation during the delamination of graphene by the precursor films in electro-elasto-capillarity.  TPP has no idea what this means at all; the publication is totally opaque to this botanist.  Remember the particular area of expertise we be talking about here is floral biology, pollination, ecology, floral form and function.  Now perhaps someone has TPP confused with someone else.  After all Phactor is a fairly common name.  Actually not, and while still in the dark about its significance to this study, how biological organisms interact with certain physical parameters of the environment, particularly surface tension, was in these authors' opinions important.  TPP must admit a certain grudging respect for anyone who is so thorough in their literature search as to find that connection.  Score one small bean for the counters.

Make some cookies

Whenever the news, from near or from far, is about tragic events a great sadness is generated; it's depressing.  Is this the price that must be paid for a society that thinks guns are a symbol of their freedom?  You feel helpless.  You are largely helpless.  My sister-in-law teaches grade school in Connecticut, so it is somehow easier to imagine what could have happened to your own family.  It shakes people up because such acts of senseless violence do happen even though rare.  And people do tend to loose sight of this aided by the media amplification.  About 100,000 public schools are in the USA, so they are safe places really.  The best therapy is to make cookies, and then give them to someone, and hope they will pass it forward.

Great Freebie for plant ID in upper midwest

Nothing beats recognizing a family, or what passes for a family, when trying to ID a plant.  A lot of the common families are pretty easy to identify on sight especially if you have a nice "cheat" sheet to help you out.  So kudos to the Field Museum and plant illustrator Kathleen Garness for this nice guide to common plant families of the Chi-town area.  But the same families are going to be common enough across the whole upper midwest.  Now here's the best news: these family guides are free!  Download the sheets and put together your family ID field guide. Too bad you'll have to wait until spring to try it out.  HT to Art Plantae.

Friday Fabulous Flower - a bromeliad

This time of year regular visits to our glasshouse help your mental health.  The greeness, the humidity, the earthiness are all very comforting and rejuvenating because it's so alive.  Quite a few of these tropical plants flower during our winter season, which is sort of strange if they are generally day-neutral.  At any rate, here's a rather nice Friday Fabulous flower, a largish flowered bromeliad (pineapple family) that has been in our collection for decades.  It's never been labeled and so TPP simply must make a guess based on some general features that it's Billbergia pyramidalis.  The 3-parted corolla always has a bluish tinge to it, which together with the 3 pale pink sepals and all the pink bracts on a fist-sized inflorescence makes for quite a display standing above the vase-like whorl of leaves.  The stigma and stamens are exerted from the corolla to make contact with the head of a pollinating hummingbird.  Enjoy. 

Final exams graded

It's 4:35 pm on Thursday of final exam week, and the exams are graded a whole day early!  Results were generally better than expected, but this was not universal.  Still almost all students are doing better now than they were at the beginning of the semester.  As always the best are quite impressive and that's sort of the whole point; eventually the world wants to know who these people are.  The final grading will have to wait until tomorrow.  Lots of lab portfolios (reports are so last decade) to wade through, and again the best of them are very impressive.  Too many are still rather linear thinkers and they don't grasp the concept of how you demonstrate your learning by interrelating materials.  This will require fresh eyes of the morning.  Time to depart because events (The F1 got a new much desired job!) demand a bit of celebration.  All of this would have been done earlier, but helping a group of master naturalists with a floristic inventory project consumed the morning.  So you see as soon as one group of students departs, another group moves right in. But, hey, that's the job TPP does. 

Understanding governmental action - fiscal cliff edition

To understand things, you must at times look to sources of wisdom and insight.  For politics in general, there seem to be only two such sources, both comedies.  What does this tell us?  So with respect to the situation in DC (DaCapital), turn to Yes Minister, which dummies in the USA will think is a religious source.  "Politicians must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement."  Our government either makes you laugh or cry, but crying is so depressing, so better to make fun of the fools we have elected.  The other source is of course the Daily Show, the finest in phony news. 

