Field of Science

Out with the old

New Year's has never been much of a big deal; what's the point?  OK so you start a new calendar.  Mostly the New Year is just one of those sign posts or markers to indicate where you are, like one of those mileage signs along a highway.  And here the New Year will start some 7 hours earlier than at home making 2014 seven hours longer for us, if indeed, this is remembered a year from now. Resolutions are sort of lame; if you want to do something different, OK, then change, but why now exactly?  New Year's is a good excuse to have a party, to eat some food, drink some wine, and socialize, in this case with family and friends of our German students.  TPP once found out the official date in Thailand was based on a different calendar that is several hundred years older and offset from the Gregorian standard by a couple of months, but actually this is one of those things, how the calendar we use got to be the way it is remains unknown to this author. Somehow it never came up as a topic.  Shows us just how arbitrary the whole situation is especially as the new year is not pegged to any particular celestial event like the solstice. New year's works for many people as having a time to wipe the slate clean, an excuse to try something different, and maybe something to look forward to is all a survival mechanism, a personal jedi mind trick, something to keep us plodding forward.  So that's how it will be. TPP will keep putting one foot in front of the other and marching into the new year. Tonight's party should be fun, and not the usual party fare either. Staying up to midnight will be easy with a bit of eastward jet lag to help out. It will be fun to see how other people treat the new year celebration. and with fire works, so say the natives. So happy new year all; enjoy yourselves, and we'll see what comes. Tomorrow.

Kris Kringle Mart

Yes, our arrival in Germany was on the 27th and that is past Christmas, but in Hamburg, the Christmas markets were still going strong, which is nice because this is a new experience.  It was very festive and filled with lovely sights and great smells, so you have some glugwein and some bratwurst to join in the fun.  And that keeps you going until it finally hits you that you have had very little sleep over the
past 28 hours, or something like that, then you sleep like a dead person for 12 hrs.  Hamburg has been quite some fun, of course the tour guides were the best. However the internet in our hotel really sucked, rather it was really expensive, which sucks, so thus the blogging hiatus.  You hear so much about other German cities, and so little about Hamburg, and that now seems puzzling.  But mostly it was about spending time with friends and getting caught up and reacquainted.  TPP had forgotten how much fun big train stations are, and airports just totally suck in comparison. To not sound like a complete grouch TPP will avoid ranting any more about air travel, or people with babies or little tots on airplanes. Yes, what can parents do, but damn your kid was disturbing and annoying the hell out of at least 40 people, and quite frankly they were not doing enough to be considerate.  Buy them a seat next time!  Oops, closing in on a rant; change tracks.  So from Hamburg the Phactors have traveled to Ulm, a little visited city, to see more friends and spend the new year's celebration with them.  OK, this is a bit spooky.  The city is socked in with fog (good thing we came by train rather than plane) and you can hear one of the bawh-dee, bawh-dee sirens and suddenly it's like the Third Man!  Please, don't say you don't know about the Third Man.  OK, time for some dinner.  Anyone been to Hamburg?  Impressions welcomed.

Impending travel

In times now long past, the Phactors always traveled for the holidays because all of our relatives, and many old friends, lived in New York State.  This involved running a gauntlet of potentially very bad winter weather from Cleveland to Buffalo NY, and this was a long drive even when the weather was good.  As the family dispersed the frequency of our visits declined.  Sometimes Mrs. Phactor's family would gather in their adopted state, North Carolina, but that was a long drive for us too.  So now quite a few years have passed when the Phactors have been home-bodies for the holidays, but this year, something different happened.  So the Phactors find themselves finishing up Christmas in a hurry, and in somewhat of a surprise to ourselves heading off to visit friends in Germany and Switzerland.  This is the first time TPP has packed to travel bereft of Hawaiian shirts and shorts, so his normal packing strategy is just not going to work. At any rate it has been a long time since the Phactors began the new year in another country. The best news is that this involves no driving, and especially no driving in the vicinity of Lake Erie. But the dread has already begun; TPP likes going places, but hates travel.  Stoic endurance is the practical state of mind.   

Yes, we'll have no bananas

This is a rather depressing report on the spread of a blight that threatens bananas, worldwide!  This may not seem particularly important to some people, but in many tropical areas bananas are a starchy staple and important part of their diets on a par with potatoes for those of us in the northern temperate zone.  The root of the problem is that bananas, at least the widely planted varieties, are based on a limited genetic base.  As the report points out, this will make it easy for this plant disease to spread.  Everyone knows that basing a crop on a limited genetic base is dangerous, but it seems it takes a disaster or near disaster to get a breeding program going.  HT to AoB blog. 

Cooking something up

Today, the Sunday before Christmas, made a perfect day for cooking.  So with plenty of time, and to help ward off the cold, wet weather, this was a day well-suited for Mulligatawny soup.  It took awhile to find the recipe, hand-written years ago, on a file card tucked in one of our oldest recipe files.  One of the problems with liking cook books is that you can't always remember where certain recipes are, especially like this one, from a now unknown source, and a soup that haven't been made in awhile.  It isn't a hard recipe, but working from scratch you have to cook some chicken and make a spicy soup broth.  And then quite a few ingredients get chopped up and all of that takes some time.  Mulligatawny is a chicken soup that takes a lot of its character from the Indian tradition so the primary flavoring is a curry powder as well as ginger rhizome, Indian bay leaves, and cloves.  It also includes a chopped up tart apple to add a fruity highlight.  This will make a nice hearty soup for din-dins.  But that wasn't all.  Unable to pass up a bargain, TPP bought a package of chicken gizzards for $1.35, and turned them into an escabeche, basically cooked gizzards marinated in vinegar and oil with green pepper, onion, a lot of chopped garlic, some pimento stuffed olives, and a few dashes of hot sauce.  Mrs. Phactor who missed lunch today because of charity gift wrapping is giving it a try right now with a very superior glass of rioja, a gift from a client.  Got the last few presents put together, some decorated boxes with cookies and candies for a couple of people who deserve being remembered with a gift.  The hardest part of cooking is the underfoot cats who think your only purpose in life is feeding them no matter what time it is.  Of course all of this left the kitchen a disaster, so just now TPP got time to get a cocktail and some escabeche for himself.  Ho, ho, ho.

Doh! Violated one of my own rules!

It was just a moment's lapse, a second or two of being less than vigilant, and it happened!  It must have been the Christmas cookie that distracted TPP.  Because without any warning, the eyes shifted, and too late, there was Bill O'Really's column, and it was so damned annoying!  Doh!  TPP had violated one of his own rules for enjoying the holidays, and yes, Bill, there's more than one, so some of us just say, "Happy holidays!" Bill thinks people who do this need to "get over it", but the king of arrogance is the one who gets bent out of shape about this every year, and calls his pet peeve the "war on Christmas".  Now if Bill, who likes to drag out facts, knew anything about Christianity at all, he'd know that December is the wrong season for Christmas, so Christians decided to put their celebration right in among all those other celebrations on purpose.  It certainly wasn't the fault of those other religions because they were older, but even though Christmas has become the 800 lb. gorilla of holidays, it doesn't mean the other holidays go away.  Apparently being in the majority and still not being able to dictate seasonal greetings is just so irritating and that's what makes Bill so angry.  Well, happy holidays Bill.  Now, get a life.

