Field of Science

Botany confernence symposium generating more PR for Louisiana

Oh, gosh!  OK, it's just the Huffington Post, but it's more real good PR for Louisiana and its Governor Bobby Jindal.  Here's the link to what the HuffPo had to say about the symposium "Yes, Bobby, Evolution is True".  Quite a few highly complementary comments follow the article.  But what else is there to say?  Oh, yes, one commenter brought up the old "it's only a theory, not a fact" objection to evolution.  Well, many, many parts of the theory of evolution are facts, i.e., natural selection, and so on, and evolution works.  We use evolution in agriculture and medicine; stop and think about why you need a new flu shot each year.  There is no creationist/ID medicine or agriculture because it's a useless idea.  So we have a scientific explanation that works supported by lots of evidence, and a religiously based explanation with no supporting evidence that doesn't work, and then we get politicians that want us to spend time on the latter at the expense of the former.  How great is that for science education?  TPP is having some fun here at the meetings with all his colleagues.

Uh,oh! Botanists laugh at LA legislators who don't like evolution

Well, it just couldn't be helped.  For no particular reasons that TPP can see, a symposium entitled, "Yes, Bobby, Evolution is true" at our annual ongoing botanical meetings in New Orleans attracted some attention:  Now why would evolution be controversial?  Bobby got an invitation, to attend although his spokesperson said they didn't know about that.  But hey, a governor at a botanical meeting - aint' gunna happen.  Here's what the Times Picayune had to say.  Well, the college student presenter Zach Kopplin, just put up videos of LA legislators in action: defending witch doctors, carping about people with all those little letters after their names (like PhD) telling you what to do, and the like, and yep, a national audience of scientists laughed.  Now of course, this is quite unfair.  Similar videos of our own state (and federal) legislators in action would also elicit laughter, and are there any that wouldn't?  Now what all this was about is a LA law that basically permits teachers to introduce creationism and intelligent design into science classes.  The code phrases are "academic freedom" and "critical thinking".  In and of themselves these are good things, but when used as a smoke screen for pseudoscience, us professional science educators just can't be quiet.  So, yes, Bobby, people from across the nation laughed at you.  How's that work for your aspirations on a national level?  Still want the GnOPe to stop being the party of stupid?  Well, you signed the bill. 

Botanists visit the New Orleans Botanical Garden

The NOBG is located within City Park, one of the larger municipal parks in North America.  NOBG got a start during the depression as a WPA project, but over the decades it fell into neglect and disrepair through lack of funding.  About 30 years ago a group of volunteers resurrected and refurbished the garden, but then it got flooded and nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina much like other areas in New Orleans.  Pictures of the devastation were heart breaking, lots of plants were lost, surviving plants lost their labels, records were destroyed, as well as the garden's library.  So the staff took advantage of visiting botanists by giving us tags and markers so we could ID anything that still lacked a label.  TPP got several cycads correctly labeled for them; a Dioon, 2 Cycas, a Zamia, and 2 Ceratozamia.  It was hard to believe the garden had recovered so well, but  not the library.  If you have any botany or horticulture books that you'd like to donate, they would be well used.  The City Park also contains a huge grove of the biggest, oldest (some over 700 years) live oaks (Quercus virginiana - probably), many 20-30 feet in truck diameter with a branch spread of 150 or more feet.  Without question it was an impressive grove of trees.  For those of you unfamiliar with this area, the grayish wisps festooning the trees is Spanish moss, neither from Spain nor a moss, but an epiphytic bromeliad (Tillandsia usneoides), however it doesn't look much like a flowering plant to most people.

Botanical meetings - New Orleans

Well,  TPP is back in New Orleans for the annual botanical meetings, back because we done this here before, so while fond and the memories are rather foggy because that was 40 years ago.  So two of my older colleagues, one seven years my senior, and one thirteen years my senior, and both still active faculty, and myself took our lovely wives out to dinner at NOLA.  Wonderful place, wonderful food.  The blueberry lavender flower sorbet was just magical.  The duck and Andouille sausage gumbo was excellent.  This is New Orleans and the food is wonderful.  The street scene is amazing; lots of costumes of various sorts, if you get my drift.  So for the next few days the blogging may be erratic, but it'll be coming from the botanical meetings, live and direct.  Tomorrow is for field trips, and meetings, and a big social mixer.  Another group is also having a conference here in NO, but they won't get mistaken for botanists, or us for them; they dress pretty fancy, black tie and evening gown type of thing tonight.  Botanists just don't do formal, except for one guy, a past-president, who once came in a tux, and everyone just figured he was weird, or making a joke, or something.  Hawaiian shirts are a more usual fashion statement in the botanical world and khakis.  Of course, after so many years, these people are my friends and it's great fun to see them once each year except what with all the science going on it can be hard to socialize with many of them.  There isn't enough time.  Science is a community, and we interact at many different levels, so socializing is a very important thing to do.  The symposium "Yes, Bobby (Jindal), Evolution is True" symposium is on Monday, and TPP will let you know how it goes. 
TPP sees elsewhere that another blogger is getting paid to report on the protist meetings out west in Vancouver.  TPP has been there twice for meetings and it's a lovely city, and again the meetings were nearly 30 years apart.  It does kind of rub my rhubarb that a science blogger is accepting money to do something that they should do anyways, and even worse that TPP hasn't been offered any such support, which is why food came first.  So now, having driven too far, and eaten too much, it's time to get some sleep because the field trip starts early.