Nominations for least green product/appliance of the year

It's the time of year when lots of useless products are marketed, and you wonder who buys all these things?  Sometimes it's not immediately obvious that some of these products are not only largely unneeded, but some are down right awful in terms of cost and ecology.  Now nobody like coffee any more than the Phactor, and without his morning latte he can get mighty grouchy.  This particular season ads of all sorts have been deluging us with Q-rigged coffee makers that make individual cups of coffee from little individual refills of coffee and what all.  First off, you've got a lot of packaging.  Each and every cup of coffee generates a foil and plastic throwaway, bought by the box full, and you should know, if you don't, the more packaging, the more expensive.  Think of the waste this generates for starters.  Think of the cost.  Now that's a bit difficult because when things are packaged differently, it's hard to compare cost.  If Q-rigged coffee refills were sold by the pound and sat their next to pounds of whole bean coffee, it might give you some pause on you way the refined convenience so smoothly being marketed.  No one is going to tell you how much your cup of Q-rig coffee costs.  You have to figure it out yourself.  Try $1/cup (18 refills at $17.99).  Now if a pound of coffee for your coffee machine costs about $12 it should make about 32 eight oz. cups of coffee, which comes to $0.375 a cup.  To calculate the cost another way, those 18 Q-rig cup refills represent 7.1 ounces, so that coffee costs you $40.54 per pound.  Oh yeah!  Put that sign up next to the product and let's see how it does.  So TPP is giving Q-rig coffee makers and their very expensive coffee refills a big thumbs down!  Any other new products out there that should be dumped on?  Let's have some fun! 

First day of winter

Today is unofficially the first day of winter as determined by yours truly.  Today feels genuinely cold, and is the coldest day we've had so far.  A few flurries are in the air as if to emphasize the obvious.  Data published two days ago in the Chi-town Tribune (I'd present the chart, but it's behind a pay wall even for us hard copy subscribers, and it'll be a very cold day in Chi-town when TPP pays for access twice!) shows that if Chi-twon goes snowless today, it'll set a new record of 281 days between measurable snowfalls (about 1/10th of an inch, which is a strange hybrid measurement between the 8ths, 16ths, and 32nds of an inch and a decimal inch).  The 18 year old record was 280 days between the last snow fall of one winter season and the first snowfall of the next winter.  The shortest time was over 100 days less, only 173 days (!), and that was back quite a few years (forgot the year).  Snow here will not be measurable unless things really pick up later, so we'll see what happens in Chi-town some 100+ miles to the north.  There's a significant difference in weather across this distance, in part due to the proximity of the Great Lakes.  Such weather suggests a warming and drying trend as most of the most snowless years have been in the last 20 years.  People tend to forget about snow as part of the year's precipitation, but it really does count.  When the Phactor moved to this area 35 years ago, it was after spending 8 years another zone or two south, and the return to snowy winters was like a minor league return to the snow belt of my youth in upstate NY.  Nothing tops the snowfalls there.  But after the first few years, the winters just went brown.  This area has only 10-30 days of continuous snow cover on average, and snow cover surviving 40 days indicate a cold, snowy winter. Where TPP grew up the average was 3 times that long.  Chances of a white Christmas seem slight.  Chances the Phactors will get their X-country skis out seem very slight.  The unpredictable storms that really generate snow come from southwest of us along narrow diagonal tracks, and you only have to be 50 miles out of the track either way to almost escape completely, so you never really know. 