Cupressoid conifers - hard to identify

TPP is working on an expanded dichotomous key for ornamental conifers that can be cultivated here in the upper midwest.  It's only to genus right now, but it's for people who see a conifer of any sort and just say, "pine tree".  There are some tricky bits and it's always those darned cupressoid conifers.  The problem is always the same, if you've got cones, it's easy, but if you rely on just vegetative features, then it can be darned hard, and that's what you have to count on.  The biggest problems are distinguishing Thuja (arborvitae) and Chamaecyparis (false cypress), although distinguishing Taxus (yew) and Cephalotaxus (plum yews) is hard too.  Taxus baccata is tough enough, but T. cuspidata with very 2-ranked foliage is even more like Cephalotaxus, so TPP is so happy Torreya doesn't grow here to further complicate things; this genus has been put into both families in the past but is currently with the yews.  This still needs more work because those darned taxonomists have taken Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and transferred this species to Xanthocyparis so TPP's garden diversity just went up a genus, but some of the observations were based on his nootka cypress so no idea how to distinguish this genus from Chamaecyparis.  Also trying my hand at distinguishing Siberian cypress (Microbiota) from spreading junipers (Juniperus); this seems pretty weak right now, and you hate to just say red cedars are prickly.  At any rate here are some couplets extracted from the whole key to see what you think.  So rush right outside and see how these work. TPP thought he had the plum yew figured out until he took a good look at his upright cultivar of a plum yew whose leaves are helically arranged.  Siberian cypress and plum yews are some nice low spreading shrubs that grow well in light shade, and the former is hardy to zone 2! 

3.  Leaves green beneath, apex of keel leaves convexly rounded such that apex points inward toward stem, lateral lvs do not meet to form a seam; cones oblong, scales thin  .................................................... Arbor-vitae (Thuja)
3'.  Leaves whitened beneath, apex of lateral keel leaves straight or concavely curved such that apex points upward along stem axis, lateral keel lvs meet to form a distinct, sometimes white, seam; cones round, scales thick ……….……………… White cedar, false cypress (Chamaecyparis)
 
4. Rounded branchlets; awn-shaped lvs stiff; shrubs to small trees of various sizes ...…. Red Cedar, Juniper (Juniperus)
4’. Slightly flattened brachlets; awn-shaped lvs flexible; low-growing shrub up to 60 cm (2 feet), usually less than 25 cm (10 inches) tall …………... Siberian Cypress (Microbiota)
 
14. Dark solitary seed surrounded by green aril turning pink-red with maturity (only on female plants); lvs more or less 2-ranked horizontal branches; common. .............Yew (Taxus)
14’. Ovules oval, green maturing to golden brown (edible); lvs strongly 2-ranked on horizontal branches; rare................................…………Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus)


 
 

Who you gonna call?

Ahh, don't you hate it when this happens?  You just go out for awhile, and the next thing you know a cat has gotten themselves tangled in your blinds and can't get out of.  One of TPP's kitty girls frequently locks herself into a room by closing the door aggressively, but she only gets out when someone notices she's missing (not a quick learner).  Now this cat is about 3 times the size of the average housecat, which is about 8 pounds.  So this bobcat is about the size of the F1's Maine coon cat (26.5 pounds!).  Ours once ruined a set of draperies because they were in his way and claws just open drapes differently than fingers.  But, and here's the good news, no one attempted or even suggested shooting the cat!  Hmm, then this story could not be from the USA where that's always the first solution to animal problems.

The gifs that keep on giffing

These are weirdly strange gifs, but fun.  They are a form of animation that has been around for quite some time.  When TPP was a kid, his younger sister got a bunch of kiddie phonograph records of nursery rhymes and songs that included gifs.  You'd put a faceted mirror in the center and as the record turned, the gif was animated. Yes, that's surely tough for many of you to imagine especially if you have no idea at all what 78 rpm means. Ah, a bit of searching and here's the exact items, the Red Raven Movie  record and magic mirror.  It was pretty amusing trying to figure out exactly how this worked, but it was much loved by my sister.  As soon as you see the record you'll see the similarity to the gifs shown at the link above. What a blast from the past!  Funny what triggers old memories.

End of the semester, at last!

Well, that's another fine semester shot to hell.  While too busy because of competing demands upon TPP's time, it was a good semester student-wise, really!  Four-fifths of the students in my botany class got As and Bs at a ratio of 1:2, a ratio that has not changed in this class for over 15 years.  The other fifth got Cs and Ds (poor study skills that survived junior college and poor work ethics).  The more advanced rainforest ecology class was probably the best ever, uniformly hard-working, bright, cooperative, and not in the least annoying.  How great is that?  There's always a feeling of great relief to be done, at least with the course work.  TPP started the task of cleaning up the semester debris that had accumulated in the lab and other work areas (the desk is still piled high), and picked up a project started about 2 months ago to figure out where things stood.  Spent some time trying to figure out how to distinguish, easily, yews from plum-yews.  It's a piece of cake if you have reproductive structures, but how often does that happen?  Having always had trouble thinking about holidays during a semester, it was time to think about some presents and then take some action.  So TPP visited 4 shops this afternoon.  One clerk asked, "Panic shopping?"  What's the date?  "The 17th." Well, until it's the 24th, it isn't a panic.  The 17th is really early shopping.  This is the problem when you starting holiday shopping back in November.  Came home and got a lot of great help from the kitty girls wrapping a few things, well, just one cat really, but she's such a help especially with ribbons.  Still need some cookies and other treats for a few special people, so tomorrow, maybe TPP will bake some cookies.

How to avoid being a holiday Grinch

Believe it or else, TPP is not a holiday curmudgeon or a Christmas Grinch. However the holiday season always starts before TPP is ready for it, and that does make him grouchy.  For some reason it's hard to enjoy the season when you still have all that academic stuff to deal with, and yes, today will be spent grading, and be assured there won't be any gifts given, if you know what that means.  At any rate, TPP has some suggestions for increasing your enjoyment of the holiday season, and so a sharing.
1. Stay out of malls.  TPP never ventures into malls. Period. 
2. Shop at small stores where the goods reflect the idiosyncratic tastes of the owner.  Fortunately our little city has a number of such stores and TPP always finds the best things, and both of the women TPP shops for are, while not exactly easy, appreciative of somewhat funky gifts. Wait until they see those socks (trading is OK).
3. Entertain guests with some festive cocktails.  This years feature cocktail is the New York cocktail: 2 oz of bourbon, 1 oz of lemon juice, 1/2 oz (or to taste) simple syrup shaken with ice and strained onto the rocks.  Then float 1 oz of dry red wine onto the top. It's quite easy, quite pretty, and an interesting drink.  For later in the evening, by the fire, a white Russian cocktail.
4. Cook something spicy.  Spicy food is just so nice and warm, and so welcoming infusing your house with good smells. A good choice is curried meatballs (our recipe uses a lot of ground coriander). 
5. Have an open house.  It's great to have a neighborhood, a real neighborhood, and you need to meet new neighbors to have a hood.  How great that we have several young couples with little tykes, or little tykes on the way, newly moved into the hood.  Our neighborhood has always had a wonderful mix, and wow, even the twins stopped by (they live next door to each other, really!). 
6. Feed the birds.  Right now TPP is participating in the Christmas bird count while drinking coffee.  One, two, 15, almost beating the momentary record of 17 birds at once in the platform feeder (mix of cardinals, house finches, gold finches, Carolina wren, chickadees, and juncos). 
7. Don't pay any attention to people like Bill O'Really and his light-weight complaints about "Happy Holidays".  Hey, Bill, maybe early Christians shouldn't have coopted all those pagan holidays and their trappings. 
8. Write people a letter.  Look, you don't communicate very well, so at least once a year make an effort, and don't worry about the curmudgeons that complain about such letters. 
(Bluejay just showed up, and now a downy woodpecker, oh, and a red-bellied woodpecker). 
9. Make cookies and give some to people who don't expect any.  Nothing cheers people up like some homemade cookies, and this year TPP is running late on baking, and typical baking plans will be curtailed somewhat by travel plans.  But still, make someone happy with some cookies. 
10. Put a nice red or green festive collar on your black cat.  Although it may not make them happy, everyone else will think it charming.  OK, this may not be the best idea.  Maybe take  your big cat outside and throw snowballs at him (Well, that was my F1's idea of fun!  The video was funny.)  OK, let the cats play with an ornament or two. 
11. Sing some carols.  Uh, no. OK everyone gets to be a curmudgeon about something.  But at least play Elvis' It'll be a blue, blue Christmas without you".  Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Christmas album will also make you smile ("Is dat you Santa Claus?"). 
So try to enjoy the season.  You have to get through these holidays before the plant and seed catalogs show up and spread some real cheer.
(8 fox squirrels - no where near the record).