The luxury of driving

Not too many of you are old enough to remember when travel by air was quite nice, comfortable, convenient, decent food, good treatment.  Now it's inconvenient, you're treated like a terrorist (by now the FSA must have a remarkable collection of pocket knives), the food is non-existent, and you just hope for no major hassles.  So now rather than dreading a drive across 4-5 states, it sounds like a pretty good deal, especially because Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana are not in among those states.  Your nice little GPS unit keeps you updated, on track, and helps you find decent food and lodging; why the only thing it doesn't do is serve you drinks.  As long as you aren't in a big hurry one of the best things you can do is ditch the interstates where you play bumper cars with huge trucks, and take one of the old US or state routes.  You never know what you'll find along the way, whereas on the interstate you know exactly what you'll find, and it's boring.  A couple of our best day's travel in recent years resulted in driving across Colorado and New Hampster/Vermont on two-lane roads.  Rather than worry about how big your bottle of shampoo is, you can travel with your survival supplies and arrive with the promise of margaritas and salty snacks like the airlines used to have.  This is sort of a return to TPP's youth when his family traveled everywhere by car, and as a result he has visited all of the lower 48 states by car.  Then upon becoming an academic professional, the travel changed to air, and it was quite a luxury; you really thought you had made it.  Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that TPP did not fly on a plane until he was 25 years old.  Now travel by air is only done out of necessity, when time and distance are an issue.  When driving, TPP gets to practice his road side plant ID, done at 100 kph; much more interesting than clouds.  And not only that, but you can buy things and cart them home with you, like bottles of wine, or smoked sausage, or what not, that you could never ever get on a plane.  Even when you bring your own food, things may not work out well; an airline got quite perturbed when we were eating smoked Pacific salmon and cheese, quite aromatic in the close confines of the carbin and some of the food whimps were offended, or perhaps because we would not share.  So we'll be traveling in class, by driving, and won't miss air travel one bit.  Now if only the USA would fix their trains!    

A wake for scholarship

An emeritus professor has a small office across the hall, but declining health has kept him from using it very often these past couple of years, so he was asked to pack it in so that a new faculty member could have a more convenient office location for their teaching and research.  My colleague was never a favorite of mine, but he was a true scholar who read, read, and read.  Like all scholarly people he accumulated a quite a library of books and journals, and now no one wants them especially the journals (which in case you don't know weigh a ton).  If you can't find a repository for your library and you have no room for it at home, your only choice is to simply discard/recycle a career's worth of scholarly materials.  This is actually extremely sad to watch.  In our bygone era, the mark of a scholar, the evidence that you were a serious intellectual was the size of your personal library.  As my colleague put it, "I feel like I'm conducting a wake for scholarship."  You see these days journals are published electronically and your credentials are pdfs and ebooks, so your "library" is probably measured in kilobytes or gigabytes.  In the old days you would tell your department how many linear feet of book shelves you needed in your office.  Yes, it was meant to impress, but it was so you could unpack your boxes and have access to reference materials and all you need to teach and write.  One of the reasons for my sadness is that my time for such a down-sizing is not so far off.  TPP's library occupies more than 150 linear feet of shelf space and several large filing cabinets of scientific papers.  OK, half of this could be discarded without feeling much loss, but things then get tough.  Many useful books could be moved to the herbarium where a small reference collection is kept.  Some colleagues and students would like some of my books especially the classics like the 8 books by Darwin that are over 100 years old, no rare editions, but something about their age and look feels so Victorian it puts you in the right frame of mind.  The journals are really sad in come cases a over 50 volumes.  My younger colleagues think it quite quaint that someone still has journals, but what will go missing from their scholarly lives?  Curiosity always drove TPP to thumb through every one page by page reading the titles, abstracts and results, and you never knew what you would find interesting among the diverse research papers, and especially looking at the figures where you learn so much so quickly.  This is how you got new ideas.  My younger colleagues are more specialized with a narrower research focus, although we had narrow people too, but you never see all the other papers because you never see the whole issue.  You put a series of keywords into a search engine that then delivers just those items that fit.  The long term effect of narrower scholarship is hard to predict, and at times it is hard to express or document the value of knowing a little about a lot other than when an off-the-wall-crazy question or query about plants comes to our department, you know who gets the call.  Time now to get another dumpster for my colleague as they are too heavy for him to move.  Appropriately enough, the dumpsters are black. 

Newt called

Wow, is TPP popular!  Newt called.  Who knew he was still around?  At any rate, Newt is angry and outraged, and just plain pissed, and every loyal 'Mercan should be too, because the gumint just isn't telling us the "truth" Newt wants to hear about Bengazi.  Bengazi?  Really, Newt?  This is the hot button item that got you so upset that you decided to call everyone in the USA personally?  Let's see, the FBI thing fizzled.  So what else we got to beat on Obama about?  Anything substantial?  Any issue of real importance?  No.  So let's go back to Bengazi and see if by repeating things enough they change or people forget.  No wonder they picked Newt to carry this ball.  He's yesterday's news too.  But it didn't even take this long to figure out that like Rick, Newt's monologue could continue on without me. Wonder how many of these calls it will take to use up all the money the Koch brothers have given the GnOPe?  That many?  Groan. 