Plantains - Common name & culinary confusion

There are times when the Phactor wonders if someone is putting me on with some the questions that people ask.  Here's what someone asks, "I've heard a lot about fried plantains, how good they are, and I'd like to try them."  "Since I have plenty in my lawn can you tell me how your prepare them."  It's highly unlikely that this email came from any place in the tropics.  So let me explain the problem.  Plantain is a common name for two (or more?) very different plants.  There's those broad-leafed lawn weeds in the genus Plantago, and then there's the starchy banana, plantanos.  When the latter is nicely ripe (really black skin), fried plantains are one of the joys of Latin American cuisine.  If the Phactor recalls rightly, the particular lawn weed in question is edible, and it might make a credible salad green or spinachy type vegetable, but forget about frying them.  So nowadays many big markets and Latino groceries have plantains which look like a big, angled bananas.  You usually buy them under ripe and then let them sit around until they ripen.  Then you peel them, cut them into convenient sized pieces, and fry them in butter until they begin to brown and carmelize a bit.  No idea how two such different plants got the same common name, but this seldom causes confusion because people who have plantains or plantains growing in their yards live quite a distance apart neither knowing or much caring about the other.  Maybe this is part of the wonder of the internet, and a good demonstration of why common names are so often problems.

D'oh! Dough!

Another cold, wet, miserable day, and  TPP finds himself again blogging instead of ticking items off his honey-do list.  Item one is to mix up cookie dough so Mrs. Phactor, F1, and foreign student can do the fun part of cutting out and decorating the cookies.  Good thing it's going to take some time for the butter to soften up.  The cut out cookies are another of my Mother's recipes; she was a very accomplished cookie maker, which is perhaps why TPP is the primary cookie maker.  Foreign students always enjoy making cookies probably because homemade is just not something you get when far from home.  In years when the guest decorators were from Thailand or the 4-letter African countries (Mali, Togo, Chad - all at the same time), it was very amusing because they lack the preconceived notions about basic things like the color of Santa Claus' suit.  Their sense of design and color combinations were quite different at times such that many cookies took on a Mardi Gras visual flavor.  But this does bring up an important idea about holidays in general; they are better when shared with friends, neighbors, and guests.  Later the ladies and kitty-girls will all decorate our tree.  Last year only one or two little ornaments were broken while doing double duty as cat toys.  Everyone enjoys things in different ways.  Now if TPP wants to enjoy the rest of the day, he's better find that list.

Over the river and through the woods

It's a wet, gloomy Saturday morning here in the upper midwest, and nothing much to do outside anyways.  Mrs. Phactor has run off to participate in a fund raising event with her professional group thus leaving TPP to his own devices.  She also left a honey-do list as if the Phactor would actually waste the whole morning blogging rather than accomplishing something useful.  So perhaps some multi-tasking is in order.  Let's see.  Item one: in the category of foraging, find and purchase aji amarillo paste.  How interesting.  A trip to Peru will take a lot longer than a Saturday morning, but it sounds like fun.  You'd think yellow chili paste would be at the local Kroger's along with Vegamite, but no.  So time to finish this, and get moving.  First, another cup of coffee and a newly made nutball cookie (my Mother's recipe) made the last time the Phactor was left to his own devices. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Gesneriad edition

Let's end the semester in style with a nice Friday fabulous flower.  Another one of our tropical epiphytes that provide so much winter color, in this case a gesneriad (Aeschynanthus) of uncertain hybrid ancestry.  And for an added bonus you get some of Mrs. Phactor's holiday decor; you generally don't find these in the wild with ribbons, but bet this would help attract more hummingbird pollinators.  This plant gets cut back early every summer to grow new shoots while outside, mostly in a partially shady location.  It generally flowers quite readily and for quite some time during December and January.  The only problem is that the nectar present as a reward to hummingbirds remains unconsumed, so when the corolla drops, so does a big drop of nectar.  So don't hang one of these over a carpet or nice piece of furniture.  The foliage is actually rather handsome on this variety showing a purple variegated pattern, and although looking delicate, this plant is quite tolerant of dry household conditions. 