Snow party

What fun!  The season's first significant snowfall threatened to interfere with our Costa Rican dinner and picture party for the rain forest ecology class.  OK, it was actually no contest; winter weather versus free food and drink.  Only one student was unable to attend; some lame excuse about having to pack up and get ready to clear out today after
graduation. TPP's advice was to get her priorities straight, but students don't always listen to you. The troops took a lot of very good pictures, and some pretty funny ones too.  All in all great fun, and out side it snowed, a heavy wet snow that stuck to vegetation and blanketed our garden.  Very pretty.  Very often TPP is asked how to tell a Chamaecyparis from a Thuja.  Well, it's pretty simple really.  Your Chamaecyparis has round ornaments as opposed to oblong ones.  Or something like that because after all it's an ornamental conifer.   

Brrrrr! Temperature and wind chil

It's bloody cold outside, and a recent trip to the tropics makes it seem even colder.  The temperature this morning was 1 F (-17 C) and a moderately brisk breeze contributed a -15 F wind chill factor so the apparent temperature is -14 F (-26 C).  It makes TPP's sinuses hurt just thinking about this.  Weather persons in the USA quite often screw up the wind chill reporting the factor as the apparent temperature, which today are fairly close numbers.  The apparent temperature is the temperature it feels like when the wind chill factor is subtracted from the air temperature.  They say something like "the temperature is XX and the wind chill is YY", and you have no idea what they are talking about, was that the wind chill factor or the apparent temperature once the WCF was subtracted?  In all likelihood they have no idea themselves, but it's annoying when it comes from someone whose job it is to report the weather that they don't make that clear especially when they portray themselves as a meteorologist.  However, this is quite cold no matter what.  Once in Chi-town the temperature was near zero (F) and the wind was strong enough to generate something like a -50 degree wind chill.  Walking just two blocks was torture. Temperatures like this make it a great pleasure to walk into the local coffee shoppe this AM with its steamy roasted coffee humidity and aroma. Roasted coffee just has an appealing smell, and you also get to wrap both your hands around the cup.  Nice.  A colleague was sitting there with a pile of evolution exams to grade and he has no intention of going anywhere else for quite awhile.  Such a good idea.

End of the semester ups and downs

TPP's email inbox is bulging. That can only mean one thing, it's the end of the semester and this is the last ditch chance to submit all those assignments that were due all semester.  Students who have paid little attention to what was going on are now want to know what is going on as if it will make a difference.  For many such students semesters end in a whimper, sadly fading away, with nothing like a triumphant finale or celebration.  But not our rainforest ecology class: bright, hard-working, positive attitudes, well-behaved, good company, cooperative, eager, observant, so they'll have a final get together, and TPP will host a dinner of Costa Rican food and a picture party.  Everyone submits their best photos (up to 30) for a visual sharing.  There will be awards for the best organism picture, the best landscape picture, and the best in-the-field selfie (a new category).  Awards will also be given for best projects and presentations. Other awards will make light of tropical field work like the teflon award for the person who just never seems to get dirty, or the peccary award of personal hygiene (only if applicable), and monsoon mud-monkey award for the person who just seems to be a mud magnet, and so on.  This will take place after final exams so people can unwind.  It's their reward for not whining, whinging, or wailing.  Now, find the student in the rainforest.

Child rearing - cartoons and oldies rock

Without question our only beloved child turned out as she did because of heavy doses of Calvin and Hobbs cartoons and oldies rock music, which wasn't so old then.  Ah, well.  At any rate, in a recent fit of nostalgia, perhaps instigated by rummaging through our attic for her "lost" photo treasures and other stuff, she forwarded this link to remind her Father of just how creative this cartoon was especially with snow.  And just so you know how warped her upbringing was, here's a link to the song (Fleetwood Mac's Tusk) TPP used to wake up a late-sleeping F1.  Sorry, but your little speakers and puny computer amp just won't do this window-rattling song justice. 

Wintery weather

A light dusting of snow and the gathering dusk has produced a rather cold-looking landscape study in black and white. After the lushness of the tropical rain forest this stark coldness is particularly hard to deal with.  TPP has spent much of the day cooking, preparations for some Tico food for his students' "picture party" to cap off the semester in a few days and some curried meatballs for din-dins today.  Corms and rhizomes drying and curing in the basement were packed into some cocoa shells and stored in a cool spot. For some reason, TPP has had a very difficult time reconnecting to the calendar and upcoming events.  Mrs. Phactor has taken to giving me a daily briefing, to-do lists, and then a quiz. When given direct orders, he's doing OK.  Will you make me a New York cocktail, please?  Yes, my dear.  What a good choice.  First, take 2 oz of bourbon, 1 oz lemon juice, and 1/2 oz simple syrup and shake with ice.  Then pour on the rocks.  Then float an oz of dry red wine on the top.  It's super nice looking and pretty simple to make. As you drink the mixing changes the taste. Will you please feed the kitty-girls?  Yes, my dear. Kibble equals happiness.  If TPP stays helpful, he may not get put out in such nasty weather. 

End of the semester student blues

To compensate for a missed class, TPP's students were given an out-of-class assignment before Thanksgiving break that is 16 days ago and it was due today.  However on Weds when normally they would have received another out-of-class research part of their final exam (1 week ahead), TPP told them the pre-Thanksgiving take-home assignment was actually to be part of that part of their final exam and it was still due today, there was such consternation!  Even outrage!  You see rather than using all that time to good advantage, many of them had not done a thing and now it's due and it's part of their final.  How terribly unfair is that?  This is just one of the easier ways to separate the sheep from the goats.  Two students who had handed in their work early wanted it back to do a better job!  You mean you didn't do your best job?  What is TPP to think?  And those who had not done anything yet feel they got cut short on time because they expected an assignment due next Wednesday, but after having more than two weeks to work on this assignment they hadn't done anything. And you point out that the problem is actually their own work/study/learning ethic and had they treated the assignment as an excellent opportunity to learn something interesting they would now be in good shape as quite a few students were.  More outrage came from the fact that their textbook doesn't provide an answer or even all of the information they need.  And this is the internet generation?  This isn't how they did things in my high school/junior college.  That's right, and you're not there any more. 