Rick called

Rick Sanctimonious called.  He wanted to tell me how outraged he was.  Lots of things outrage Rick, and mostly it would seem it's people's freedom to do things that Rick doesn't like, and there are lots of things Rick doesn't like.  Rick was hoping that the people he was calling were outraged enough at what he was telling us that some money might be "invested"  in his cause.  It was nice of Rick to call, so best be polite.  When he's done TPP will pick up the telephone from the kitchen counter, disinfect it, and then hang it up.  Sounds like Rick may be going on for awhile, and you want him to get his money's worth, but since it's a pretty one-sided call, he didn't actually need me to keep listening. Hello?  Hello?  Wonder if Rick got my message? 

Water relief and toast

Hooray!  All of those burnt offerings paid off and the notoriously fickle Midwestern weather gods presented us with an inch of rain overnight.  Plants, even many of those that had shown no signs of wilting, definitely look perked up this morning.  Plants that still don't look good are now officially in the category of toast.  One was a new planting, a small conifer, that just declined from the time it was planted.  Another is a male holly bush.  It joins others on the toast list, a nearby yew, a large and ancient one, and a nearby redbud, large and ancient, the latter of which is so close to the neighbor's driveway that it has claimed several rear view mirrors of cars backing out.  This tree is now in the burnt toast category; if we'd known it would have been gone years ago.  Strangely from our perspective this redbud doesn't exist since is lines up with another redbud about 5 feet closer so it all looks like just one tree.  None of these hollies has done particularly well, none of them look very good either, which is another way of getting onto the toast list.  The latest were half a dozen dwarf mock orange shrubs.  They looked so cute in marketing pictures; ours never even came close to looking so good, so they got basally pruned.  Now if you lack a male holly for pollination, then one of the better features of the other hollies, red fruit, will shift from the positive to the negative side of the balance sheet.  The removal of the hollies, the yew, and the redbud will generate some considerable opportunity for new plantings.  Ahhh, you're taking out a redbud (someone always says that).  Well, there are probably another dozen or so around the garden, and yesterday TPP probably removed 50 more seedlings; a redbud removal is not a problem.  

Some things are good dry, gardens are not one of them

Dry wine, good.  Dry humor, good.  Dry clothes, good.  Dry garden, not good.  Plants are beginning to suffer as a drought takes hold of our particular area of the upper Midwest.  Any percent chance of rain that isn't 100% (it's actually raining) doesn't seem to be good enough because rain events are happening to the north and south of us.  Now dry lawns don't even concern TPP a little, but lots of plants are beginning to wilt, especially with some hotter weather that always seems to come with drought, and then not recover late in the day.  Now compared to last year, it's not bad yet.  This was the first week that we had to do a lot of watering, and some gardens have yet to be watered.  Here TPP should point out that a friend gave Mrs. Phactor a new rain gauge for her birthday, and it hasn't rained since.  Unfortunately, when we're away, and some upcoming travel is planned, plants really do get neglected, and keeping up with just the minimum amount of watering is a major job.  Some things don't matter.  The tomatoes are basically terminal; some potted replacements will provide some fruit but later, if they get watered.  Any disease that interferes with water transport just makes things worse when it's a bit dry. Anybody got a good rain dance?  Even hanging out laundry didn't do any good today.  A major front moved through the area, but no rain!  Of course sometimes some decisions get made for you.  A big old yew is in decline as well as some American hollies growing near it, and we had been talking about redoing that part of the garden, so now it looks like the decision is being made for us.  Ah, well.

Friday Fabulous Flower - a yellow loosestrife

A sort of rock garden area between a path and the margin of our lily pond was screaming for some color.  Without a whole lot of thought, or knowledge, TPP grabbed some of these prostrate yellow loosestrife plants from a local garden shop and stuck them into the ground.  Wow, do they look great or what!  Low mounds of yellow-green varigated foliage and very cheerful aggregations of bright yellow flowers with red centers at the tops of low aerial stems (Lysimachia congestifolia).  What a great looking plant for a rock garden, and perfect for this location.  As a bonus, bunnies don't seem to eat it.  However, it's not even slightly hardy so it'll have to be treated as an annual.  That just isn't right, but what are you going to do?  A bigger species used to grow nearby, but it was rather an aggressive spreader and did not play well with others.  Will this turn into an annual concession to annuals?  Maybe some cuttings can be rooted in our glasshouse and over-wintered that way? 

Baobabs in trouble

Baobabs are remarkable trees, so weirdly strange as to seem other worldly, and they mostly live in Madagascar, a hot bed of extinction.  Here's a news report from Scientific American about how development and climate change are a threat to their very existence.  HT to AoB Blog.