TGIF Big Time - Introducting students to research

Today is the last class day of the semester; how appropriate it's a Friday.  It always seems to work out that way.  One of my classes was an introduction to research, a seminar with the goal of introducing 2nd year biology majors to real science, a new class.  Firstly 18 students is too many for a good seminar because it lets the passive students be passive no matter how hard you try to force class participation.  So the class dealt with misconceptions and definitions of science, and things like science denialism, opinions versus reality, and science news and the media.  When asked about their opinion on fracking, and what they'd heard and where they heard it and how their opinion was formed, none of the 18 knew what fracking was.  One fellow who opposed it said, "Fracking, it just sounds wrong."  Does that make you feel good about the future of our country and world?  How many earned extra credit for attending a public forum on fracking held immediately adjacent to campus two days later?  None.  They had a hard time wrapping their brains around denialism.  "How can you deny facts," asked one?  Indeed.  However, some of them did a quite credible job of critiquing research posters and research seminars often showing some real insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.  Wonder if my colleagues will want to read them?  They did a good job when conducting an interrogative interview of a professional scientist, yours truly, TPP.  They really liked looking for cartoons that made fun of science, and explaining why they were funny.  But best of all, most of the class now thinks getting involved in research while an undergrad is a good idea.  They have a better idea of what types of research their "teachers" do, and what it takes to be a successful researcher.  On the whole the class was pretty satisfactory, pretty successful, from the instructor's perspective.  Now to see what the students think.

Dealing with drips

The ladies over at the Garden Rant recently posted about pantless gardening, which sounded exciting, but TPP read it wrongly, and it turned out to be potless gardening.  Plants don't really need pots, but gardeners do especially when gardening indoors, where pantless is more doable, but potless isn't.  For years the indoor part of gardening has been a problem for TPP's tropical epiphytes who really like being out of doors for 4-5 months.  It really promotes their flowering druing the winter.  But watering plants when potless, or even when in hanging pots, can be quite a problem.  Mostly these plants grow in a loose bark or very porous soil mix so water flows through quite readily.  No problem outside, but inside it's a drip, drip, drip problem, one that fascinates one of our kitty girls who seems puzzled and fascinated by getting plunked on the head by water drops.  At any rate, Mrs. Phactor recently stumbled upon these plastic drip catchers that hang on the outside of your hanging baskets and the sell for the outrageous price of $2.  Sorry, no brand or store endorsements allowed, but the product works great.  Still every couple of weeks its a good idea to put all these plants in your shower and give them a nice 10-15 min soft, tepid showering, and then allow them to drip away in the tub before rehanging.  The only trouble is that a couple have gotten so big they take up too much room.  The image shows one on the outside of a pot holding the Queen's tears.  No, it's not in flower; just a bit of holiday finery added to the pot by TPP's personal Martha Stewart. 

Got an iPhone? Who you gonna call?

Other than to make fun of iZombies, TPP has little interest in iPhones, but every now and then something grabs his attention.  Now you can get a ghost hunter attachment and app for your iPhone.  Yes, the Ghost Busters would definitely approve, so if you want a stocking stuffer for the favorite scifi geek in your life, this could be a hit.  No question about it you need this as much as you need another hole in your head.  Now if they come up with an Proton iPack for zapping supernatural demons back into their own dimension, or for jamming every iPhone signel within 30 meters, well, that may be another matter.

Blu-Glo one ups Crimson Tide

The Crimson Tide in the Sydney vicinity was pretty amazing, but here's the Blu-Glo (Good name for a team.  Anyone?  Anyone?) photographed at the Malabar Beach, presumably the one in New South Wales (The original Malabar coast is in Kerala, India, and there are several Malabars in the West Indies too).  Again there's a bloom of phosphorescent phytoplankton, countless microorganisms that give the water a Blu-Glo.  That would be something to see.  Especially with a nice cold Tooheys Old.  Thanks to Bend for calling this to my attention. Couldn't leave this buried in the comments. 

We're number 2!