New discovery of something old in Costa Rica

TPP has been going to Costa Rica for research and teaching for 20 years, so discovering completely new things outside of the rainforest happens a lot less frequently.  So it was with a bit of surprise to find La Sorbeterade Lolo Mora, a rather small ice cream shop buried in the middle of San Jose's Mercado Central warren of aisles and shops.  Far from being something new, this shop has been serving their "traditional ice cream" in all its many flavors (1) for well over 100 years.  The ice cream was unlike any other and best described as "a heady mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla with a granita–like texture".  Yep, spice ice cream that's sort of icy, but make no mistake, it's wonderful. And getting it in a cone would be a mistake; it melts pretty fast. Generally my students only get to spend an afternoon and evening as tourists in San Jose, and in the past, it was a Sunday, and most of the Mercado shops were closed.  However, Sunday shopping, including grocery stores like Super Mas, early Christmas, and even black Friday sales have all come to Costa Rica.  My dear Ticos, let TPP apologize for our cultural exports and the invasion of our fast food too.  Please do not let a DQ open anywhere within two kilometers of the Mercado.  Protect your national food heritage. 

80 years of wetness

80 years ago this week the 21st amendment was ratified which repealed the 18th amendment and the 13 year social experiment in the USA called prohibition ended.  Of course prohibition did not mean people quit drinking, it was just that the drinking was all illegal and the quality of booze was poor if not down right bad, and with limited supply to meet the demand, why there was a lot of money to be made if you didn't mind doing something illegal.  Where TPP grew up very fast boats were used to smuggle booze in from Canada by crossing Lake Ontario. The lesson of prohibition has not been learned.  The war on drugs in the USA has simply made a lot of criminals out of mostly marijuana smokers and some narcotic users.  In fact here is the one single thing where the hyper-patriots who always shout "USA is number one!" are actually correct.  Our country has more people locked up, incarcerated, per capita than any other country on Earth!  It's pathetic on so many levels.  Look how far down the list you find any other comparable countries like Britain or Canada, or Germany.  Yes, here in the USA people are still focused on punishment, the harsher and the longer the better, in spite of virtually all the data that says that doesn't work at all. So rather than treat addicts as being ill, the USA just locks them up as criminals.  Talk about cruel and unusual.  And then somewhere today, TPP read that Sweden is just closing its prisons because it has so few people to lock up.  TPP needs a cocktail, something made with Swedish vodka perhaps. 

Return, re-entry, and readjustment

Returning from the tropics to the northern temperate late fall is not a good idea, just a necessity.  At the coffee shoppe this AM the friendly clerk asked if it were still warm outside?  It was 40 F.  How a particular temperature feels depends a great deal upon what recent ambient temperatures you have been experiencing.  So, no, it's bloody damp and cold.  As much as TPP would like to gently and gradually adjust to regular academic life, the re-entry plunges you directly into the deep water since there are only 3 days left in the semester.  At one of the last class meetings, a student asked if there was a lab scheduled for today.  No, no lab, but there will be a regular 50 min lecture.  Apparently about half the class tuned out as soon as TPP said, no lab.  This will certainly help the teaching evaluations as the situation guarantees half the class will be pissed no matter what you do.  Since there is no jet lag, you wouldn't think the change would be so bad.  However without the constant white noise of the rainforest at night, or in the rain, TPP finds it hard to sleep.  Guess that sound track needs to be packaged up and sold, and with the additional gimick that you can set a wakeup time, and then a recording of howler monkeys greeting the day will be inserted.  And no really ripe, succulent pineapple for breakfast.  Such a downer.  Good thing TPP got a couple of kilos of dark roasted Costa Rican coffee to bring home, which set such a good example that the class cumulatively brought home well over 20 kilos of coffee, so much that a 5% discount was given.  "Do you have anything to declare?"  Just some coffee.  "How much coffee?"  Just two kilos.  "Where is it?"  In that big blue duffle bag.  "What's in the bag with the coffee?"  Just more coffee.  And yet it's good to be home. 

Field trip packing

The only thing worse than packing for a field trip is repacking everything for the trip home.  All the careful packing has degenerated into near chaos as students have pursued their projects, and then revised their projects, and then punted, and then finally succeeded in wringing a bit of information, some data, some new understanding, out of the rainforest.  Now all this stuff has to get put away.  You figure out that biologists use way too much plastic; what would happen without Tupperware and zip lock bags?  Biological progress would grind to a halt. But you get real pragmatic on the way home and you have to make room for some Costa Rican coffee, a lot of coffee, 40-50 pounds of coffee (it's 15 people after all).  If you get to Costa Rica, do visit CafĂ© Trebol on the Calle Ocho side of the Mercado Central. Getting everything clean including your boots is difficult; getting it all dry is next to impossible especially as it is pouring buckets outside.  The troops are sorting everything on the veranda of their cabina, so it continues.  Unfortunately, the students don't/won't pack for their instructors.  Go figure.  Monday the trip will start at 5:30 AM bus loading to reverse the trip down.  Too bad all that coffee is packed away and inaccessible. 

Gift for the bicycle rider wine-lover

OK, firstly, TPP abhors the rush into the Christmas season, so he is very happy to be avoiding some of it.  However, TPP does not live in a cave so it is hard to ignore all the ads.  This particular item caught his eye, and it's the one time he wishes he had a standard bicycle rather than his BikeE.  You know you can tuck a loaf of bread under your arm and put a cork screw in your pocket, but then what do you do with your bottle of wine?  Well, this wine carrier certainly solves that problem.  My colleague, a commuting biker, only had one question.  What do you do with your second bottle of wine? 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Lipstick plant

Well, how ridiculous is that?  TPP is in the tropics and he allows a Friday to sneak by without posting a flower picture! So here you go.  This plant has several nicknames, but the most common one is lipstick plant (Psychotria elata) in the Rubiaceae (coffee family).  Up in the northern temperate zone this is not an important or common family, but down here in the neotropics rubiads are everywhere.  There are over 45 genera here at the field station and more than a couple of dozen species in the genus Psychotria.  Most of them have fairly small white or yellowish tubular flowers, and not very conspicuous, so like many such plants, the flowers are surrounded by pairs of very conspicuous red bracts.  The bracts persist into the fruit stage surrounding the several sky-blue berries. Several flowers have already bloomed and several more fuzzy buds indicate it will flower for several more days.

Thanksgiving in Costa Rica and with young people

Costa Ricans, Ticos, are some of the nicest people in the world.  They prepared a 1st class Thanksgiving dinner for us gringos, a dinner that was good enough and fancy enough and pretty enough to impress almost anyone, especially at a rainforest field station. And everyone had to really work like dogs (the station manager was washing dishes!) to do so because 44 hrs earlier a kitchen fire in a warming oven came very close to putting the kitchen out of commission.  If you didn't know otherwise, you would not have known anything was amiss to see the results. Simply amazing!  What great people! 

Among our students there was much discussion of Thanksgiving traditions and how they differed.  And what foods they liked and dislikes (marshmellows and sweet potatoes - yikes!).  Yes, TPP has a Thanksgiving tradition in answer to their query, he always listens to Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant. A gallery of blank looks. One asked if Arlo was related to Woody because she'd learned something about an inherited degenerative disorder he had in a genetics class.  Yes, they are father and son; both folk singers.  More blank looks.  Folk?  Ah, well. No need trying to explain.  No one had heard of This land is your land either.  Anyone want to listen to the Alice's Restaurant song?  How long is it?  Probably about 25 mins.  No. And no need really because a protest song about a war they probably don't know about would not make much of an impression.  Makes you feel old.  Did TPP mention that they did clean up and dress up nicely for the dinner?  Still TPP was thankful, so he retired to his casa and listened to some Sidney Bechet recordings.  Who?  (Sorry can't provide the link to an earlier blog about Sidney; search function isn't working.)    