Monocycle desire

Oh, man, TPP has a serious case of monocycle desire.  What a magnificent thing this is!  The monocycle RYNO is built on the same principle as the Segway, so you can't really lose your balance; lean forward to go, backward to slow down.  When people see you whizzing around campus on one of these, well, it's like instant status.  As it is people still comment about my BikeE, although they usually are under 12.  OK TPP is starting to save for his right now.  And it may take awhile because
apparently they cost $25,000. Needless to say, TPP is not one to pay for a Jag or a BMW or the like. 
However it should be obvious to any cultured person that this is not a new idea at all. 


Cat behavior - instinct and learned

Cats have it pretty good around the Phactor household.  Kibble twice a day, lots of places to sleep, lots of nice windows, humans to provide some rubbing and petting when it's wanted.  What a deal.  Cats have a lot of hard-wired behaviors, things they do instinctively.  The younger of our two cats gets to venture outside at the end of a long leash, and she's amazingly good at stalking.  She drops and belly crawls forward, then freezes when the animal looks back, she uses the terrain for cover, and sometimes she gets surprisingly close for a cat on a cord.  Both like to play with things sort of hidden, grabbing for toys and the like, and not too gently either (fingers are not toys).  Both like to play with fuzzy toys, and the younger one plays really rough, a toy terror.  Both are fully armed with claws.  So last night and this morning some interesting sport arrived in the personage of a mouse in the house.  Oh, so very interesting. With the game so lop-sided, two large carnivores against one small prey animal, you figure this game isn't going to last long.  The older cat cornered the mouse behind a round garbage bin, and she moved as if she knew what she was doing.  But then the mouse made what looked like a fatal error and scooted for a safer place running right in front of the cat, right under her nose.  And she froze.  No grabbing it, no snapping at it, no pouncing!  What gives?  It was just as if she didn't know what to do.  The younger cat has reacted similarly.  After a stealthy stalk, she came nose to nose with her "prey", a youngish squirrel.  And she did nothing.  The game was over.  This makes you think that the stalking, the interest in the movement, and everything right up to the moment of truth in hunting is pretty instinctual, but neither of them knows how to kill their prey.  It's like their kitty brain gets up to the end of the hardwired behavior, and then their brain says, "Now what?"  So the mouse continues to roam the house.  Maybe it'll get chased to death, the cats like that part of the game, but it won't be dispatched by either of our cats actually attacking it to kill it.  The mother barn cats of my youth used to bring back almost dead mice for their kittens to "play" with, and it makes you think that the kittens had to learn how to kill their prey, an experience our pampered pets lack.  Or they just didn't want to sully the taste of kibble with mouse.     

Fried eggplant spaghetti

The Phactors are great fans of the long narrow Asian-type eggplant that come in a variety of skin colors, purple to white or green, and white or greenish flesh.  Fortunately, although late, the eggplant have been producing, and when we get a goodly number our favorite way of eating through them is to make fried eggplant spaghetti.  For these small eggplant, we generally plan on at least two eggplant per person.  Peel and cut eggplant into eight "fingers".  We usually will toss them in an egg wash (a beaten egg thinned with a tablespoon of water) and then coat then with cracker or bread crumbs into which some seasoning salt has been added.  These are deep fat fried until golden brown.  Drain them on paper toweling and keep warm in the oven.  Top your sphagetti with a tomato sauce, a basic basil tomato sauce goes particularly well, cover with pieces of fried eggplant, and generously sprinkle with grated parmesan-romano cheese and some shredded fresh basil.  We often serve this for a meatless meal.  Even people who say they aren't particularly fond of eggplant like this dish. 

T. rex - carnivore or lowly herbivore?

Apparently some paleontologists think that finding a T. rex's tooth in the tail bones of another dinosaur weighs heavily on the side of those who think T. rex was a mighty carnivore rather than a scavenger of carcasses.  Well, you hate to disappoint them, but another find calls both views into question.  Here's a T. rex tooth deeply embedded in the seed cone of a cycad lending evidence to the much less popular hypothesis that T. rex was an herbivore whose teeth were adapted to prying open big seed cones like a can opener.  It will be hard to dismiss this idea completely with the evidence at hand.  So sorry fellows.  It stands to reason that at a time of mighty plants, the herbivores were mighty too.  Some of the large cycad seed cones were some of the most concentrated packages of food available in Jurassic Park, the concessions stand not withstanding.  But this is the way it is in science.  You have to go where the evidence points you.  Humility and an understanding of the scholarly process prevented the discoverer of T. rex herbivory from rushing off to the popular press with this long before it could be published in a scientific venue, but now that the "carnivorists" have jumped the gun, it seemed that a continued silence was being unduly modest. 

Largest flower?

Here's another news article about the blooming of the "world's largest flower", and every time this happens, they make the same mistake; the "corpse flower" isn't a flower.  No question about it though, the titan aroid is an amazing plant, and seeing it in flower in person is very impressive.  The flowering structure can be over 6 feet tall, but you'd be more impressed by the odor.  TPP had a smaller species flower in his house a few years back.  It's equivalent structure was about 3 feet tall and on a 2 foot stalk.  It smelled like someone had dragged a cow carcass into out house, so Mrs. Phactor said, "OUT!".  This type of aroid produces the  odor of rotting flesh, a corpse.  This is a giant jack-in-the-pulpit and consists of a cloaking leaf, a spathe, and a spike of lots of little flowers on it called a spadix, some male flowers and some female flowers, and maybe some sterile ones too. All you usually see is the apex of the spike sticking up unless you cut the spathe out of the way.  The flowers are down at the bottom. When flying in toward the carrion, the pollinators, probably beetles, hit the spike and tumble into the funnel formed by the spathe.  So sorry, it's not a flower anymore than a sunflower is a flower.  Curiously the world's largest flower (Rafflesia) is also a carrion flower and it's plant is a complete parasite living under ground except for the flowers.