You take your bragging rights where ever you can get them.  In this case, and to our utter amazement, Linconland is not the worst run state in the USA (You go California!), but actually the 2nd worst run state.  Now we keep trying to improve our ranking, and the thing we seem best at is locking up governors (at this we're number one).  But maybe ours are just dumber and therefore easier to catch.  It's as if the gangster era never really left, but now the favorite targets for theft by politicians are state retirement funds, which not only lack the state contribution completely, but the principle paid in by workers has been used like a checking account by the state.  Is that legal?  Probably, but it's still theft.  So at times you have to wonder how anything gets done at all.  Lincolnland has all but done away with public higher education because the state contribution has dropped to an almost insignificant portion all the while blaming the universities for raising their tuition and not controlling their costs.  And never once did voters get to decide if this was what they wanted or not.  Unfortunately, the grass isn't very much greener on other sides, so you just don't have a good place to move to.  But come visit anyways.  Chi-town has some really good restaurants and lots of museums, oh, and it's the Second City of course.

Monday, December 3 - End of the semester blues

The first Monday in December is the last Monday of the semester (exam week doesn't count really).  TPP has about 10 lectures worth of material to cover in 3 lectures, so something is amiss.  A number of students have made appointments this week.  Some of them will give me a lot of excuses for their poor performance, but no good reasons.  This distinction will be largely lost on them.  Now having been one of those students myself, albeit many years ago when the prospects of graduating more or less equated into being drafted to fight a war in Vietnam, how this happens is something TPP understands, but with one important distinction.  TPP knew perfectly well that the explanation was quite simply my own decision, my own actions, and nothing else.  So far, and typical of today's students, it's never their fault.  One young lady admitted that her mother has always called her "last-minute Lena" because she always did work at the last minute basically never studying just cramming for exams.  How's that working for you now? inquires TPP.  Answer: a D.  Lots of students suffer because their study skills fail to advance, to improve, beyond high school, and after the first couple of years of common curriculum and introductory courses, they can no longer do the work and their grades fall off.  This is very discouraging, and many of them, even when their admit they understand the problem, don't want to do anything about it (and professional help does exist).  They just want to graduate and be done with it.  So you figure you'll never have to learn anything again? asks TPP.  Do you understand that your ability to learn is your greatest skill?  This is a bitter pill to have to swallow, but it is becoming more prevalent of late affecting about 20% of students based on my samples of juniors and seniors.  The digital age has done nothing to improve grammar and spelling in fact those skills are definitely in decline along with vocabulary (Confusion over "very" and "vary"!  "Our" instead of "are"!  Lots of wrong words period.) and none of them seem to think this is important at all sadly.  Those letters of application and those little essays about "career goals" they are showing me are not going to impress anyone, but maybe the bar is now set much lower.  Hint to job applicants.  They don't care about your hobbies or your career aspirations; those are little writing exams.  This comes as a shock to some; others express their disbelief.  Ah, that's at least a different excuse.  They had their wisdom teeth removed and immediately felt their IQ decline. Sigh.     

November 2012 data

Wow!  Just took a look at the old blog stats and November 2012 was a new record for TPP.  The blog averaged about 700 page hits a day for a total of 20,746, the first month the blog traffic has ever gone over 20,000.  That included a new record day of 920 hits, the first time the daily total has ever gone over 900.  Sorry the weather was so bad and you had so little to do. 

More leaf windows

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and one regular chore is watering the house plants.  The sunlight was hitting a nice little Haworthia, a succulent member of the lily family (although recent phylogenetic shakeups may have changed that), and the leaf windows were pretty obvious.  They tend to look darker green, but you're really looking down through the leaf tissue.  Thick leaves are good for conserving water, but their very thickness means light penetration is limited.  Having transparent areas on the upper ends of their leaves not only allows light to penetrate deep into the leaf, but it also allows a plant like this to grow almost buried in soil.  Keep your eye out for similar features on other thick-leaved plants, you can never guess where they might appear.  And of course TPP's usual reminder; being a succulent is not the same as being a cactus.  The former is an adaptation for xeric environments that you can find in many groups of plants.  Cacti are a specific family of plants.