Observations on students on a tropical field trip

One of the more rewarding aspects of TPP's work is taking students on field trips, and none are better than rainforest ecology.  Here are some observations.
This year's class is very observant; they are noticing lots of things that most people would simply walk past.  Learning to observe is really important so this is quite pleasing. 
Typical of students from the Midwest, many of them are not adventurous about food and they approach new foods with suspicion.  They are really picking eaters.  And we're not talking about terrible stuff either. About 50% passed on the best fried plantains ever; the other half of the class finished them off so nothing was wasted.  Fish is avoided by a significant number of them; they don't like things that are "fishy" even when they don't taste "fishy".  On the other hand their reaction to the fresh fruit juices has been very different from previous classes.  Fresh fruit is blenderized, and large, heavy pulp is sieved out, and then diluted with cold water. In the past such juice was only palatable when rendered drinkable by several spoonfuls of sugar.  This year's crew are not such sugar freaks.
The students this year are showing some pretty good work ethics.  They have more energy than TPP, so you have to be good at providing direction.
Students have been good this year about wearing their boots, which deal with the water and mud, and the risk of snake bite.  They worry more about the snakes than the mud.  Smart. 
Spiders are a hot topic this year, orb-weavers, jumping spiders, wolf spiders, but they give one student the creeps.  What fun! 
It takes about two days here for the students to change, in their minds, from newbie tourists to jaded old rainforest veterans heaping scorn on other newbies.  No hazing is allowed. 
It takes several days for students from two different universities to begin to mix, to socialize, and then it's usually female-female or male-female interactions. 
Some of our students always look totally clean and even pressed, downright neat!  Others always seem to have been wallowing in the mud.  They all have nicer field attire than TPP whose field gear has seen many seasons.
For the undergrads, this is often their first time to attempt a research project, and some of them are finding that it's rather satisfying to figure out something real.  Yes, in a manner of speaking this course is proselytizing, trying to convert passive learners into active learners, and trying to recruit people who will develop a life-long love of learning and a passion for finding things out.  And it's working.  Yea!  This is why we do it. 

Rainforest understory

Rainforest is hard to describe, hard to show to anyone who
has not experienced it first hand.  Of course, that is why TPP is here to give his students that experience.  Here and there in the forest are views that give you some sense of what the forest is like, but they are somewhat hard to find and very hard to photograph.  And long time readers might remember that TPP has tried (sorry no links, the search function isn't working).  Rainforests are layered: herbs and ferns, shrubs & palms, understory trees and larger palms, subcanopy trees and palms, canopy trees, and emergent trees.  Vines, lianas, lace themselves through all of this.  All in all this presents a wall of vegetation where the tallest trees reach 50 meters.  So here's this years attempt at photographing the rainforest understory with some real depth of field. Tell me what you think.

The secret to feeling safer - 1984 version

"In the light of all that we have learned in the last few months, let’s recap where we are: We have a government that collects everyone’s communications data in secret and stores them, justifying the practice by using secret interpretations of the law and getting authorization to do so from a secret court that issues secret rulings, telling a handful of congresspersons in secret just a little of what they are doing, and putting people on secret kill lists and secret no-fly lists on the basis of criteria that are secret."  Can't put it any more succinctly that that.  Thanks Mano.  You'll have to click over to see the oh so perfect cartoon. 

Rainforest AM and a fig

It's 8 AM, on one hand it seems early, but it's not.  The rainforest day shift began their activities about 3 hrs ago at first light, when you first can perceive that it's gray not black out there.  Everyone is done with breakfast; everyone has gotten going on their research or other activities, and TPP is just waiting to see if anyone needs any help before he too heads out onto the trails to find some trees.  The morning
mist has already burned away and the sky is blue, but there was no rain last night and today promises to be quite hot.  Our students are showing a lot of effort and a very sound work ethic.  They want to accomplish something in a short period of time whether or not nature cooperates. 
Today's image is a fig (Ficus)in fruit that are nearly ripe.  These figs are about the size of a marble and a very large number of species loves them.  They actually don't taste too bad.  Figs have a complicated reproductive interaction with fig wasps, tiny wasps that both pollinate and reproduce in the figs.  Best if you don't think about the implications of this when you eat your next fig.  However this fig will be a great place to watch for birds.  You might get to see 30-40 species in such a fig in just an hour or two if you get up early enough, or sit where you can watch the fig and still have your coffee. 

It's a Monday?

One of the stranger things about staying at this tropical field station is the timelessness of the place.  Days and dates just don't matter except to the outside world.  You begin adjusting to the natural rhythms of the rainforest because you must  sync your activities to those of the organisms you want to study.  Some of our students were off to the field early on; others will be working tonight; some will be doing experiments throughout the day.  TPP has a problem with his day:date disconnect anyways.  Yes, something is to happen on a certain date, but he's often unaware that the date is today.  This is the problem with operating on a M-F schedule with little regard for the date for over 30 years.  Now it's a long engrained habit.  But here in the rainforest all of that matters not at all.  Day of the week, the date?  Who knows or needs to know?  This is quite dangerous, and TPP must actually keep a diary, or check the date reminder on his own blog to figure out when things are happening.  Like leaving for home. Here's a neighbor who was unusually active this morning and having a breakfast of Cecropia (at the top) and Pentaclethra (the feathery mimosoid leaves).  This was a hard shot to get because of the bright back ground and the blinding speed of the animal (OK it was just the former).  This 3-toed sloth (it's head is at the bottom) is lucky because the day before a gust of wind (unusual) ushering in a short, heavy rainfall snapped off a couple of limbs from the neighboring tree.  TPP's colleague was lucky too because he was nearly clobbered by those limbs.  How fortunate; the university paper work for losing a colleague would have been awful.

Rainforest birding in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a hot bed for birders, and the La Selva field station is a hot bed for Costa Rica.  Over 400 species of birds have been recorded here.  TPP is not a very good birder (that's Mrs. Phactor's arena); birds do not hold still so you can pick them up and look them over.  However every now and then a bird cooperates in such a way that even yours
truly can make an accurate identification.  So while looking for passion flower vines for a student deep within the darkest rainforest, this bird happened upon us.  Apparently a nearby fig tree had fruits just ripening and it was beginning to attract all sorts of attention.  Now in spite of its diminutive size and great distance the characteristic markings of a great curassow were unmistakable.  Quite simply TPP would not grab this bird even if he could.  The males (shown here) do some elegant courtship dances and offer their potential mates food treats.  So lots of birds have been seen but so far nothing new for the personal list, but then again, over a 20 year period of visits you do get to see quite a few species even if you aren't a very good birder.  How fortuitous that a curassow shows up so conveniently close to Thanksgiving!

Castilla rubber

One of the trees that is fairly frequent along water courses here on the warm, wet side (east of the mountains) of Costa Rica is the native rubber tree (Castilla elastica – Mulberry family).  It’s not really very impressive and students who just go ga-ga over some little lizard look upon trees dully and fail to understand the importance of these rubber trees in ecology and in history.  Castilla rubber was an important rainforest product for Costa Rica about a century ago and the source of all those rubber balls the Aztecs used for sport.  However para rubber (Hevea brasiliensis – Euphorb family) became the predominant rubber of commerce, and castilla rubber sort of faded into history.  So to give the troops something to remember, TPP tapped a tree by puncturing the outer bark (hard) into the softer inner bark that has lots of latex secreting cells.  The wound was small but the amount of latex that oozed out in just a few minutes was quite impressive, and when it coagulates, it is quite elastic.  On to chicle. 