Accouterments for the perfect garden

Don't you just love funky things for your garden?  This fish water spigot is something TPP would love to have although not quite certain what it would be used for.  Let's say, it's an attractive concept for a garden feature.  Quite a number of spigots have animals or flowers as on-off handles, but spigots where the water gurgles from a fish's mouth, those are not common.  This one looks pretty old, but TPP would settle for a brass replicate.  Anyone seen anything like this anywhere?  These are close, but not quite the same, and no price information provided (duh-oh!  cost alert!).  Also who wouldn't want an elephant down spout diverter?  TPP still hasn't found one of these, but it would be a pretty funky addition to my garden. Wouldn't these just be the perfect things to add some class to your garden too?  Now of course these may not be for everyone.  A recent visit to a slightly spooky upscale neighborhood (Stepford Heights?  Harper Valley? Wisteria Lane?) reminded me of what it's like to live surrounded by overly-tidy, overly-pruned cookie cutter yards and off-the-shelf landscaping where obviously a list of OK things (definitely Bradford pear) and not OK things (you have to use landscaping to hide your tomatoes) exists and where all the lawns are attempting to be perfect monocultures of diagnonally mowed grass!  Gomez Adams would have appreciated my reaction. The horror of it all!  TPP was warned to keep his lawn and garden opinions to himself.  After drinks we escaped! 

Tippy canoe and river rats too

The Phactors used to canoe quite a bit, but in the past 15 years not so much largely because we no longer have a river and a canoe.  The two sort of went together.  Today was a pretty nice day  for mid-July here in the great Midwest, hot, but not too hot, pretty weather really, and friends who do have both a canoe (several actually) and a river invited us for a nice leisurely down stream paddle of about 3.5 hrs.  This time of year with the water near the minimum for canoeing you see mostly trees along this undeveloped river except for one blighted encampment with a classic redneck look about it.  What a great change of scenery.  Among the highlights was a bald eagle nest high in a sycamore tree, a grove/clone of paw-paw (quite uncommon here abouts), some muskrats swimming along, and a great blue heron rookery of about 20 nests high in a cottonwood tree over the river.  Although it seemed strange to see no turtles sunning anywhere.  It was great fun.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Flower of an hour

Well, Friday got away without a flower.  Here's one that TPP likes even if it is a weed because it does have a pretty flower, and large for the size of the plant too.  This isn't a common weed in our urban gardens, and it actually isn't difficult to control, but the city took out a soon to be dead white ash and brought in some city soil with what are more common agricultural weeds in the area, and it contained seeds of two members of the same family.  Here abouts this is called "flower of an hour" (Hibiscus trionum) because the flower doesn't last long.  The five red stigma lobes mark this as a hibiscus.  The rest of the flower is a classic mallow (family) famous for the spongy white roots of the marsh mallow.  The other weed is velvet leaf - Abutilon theophrastii that was probably imported to N. America for use as a fiber plant, a failure obviously.  Flower of an hour was also imported, perhaps with other agricultural seeds, perhaps as an ornamental.  The inflated and persistent calyx can be seen just above flower, and out of focus.  The bull's eye floral image is even stronger under UV light. 

Need help understanding photosynthesis? This may help.

Here's some help understanding photosynthesis in the form of a graphic comic book starring a super hero scientist.  TPP will have to get a copy and see how it does, but it wouldn't have to be too good to be better than most pre-college biology books.  College biology books suffer from another problem, too much information and detail obscures a more general understanding.  If someone has read this, let us know how it is.

Citation index going up, a little

This really doesn't mean a whole lot, but TPP has a sort of weird fascination with seeing where and how his publications are cited.  You don't want to be an example of "couldn't grab his butt with both hands", and so far so good, but it's interesting to find out what other people see in your publications, how they are used.  Now a number of indexes have been proposed that allow you to make all sorts of bogus comparisons.  Understand that you do some research, and then you write a paper in an attempt to publish it, and when that occurs, other people find out about your research and its results and conclusions with the result that they cite your work to show the background or rationale or similarities or differences to their work, but that takes time.  The longer you publish the more your publications can be cited or ignored.  The more you publish, the more your publications can be cited or ignored, and there is a domino effect because getting cited alerts other people to your publications.  TPP published his 1st scientific paper nearly 40 years ago and has published regularly if not prolifically ever since.  For the longest time my h-index was 17, meaning that 17 of my publications had at least 17 citations; some have more than a hundred.  Really important papers get thousands of citations.  Just recently my h-index went up to 18!  To get a really high h-index you have to have a lot of papers with a lot of citations.  That can be easier in some fields than in others depending on how much and how many people work in that field, and this does not count selfies (self-citation).  People with 2 or 3 times as many publications may not have an h-index any higher than mine, and this then is why this could be used as a gauge of your impact on a field scientifically.  A colleague and friend is in ornithology, and he's been prolific and important, and his h-index is 23.  A couple of my super-star colleagues have h-indexes of 28 and 35.  Both are in big fields, but both do very good research and are more prolific publishers.  A really low index would suggest you have either few publications or lots of publications that only make a very minimal impact.  My h-index may go up another notch or two ultimately as some newer publications begin to get into the literature, but not the stuff of a power-house.   

Another flying bicycle?

Actually this is a human powered heliocopter rather than a bicycle because there aren't any wheels.  This is a pretty awesome machine, rather different than you would expect (video at link).  There are 4 rotors, huge ones, at the cornvers of a square frame, and they move at a fairly leisurely rpm powered by a recombant bicycle power plant at the center.  It doesn't seem possible it flies.  This demonstrates that new materials let you design things in new ways.  Wow!

Herbarium specimen filing problem

Here's a problem TPP has never had to deal with before.  Our herbarium contains an unfiled folder of historically important specimens collected a bit over 100 years ago by Mary Strong Clemens, a famous plant collector, from places like Yellowstone National Park, but to be accessible, they need to be in the collection.  The problem is that two to six different unrelated plants specimens are crowed onto 5" x 8"  small pieces of mounting paper (the collector was probably short on paper) and labeled by hand right on the paper right next to the specimen.  Now there are couple of possible solutions.  First, you might attempt paper doll "surgery" to separate the specimens mounting the pieces of the original sheet on a new piece of mounting paper, but even with a careful hand this may not be easy or possible on all of these sheets, and aesthetically, it's a terrible solution.  The solution that is leading the pack is to scan the specimens, like the above image, print it on archival paper and then file the "copies" in the right place for each specimen, but include a pointer on the photocopy "specimens" telling you where to find the "original", which will be filed correctly for one of the specimens.  This sounds like a good little project for the next student intern to come along.  Any other suggestions or solutions? 

How to run a university - two tech wrongs don't make things right

A new telephone arrived yesterday, one that uses voice over the internet, replacing a 30-yr old system, but the new instrument is twice the size of the old one.  And it was sitting quite prominently and inconveniently smack dab in the middle of my desk on top of the usual inch or so of papers.  Examining the problem, the reason was immediately apparent, the cord from the data port to the phone was too short and that was a far as it would reach.  Someone somewhere decided that connection cords only had to be 4 feet long because of course the data port is always conveniently located right next to the work area in your cubicle.  Now you begin to see.  A cubicle dweller made this decision, an OK decision for their world, but not mine because TPP occupies a 12 x 21 foot office (seniority does have some perks).  And then TPP asked the installer about his lab where for safety reasons there must be a phone as well as for convenience.  Now my lab is down the hall a few doors so for years the phone rang in my office, then rang in my lab, and then went to voice mail so you could leave a message since you didn't find me or a student in either place.  What?  They'd never heard about such arrangements.  No one said anything about such connections.  Groan.  Yes, a great technological leap forward.  Then another thought gave TPP some pause, and he checked his lab.  Yes, there was another new phone sitting on the floor along the front wall in the back of the lab because the cord was not long enough.  This is a large room and the working area, where people are going to be, is at the other end.  Long ago there were supposed to be two data ports installed, one at each end, but then money got tight or something, and only one data port got installed and it was at the wrong end because no one asked which one to install.  Besides would anyone have more than one computer accessing the internet from their research lab?  The average was more than 3 actually, and the addition of wifi worked for most student computers.  They just guessed or thought what does it matter anyways where the port is, so why ask?  The combination of only one data port in the wrong end of the room and a too short cord leaves us with a telephone on the floor in the main path from one end of the lab to the other.  Can you attach some longer cords?  Well, they got one about 8 feet long for my office, so now the phone is on the same side of the desk as its user, but even 8 feet is too short for the lab, so no.  Even before the system is declared installed tech help must be sought to get a longer cord.  Gad! 

Smut! The name may be the problem.

A long time ago TPP and his friends got in trouble with the ex-Marine who was our high school assistant principal, i.e., disciplinarian.  Not the brightest bulb, so after cracking down on profanity, we sought out all the words we could find that sounded "profane" but weren't.  Our favorite was "scud".  And upon hearing this exclamation, our drill sergeant would pin you against your locker and ask, "And just what does that mean?"  And we'd give him the definition, where upon he'd haul you down to his office and check his dictionary (probably a secretary's).  With a puzzled look he'd let you go to class.  We were later scolded by the principle for baiting him, but he gave it away with a smile.
So the way a word sounds certainly has some significance.  SMUT!  This one is even worse because it actually has two really different meanings, the one everyone will be seeking when Google brings them to this blog.  But it's also the common name of a fungus that infects maize and replaces its fruits (corn kernels) with fleshy reproductive bodies that upon maturity turns black and releases innumerable spores.   In Mexico corn smut is called huitlacoche supposedly meaning excrement of the gods in Mayan, which is sort of smutty. These are the truffles of Central America and actually cultivated.  So what is needed here is some creative re-labeling.  So rather than smut or excrement, how about Mexican truffles?  Ah, that has a nice sound to it. Hmm, not even a recipe in my Frida Kahlo cookbook, and this has never appeared in a market in this part of the USA and we do have some pretty good Latin American groceries.  Mexican truffles probably don't travel well. Anyone out there with some recipe examples? 