Just hanging out in Costa Rica

Not!  Walked several kilometers today just doing natural history of rainforest organisms with a very observant and knowledgeable naturalist, one of the best and certainly the most modest. Seriously, these are some of the best naturalists in the world in terms of how well they know their home turf.  At any rate our students really benefit from the expertise of these local naturalists.  Some of the highlights include seeing both two-toed and three-toed sloths (Do you need to have it explained how to tell them apart?) because sloths are hard to observe in general.  Broad-winged hawks were migrating south and large flocks could be seen overhead.  The river was clear so the fruit-eating fish were easy to see too, but no one had a banana to sacrifice (in pieces) to see their aggressive behavior.  Students got their first taste of a tropical shower, especially those who had not brought along an umbrella (Yes, they were told it would be a good idea.).  Here's a couple of green iguanas, a male and female, (easy name, although not very imaginative - Iguana iguana) that were just basking on this tree that had fallen along side of the river.  The male is probably at least 2 meters long although a lot is tail.  This is somewhat how TPP's chair views what happens on field trips.  Just wish it were true. 

Pretty smooth road trip

Left Lincolnland this morning at 6 AM and now it's 5:20 PM and TPP has set up shop in a casa at the field station and is awaiting din-dins.  No airline problems at all, which is pretty amazing.  No luggage problems, even more amazing, and even the Kentucky snake bite medicine arrived intact, a very good thing.  Our coach was awaiting us and the trip took just over 2 hrs making very good time. Just a bit hungry at this point, a problem to soon be remedied.  Things here are hot, humid, yet surprisingly dry, a rather unusual situation. This will affect some organisms, so we shall see which ones.  At any rate, we'll try to keep Mrs. Phactor updated. 

On the road again - rain forest field trip

TPP has been trying to catch his breath since early October, but he's getting no breaks.  Just cleared up the manuscripts and grant stuff and gave an another exam to grade today; now off to Costa Rica with 12 eager
students.  Yes, you think, how tough is that?  OK the field station is pretty nice, and certainly there's nothing not to like about rain forest, except when it keeps stiffing me on tree flowering, but this is work.  A field trip is informal instruction, but it starts at breakfast and goes all day long ending at bed time, which is usually earlier for TPP than his charges.  Some will find they are dragging tail in the mornings as they learn their new daily schedule means earlier to rise and earlier to bed.  In addition the travel arrangements and watching out for the students adds quite a level of stress.  At any rate, even the blogging has been more infrequent, but hopefully a few posts from the field can be managed to keep everyone amused.  Here's a nice buttressed tree with a promise of more.  

Bishop to 21st century


Catholic Bishop Thomas Paparazzi is going to exorcize evil,or the devil, or demons, from Lincolnland this Wednesday at about the same time the Governor signs the gay-marriage bill into law.  Of course Bishop Paparazzi was bleating the usual silliness about the destruction of marriage, religious freedoms, and so on.  This event will demonstrate the power of prayer, a bishop’s prayer no less.  The bill will become a law and gay people will get married, and our dear bishop will have demonstrated the impotence of his prayers.  This assumes that the devil is real, and that demons are real, and that prayer is effective, and evil can be exorcized by certain ancient rights.  Of course, if the bishop really did manage to exorcize evil, how many pedophile priests would disappear from Lincolnland?  At the same time some diocese here abouts was in the news for getting some relic, some piece, a bit of something gross, of a former pope, and thereby worthy of veneration.  Zounds!  Would someone please tell the Catholics what century we’re in?

Horrible, terrible no-good, very bad weather

The weather service predicted violent weather today, and boy they were not kidding.  This weather system spawned not only very violent thunderstorms but some massive tornadoes.  The nearest tornado was NW of us by 30 or so miles, but the thunderstorm that swept through was the most violent TPP can ever remember.  There were gusts of wind in the 50 to 60 mph range that bent tree crowns to the absolute limit.  During heavy rain some of these gusts reduced our visibility to just a few yards.  Tree limbs were dropping like the leaves were dropping just a few days ago.  Hail stones the size of chicken eggs came down leaving 1" deep dents in the lawn.  Our street flooded, over flowed, and watching stoopid drivers try to drown their cars provided some comic relief.  The kitty girls were quite nervous and required much attention.  After the storm passed and while surveying the damage came the discovery that a 13-15 inch diameter section of trunk split off the back side of a large hackberry tree, and the 60-70 feet of crown attached came down across the rear gardens like a giant fly swatter and a number of shrubs and flowering trees will need some serious pruning once we get the bloody hackberry cut out of the way.  My prized parasol pine escaped a near miss by a large oak limb fall.  Lot's of other minor damage occurred, but nothing too serious.  Next year's supply of fire wood has been taken care of.  But others had it much worse. One of my students' homes was in a neighborhood hit by a tornado and suffered some severe damage and loss of power.  The weather service said they were moving at 65 mph!  And she's worried about taking an exam tomorrow.  Naturally she'll be cut some slack, especially if she comes over and drags some limbs to the curb (a joke!). 

Leaf elves came but other things make for busy life

One day our yard is solid leaves so deep you can't see any lawn; the next day they're all gone.  Actually the leaves have been shredded and piled in places for spreading around.  With so many gardens the Phactors don't waste leaves; they all get mulched.  That left us free to finish other gardening chores: moving fences to protect shrubs from the bun-buns, clipping back some perennials, deleafing the pond (the one place the elves ignore), emptying rain barrels, planting more bulbs (species tulips in this case), pulling more redbud seedlings, and getting other outdoor stuff ready for winter.  Finished the main tasks just as some rain moved in.  Tropical low is colliding with the jet stream and the weather promises to be pretty bad.  So switched gears from gardening to cooking for two dinner parties, tonight and tomorrow night.  Makes up for eating out two nights in a row, an unusual event when not traveling.  Out of town guest arriving soon, and TPP is packing for a rainforest field trip to Costa Rica.  Where has the bloody semester gone? 

What's the deal with rechargeable battery availability?

The last time TPP was in the market for rechargeable batteries most stores that carry such a product had a reasonable selection.  Your basic hardware store chain had a big display and many options along with versatile rechargers.  That must have been just about 3 years ago.  So imagine the surprise when nobody has nothing in this department.  The hardware store was obviously just selling out a few leftovers.  Other outlets in the battery business only had AA or AAA batteries, and then very few of them.  Clerks acted like "What?"  So what has happened?  The start up costs, the initial purchase of such batteries seems expensive, but they quickly reach a payback.  The average comsumer just may not be astute enough to see the bargain, to understand their value, and this does not factor in the cost of recycling and use of materials.  So is demand just so low rechargeable batteries are just disappearling?  Or is there something going on here that has escaped my attention?  Why the dirth of rechargeable batteries?  In particular taking batteries into the field is an issue.  With a rainforest field trip coming up, battery use will be going way up.  Understand that there is no dark like rainforest dark.  And with a new toy, a trail camera, some new rechargeable C-cells were needed, but none were to be found.  The field station insists that no batteries be discarded, so you must bring home every battery you bring and wear out.  Anyone out there have any ideas on this topic? 