How many hosta?

No this isn't really a quiz because someone would have to know the answer, and it isn't going to be TPP doing the counting.  A long time ago someone planted quite a few hosta along about 60 feet of our garden's border with the front sidewalk underneath some old spruce trees. These are your plain old, moderately large "plantain" hosta, each and everyone the same.  They are tough as nails and during their flowering they make a pretty spectacular drift of blue flowers.  You don't have to worry about them, you don't have to baby them, you don't have to do hardly anything but cut off the old bloom stalks, and yet they flower like this each and every year.  Pretty hard to complain about that, eh? Now is it hosta (pl.) or hostas? 

Tomato wilt watch

The wilt watch is not going well.  TPP started with 6 tomato plants, caged, in a row, and now three have been removed, and two of the remaining plants are wilting.  So after a good start, the tomato part of the garden is almost back to square one.  A few leftover plants at a local nursery have been potted using a potting mix, but you don't replace 5 foot tall plants with nearly full-sized fruits in just a week or two.  So you just try to salvage something.  Now the watch turns to peppers growing about 4 feet away from the tomatoes.  This is the problem of small gardens, especially when you routinely cheat on plant spacing.  A nice heavy rainfall could saturate the soil and facilitate movement of the wilt to the peppers.  If the wilt gets there, then the dominos will continue to fall, sadly.  Next year will require some major shifting of our gardening efforts to avoid growing nightshades in this general area.  This type of event is one of the major challenges of small gardens, and especially so since the last two years have not been good gardening years and while late, this year's garden was growing pretty well.  To add to the gardening woes, the 1st Japanese beetles have been spotted, a relatively new pest in these parts.  However their appearance is late, so maybe they didn't do so well and this years hatch will be small; so far cicadas are nearly a no show as well, not that they are a garden problem, but another insect that pupates under ground where the drought conditions of last summer and fall may have been difficult.

Botanical Meeting - Early Planning

The annual botanical meetings are at the end of this month in New Orleans, the combined memberships of the Botanical Society of America, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, the American Fern Society, and the International Association of Plant Taxonomists.  Pretty exciting, huh?  Well, this is for purposes of communicating all manner of things with out colleagues, and mostly it's the only time each year we get to see colleagues from different institutions and countries, former students, and collaborators, both past and maybe future.  People present talks and posters highlighting their research and teaching.  You learn a lot and get a lot of new ideas.  But it's a marathon, a jam-packed few days of solid botanical science.  Participation planning had to take place months ago to get on the program, and even earlier than that if you were organizing some aspect of the meeting.  Travel planning also had to be done already to get reservations taken care of.  Now you begin to decide on a day-to-day schedule so you're where you want to be when you want to be there.  You see, so much is going on, all manner of sessions are going on simultaneously, and for us generalists who have interests spanning more than one field, it's a particular problem because you want to hear this and that over there and back here.  TPP's basic approach is to just check off anything and everything he's interested in seeing and hearing, all the meetings he's supposed to attend, and all the rest.  This spans fields of systematics, paleobotany, structure and development, ecology, pollination, tropical biology, and evolution, but only particular bits of each.  More specialized people just plunk themselves down and stay put.  After you find everything of interest (it took 2 hours to read the whole program) you print out a custom schedule, except then you find out 8 of your "likes" all happen at once, so then you finally have to decide.  The first scan shows quite a few "problems" to resolve.  Some fun things look to be in the offing.  One symposium, a group of invited speakers, are presenting talks on "Yes, Bobby [Jindal], Evolution is Real".  Doubt he'll show up. And where was the seminar on Cajun food?  

Things that go thump in the night

One of us is a light sleeper; the other sleeps like a near-dead log.  So when something woke TPP, the thud of something falling, he got up to investigate.  Otherwise the house was silent such that you could hear the water dribbling from the garden fountain.  Now the house has two cats who sometimes become involved in nocturnal activities, but both of these suspects were curled in their usual places exuding their well-practiced "who, me?" reactions.  Still once you're up, you might as well check things out, and nothing was apparently amiss.  In the morning, Mrs. Phactor wanted to know why someone was wandering around the house at night.  Her reaction to the statement that something went thud was a sort of "sure", and we preceded to have toast and coffee and read our Sunday papers (we still like papers).  As we moved into the mornings activities, Mrs. Phactor chanced to open a little pantry in the back of the kitchen, a little architectural wonder, as in you wonder what they were thinking there a hundred years ago, and discovered a mess.  A can, not even an ancient can, of fruit had exploded, blown it's top off, disgorged its contents, and dislodged some other canned goods in the process.  Their fall must have gone thud.  Hard to believe so much juice and so much fruit could come from one little can, but it did explode; gravity did the rest.  The cleanup was both necessary and long overdue.  Still TPP derived a bit of gratification that he heard what he heard. 