First it snowed, then it leafed

Our area got about an inch of snow last evening, the first of the winter, and not so unusual for November 12.  And then the temperature dropped to 19 F (-7 C) over night. Again nothing so unusual for this time of year.  But the fall has been lingering and late, so this is rather sudden cold and a hard freeze.  TPP decided that the gardening season was over and harvested the last of the bok choi and moved a couple of small boxes of parsley indoors.  Several of our trees really never did change color, and they were holding fast to their leaves.  Only the sugar maples had really dropped most of their leaves.  But this morning if leafed.  To explain, TPP's book editor is big on parallel construction, so "snowed" "leafed"; that's parallel right?  All those leaves that were hanging on literally dropped all at once.  It was leafing hard on the back half of the estate this morning and it was kind of magical and sort of pretty; if you had stood there with a basket it would have filled pretty quickly.  It was quite a sight except for all the leaves falling into the lily pond.  A sudden leaf drop usually this happens with ginkgo trees, but these other trees not so much.  Now there's a leaf-snow-leaf sandwich on the ground that's 3-5 inches thick.  Raking season has officially begun. 

Great news! Thylacine probably not extinct!

Wow!  This is such great news!  The thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore, might not be extinct!  So often it's the other case, and so often it's the loss of habitat due to human activities that are the cause.  This is such a great animal, and it was thought to be extinct some 8 decades ago.  The thylacine is sort of the polar opposite of a koala or a wombat.  The idea that a rare animal is extinct stops lots of people from looking, probably a good thing, and in some very remote part of Tasmania it's quite possible a population still exists based on DNA tests on feces.  TPP has seen a lot of great animals in Australia, a side benefit of doing rainforest research: platypus (lots), echidna, cassowary (truly impressive in the field - convinces you that birds are dinosaurs), tree kangaroos, crocodiles, and more.  But he's never been way down south to Tasmania, now it's on my bucket list.

Blogging for bigotry by the Catholic Conference of Lincolnland

Robert Gilligan writes pretty plainly so you don't have to look very hard for the main message here.  Robert puts it right up front: religious liberty had ended in Lincolnland.  Here's a choice morsel.  "If a current church employee chooses to "marry" a same-sex partner, the legislation offers no specific protection regarding the church being forced to pay -- from funds collected every Sunday from faithful church-goers in the pews -- for benefits for the "spouse.""  So here's a church so tolerant that they actually have employed someone who was gay, although they probably carefully hid that fact to get the job.  So now their employee gets married to someone of the same sex and the faithful bigots in their pews have to pay for benefits for the "spouse".  Yeah, that's right.  First, paying somebody what they are due is just the right thing to do  because your church decided to enter into the employer-employee relationship.  Second, doing so is not an endorsement of their lifestyle, it's just legally required.  Thirdly, as Catholics you've been paying for pedophiles for years, and they are yours, all yours.  Here's Robert's closing message: "And hold on to the religious freedom that allows us to practice our faith beyond the four walls of a church."  Let's see when was the Equal Rights law passed around here?  How many decades ago?  That's right, this new law doesn't change the fact that you cannot discriminate in hiring no matter what you religious beliefs.  How long ago was it that Robert's church would have forbidden interracial marriages?  And they never liked the idea of someone of any other faith marrying a Catholic without all kinds of concessions.  Yeah, that's their idea of tolerance, concessions, where you basically acknowledge that there is one true religion and it's not yours.  Imagine the arrogance it takes to ask a non-Catholic to raise all your children to be Catholics.  To Robert religious liberty means just what you'd think, the right to be a bigot.  No question about it, Robert is a great spokesperson for the Catholic Church; it convinces TPP he was right about the decision to make no concessions all those many years ago to marry a nice Irish Catholic girl.  And what was his leverage?  The justice of the peace would be just fine.

University landscaping put to good use

TPP thinks with some justification that the entire campus grounds functions as his classroom.  In particular just a one building from TPP's office is a crabapple tree that is a true champion.  All crabapples did well this season with loads of fruit, but this particular variety has really big fruit, well over 1" diameter apples, dark red, hard, and very tart.  This year the tree's branches are bent down under the weight of the crop.  Some years ago, actually a couple of decades ago, TPP discovered that these crabapples made damn good jelly, and the Phactor household has been enjoying tart/sweet red crabapple jelly all of this time by taking advantage of this otherwise wasted resource.  The campus landscaping provides a number of such goodies that no one else ever takes any advantage of.  To get native pecans you must compete with the squirrels.  One year a local microbrewery harvested all the hops growing up the side of our building, the greedy buggers.  TPP had to take it out in trade - value added hops, so to speak. One of the best trees died and hasn't been replaced unfortunately - a butternut tree.  As a graduate student TPP discovered a trove of butternuts on another campus, and kindly made some butternut tarts to soften up his examing committee.  The department chair took an inordinate interest in the tarts and demanded to know where the nuts had come from (and their species name - easy).  Who knew he hadn't had any nut gathering competition for years and thought of them as his personal property. After all, what other than who gets there first determines ownership?  This year quite a number of people asked my students what they were doing, and if they had permission (of course TPP gave them permission) to pick crabapples (you didn't think he picked his own did you?).  This week's lab on gels, waxes, oils, and latexes will give them a chance to make some jelly of their own.

Keeping entropy at bay

Today was a typical enough Saturday.  All those little things that needed to be done to keep entropy at bay were beckoning: extracting Jove's testicle from the pond pump, fixing the water hookup on a new washing machine, winterizing some doors and windows and fans, and all the while getting both students and himself ready for a rainforest field trip up coming.  But TPP was feeling pretty good because this is the first day in over a month when deadlines were not looming ominously overhead so he felt quite carefree.  And a book manuscript was sent back to the editor (a very good editor) all 700+ pages, a grant proposal was submitted after quite a struggle with both the govmint web site and the collaborators in chief, and a journal article was proofed, and summarized, in Portuguese, and returned to the editor.  In the meantime classes were taught, labs were prepped and presented, and all the rest.  It was an exhausting month just past.  This upcoming week is busy with other things, an out-of-town academic guest, several social events, and something else that is slipping my mind. 

Friday Fabulous Fall Color

It's a late fall this year and a lot of plants are slow in developing fall color.  Here's witch hazel showing you why you should plant it.  It grows in the shade, it's a pretty tough plant, it flowers very, very early in the spring, and it has great fall color.  In general it's an under planted, under appreciated shrub that is a bit too subtle for your average suburbanite.   

What, right here in Lincolnland, Dr. Strangebrew?

Now how did this escape TPP's eagle-eyed attention?  He must apologize because he knows you expect more.  So nothing to do but steal the story and run with it, but thank Agricultural Biodiversity Blog for bringing it to our attention. At any rate Scratch Brewery a full half day's drive south of here in Ava, part of the deep south of Lincolnland, is making some mighty strange beer.  Hops has not always been the flavoring of choice, so lots of other things can be used, and these guys use lots of strange local things to flavor their beer.  Not sure what to think, only a taste will tell, so Scratch, send us a sample if you want the full TPP endorsement.  Now how annoying is this?  His timing is so bad. Why nearly 40 years ago when TPP was doing research in the nearby Shawnee Nat'l Forest, a microbrewery would have been a most welcome watering hole; at the time the best local stop was for pork BBQ in a diner in Murphysboro, and you had to put dimes in the old Coke machine in Ray's garage to get a beer, if you were a friend.

Foiled by Jupiter's testicles

On standard time, it's pretty dark by the time TPP gets home, but after changing clothes and throwing some kibble toward the kitty girls, the lily pond's leaf skimmer net would surely need to be emptied what with the maples dumping a couple of tons of leaves during a day of rain.  Sure enough, the net was almost too heavy to lift.  But then in the fading twilight he notices that the cascade, usually a lively singing display was down to barely a trickle.  Drat!  TPP has been here before. This would be caused by one of Jupiter's testicles. Perhaps you don't know walnuts by this name, but there it is, Juglans. And the round black ones are just the right diameter to jam in the intake port of the pond's pump.  No problem really, except it's dark, and the intake is at the bottom of a black box filled with damned cold water.  After unplugging the pump, water and electricity together always makes TPP nervous, especially you know with Jupiter and lightening bolts involved, what could go wrong when you tempt fate so blatantly?  So you go fishing for the testicle, and almost get it, but because it wasn't being held in place any more by the suction, it slips away and is gone somewhere down there.  A futile fishing around for the offending spheroid continued until TPP could not stand the pain any longer, so the pump will remain off until this weekend. It's not as if this happens regularly, just twice before. The skimmer net is large and collects everything floating in, and then there is a brush filter, but when the pond is completely full from recent rain, and the skimmer fills with leaves, and sort of makes a dam against the brush filter, it provides an opportunity for the occasional testicle to bypass the barriers, float over the top, and play havoc with the water circulation. Either that or this was sabotage by a terrorist squirrel, always a possibility. 

Same sex marriage now legal in Lincolnland

Yes, much to TPP's amazement, the Lincolnland legislature rounded up enough votes, virtually all Democratic, to pass the law.  The opposition made the same weak arguments that have been making the rounds.  Our local representatives all voted against the measure, with Dan saying "This ignores 4,000 years of history."  Dan, the state, the country, and even your religion, haven't been around that long so WTF are you talkin' about?  This is the dumbest thing he's ever said, so he officially is being docked two votes in the next election.  And folks, he's the best the GnOPe has to offer in this state. Naturally the even dumber factions like the Lincolnland Family Council say the state just got in the fast lane to the Apocalypse and eternal ruination, all while proclaiming themselves not to be bigots. Sorry, people, religion doesn't give you a pass; it's just the reason you're a bigot.  Our church (Unitarian) will probably be fully booked next summer with people who have just been waiting for this, some of whom will be getting married after having been previously joined because now the commitment will be legal.  

Cashew nut - the human cost

TPP has been in southern India twice.  In this region the cashew is an important crop, but you can't buy any in the local markets; cashews are too valuable as a cash crop export, one of India's 4 top agricultural commodities(the others being tea, spices, and basmati rice). Here in North America and in Europe the cashew is a much favored nut.  Just watch and see how many people pick out the distinctive nut from a bowl of mixed nuts.  At this great distance it is hard to know about the human misery caused by this crop.  First, the cashew is a funny looking fruit; it looks like the seed is outside the fruit handing below the seedless "cashew apple".  The fleshy accessory fruit is very tasty, sort of like a mango to which it is related, but they are soft and not exported or shipped to temperate markets.  The asymmetrical "seed" is actually the whole fruit, a sort of hard drupe with a leathery outer layer and a hard inner layer, a "shell", surrounding the cashew embryo which is what you eat.  This is  where the hard, hand-labor part comes in, de-shelling the "nut".  Now here's the other thing to understand.  Cashews are in the Anacardiaceae, the sumac family.  So did you think poison-ivy?  Mangos are also in this family, a fleshier drupe, but the pitted seed still has the same asymmetrical shape. The sap that oozes from the fruit stalk gives TPP the same itchy rash as contact with poison ivy.  The women who crack the cashew pits to release the nut suffer from the continual occupational exposure to these toxic oleoresins, and for near starvation wages.  Why hasn't someone invented a shelling machine, something like the "crackers" used for pecans and walnuts in the USA?  The answer is that India has so much cheap labor available there is no demand for a machine that would put thousands out of work. Yet boycotting cashews won't do much good.  Middle men make the most money, but if demand for cashews drops, then near starvation becomes starvation.  So far there doesn't seem to be any "fair trade" cashews, and it TPP is wrong about this, please let us all know. 

Standard cat time

It's funny what difference an hour makes and even the 1 hour day-light-savings time/standard time shift causes some discomfort and disorientation.  Resetting all the time pieces in the house, not to mention the car, is quite a bother; there are more than you realize. Then you have to remember the "fall back" "spring forward" helper or you end up 2 hours off.  This isn't all that hard, but in our household there are two fixtures that do not reset so easily, two black cats although the color probably doesn't matter. They have no buttons or stems to twiddle (yes one clock still has a stem to reset the hands (Hands!?)).  The kitty girls have a very accurate tummy alarm that only gets turned off by pouring in kibble. So it really doesn't matter when the time is reset because the kitty girls don't reset so quickly; it takes a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, inquiring paws poke at your face to find out why you are so very, very late with something so very, very important as feeding time. 

“Is Earth F**ked?”

Scientists are beginning to question whether business as usual remains feasible because it's pretty obvious that the one thing capitalism cannot fix, that capitalism won't fix, and that capitalism actually produces is environmental problems.  Thus the question is asked pretty bluntly.  It's something to think about, and this is a pretty thoughtful article.  When you have to choose between Coca-Cola and a 10 km walk for drinking water, it becomes a pretty easy choice.    

NPR, gray hair, and money

Last evening the Phactors attended a fund-raising event for the local national public radio station, very posh, very interesting and engaging speaker, OK food (what do you really expect?), and everyone dressed up nicely.  A great many of the attendees are among our larger social circle. The F1 and her BFF attended because one of her parents is very generous, and without question they were the youngest people in the room except for a couple of student interns who were working the reception desk or waiting tables.  At 33 they were the youngest by a lot.  This tells you what age group has money and supports NPR, and they all have gray hair. What was sort of worrisome was the virtual absence of 40 and 50 something people.  The average age must have been in the upper 50s at a minimum.  TPP has a whole slew of colleagues in this age range, but none of them attended.  Nor did many others of this age. Do younger couples need baby sitters which are hard to come by on high school football Friday nights?  Is it just a matter of disposable income?  Or is the next generation going to drop the ball when it comes to supporting the arts and things like NPR?  Last evening's demographic was not encouraging.

Pumpkin mosaic art

Well, it wouldn't be fall, the harvest season, or Halloween without some sort of pumpkin post, so here you go, a link to an article about the king of pumpkins (spoiler alert: it's a person.).  What a great idea using pumpkins to make mosaic pictures, if you have enough room, and enough pumpkins.  These are great especially the sauropod. 

Finally fall color

Finally the first of our plants with good fall color have changed.  It wasn't that long ago that it still looked, felt, and sounded like summer.  However, it's October 31st!  And there are quite a few things still to turn color, but it will be a short color season because the leaves are falling fast and it won't last.  This Japanese maple really lights up an area near our garden pavilion and the peachy-pink color contrasts so nicely with it's very dark bark.  In general it seems as though spring started about 2 weeks early and fall is running 2 weeks late.  The good news is that almost 3" of rain has fallen in the past 24 hrs and it was really needed to recharge the soil moisture and get the trees well hydrated going into winter.  TPP is no fan of red maples; they don't do well in this region because it's too hot and too dry for them in the summer.  However this year they are striking with deep red foliage and all too many people will fall for them.  Have to run, some more Jedi knights have come to the door seeking treats, but their mind tricks won't work on TPP.