Dog and child abuse at art fair

The Phactors love art fairs, and so do lots of other people, which explains the usual congestion.  These fairs are always conducted in the summer, in urban settings with asphalt and lots of brick, so generally they are pretty hot.  So why is it that so many people so love their dogs that they drag the poor things through throngs of legs and feet such that even friendly, well-behaved dogs are pretty stressed out, not to mention hot and thirsty?  As far as TPP is concerned this is dog abuse especially since an art fair is in not way a recreation area for dog exercise, and unlike kids, dogs can be left home.  Only a short distance from this are small children and babies.  Of course, parents often cannot attend unless they bring their child(ren), so TPP is willing to cut them some slack.  But you see kids running on empty.  They're hot, thirsty, and low on energy cranky and/or whiny.  The dogs are treated better because here and there sympathetic people put down water bowls for the dogs.  One particular little girl so red with glazed eyes that looked like she would simply drop from heat prostration and her mother dragged her onward.  Many parents chose to put their small children or babies in strollers.  This is practical, but some of today's strollers are the size of small SUVs and maneuvering them around people and into and out of small stalls is like a tractor & trailer trying to get around in a grocery store parking lot.  And the rest of us must simply watch out for them, and wait when they block off the whole aisle.  Nothing against the kids, but use some good judgment about your stroller, people; a great stroller for jogging or walking around the block is just plain inconvenient at a crowded art fair.  But let's start by simply banning dogs because abusive dog owners are just never going to figure it out on their own. 

Gluten-free vodka - someone got some 'splainin' to do

Vodka is a pretty simple distilled spirit, ethanol and water, two colorless, tasteless, totally miscible liquids.  It is true that fermented grains produce some aromatics that can be transferred during distillation, but then vodka is supposedly charcoal filtered to remove them.  But how is there gluten in any distilled beverage?  First, gluten is a protein found in the endosperm of grains; it's what makes bread dough sticky.  But proteins don't distill; they denature when heated.  Yes, a fermented beverage made from cereals may have some gluten, but to make a spirit you distill the "beer" to make a "whisky" and only heat-volatile substances end up in the finished product.  Using the idea that a vodka lacks gluten as a sales pitch is something TPP doesn't understand.  Who thinks there's gluten in distilled beverages in the first place?  This just puzzles me.  Is there something TPP is missing here?  You might as well market the vodka as cholesterol-free too, the vodka that's the favorite of really stupid and gullible people.  Besides, if they used potatoes as the starting carbohydrate, you wouldn't have gluten around to matter anyways.    

Green world? Video of world's vegetation

Here's the link to an interesting video showing the distribution of terrestrial vegetation on Earth.  Two things were rather striking.  First, notice just how green vast portions of the Earth aren't.  The web site says green, green, green to describe these images, but man, lots of surface area is basically non-green, although even "bare" rock can habor algae & lichens (endolithic algae are pretty common - link to a western US study by a former student).  Second, a nice segment shows the greening of North America from winter to summer.  The first week of June is when the forest canopy is considered "complete" here in our latitude.  Some other things to notice (some of which are pointed out) are the scars left by deforestation, fires, and cities.  We're the only species whose activities can be seen from outer space.  ET will notice them right away.  TPP also likes trying to pinpoint where his study sites were located (mostly areas of pretty dark green). 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Deptford pink

Not all invasive, exotic plants, aliens, immigrants, are bad.  The Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) isn't a problem of any sort that TPP knows of and it makes itself quite at home in a prairie.  It appears to blend into the forb ensemble quite amicably.  Mostly it goes unnoticed because it's a very slender, small-leafed plant up to about 2-2.5 feet tall topped by some very pretty, but very small flowers (about 1 cm in diameter).  It would be a nice addition to a wild flower perennial garden, and will grow in some very poor soil under pretty dry conditions. The plant sways easily in the wind, and since the target is small, photographing the flowers in the field is a challenge; here's a shot that was grabbed while collecting data the other week.  Like pinks in general the petals are notched or toothed at the apex, and in this species pink petals splotched with white.  Deptford is a town in the UK where this plant grew abundantly; somehow this name stuck with it in North America.  Our local variety tends to be a bit paler pink than populations elsewhere.

Was that a big mistake?

TPP happened upon the Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor was waxing philosophical about the beauty of writing a book.  "So what are you doing this summer?"  "Writing a book."  It does sound so intellectual, so academic, and as long as you keep a note pad nearby, people seeing you in a hammock or in a lawn chair figure you're deep in thought, working your brain to the bone.  And Keillor explained that you can keep this going for years without anyone getting the wiser.  "How's the book going?"  "Ah, had to trash a whole chapter and start over again."  And they nod their head in sympathy and understanding.  And how true all that is, so has TPP made a huge mistake?  He actually delivered his book manuscript to his editor this past month, and now what is he to tell people he's doing?  Keillor would be proud because this book took at least a decade from its inception.  Of course my office is still deep in book materials and it would be good to get all that neatened up, although one worries about what you may find buried deep in the paper strata.  Keillor would probably say if it was all that urgent someone would have yelled about its absence by now; the simple fact that you did nothing and nothing bad happened means it wasn't all that important anyways. Actually when something has been a major project for so long, it does leave a vacuum and we shall see what expands to fill that space.

Oh, yes! Flying Bicycle!

This is just great!  Here's a nifty sounding hybrid vehicle, a bicycle combined with an ultra-light aircraft.  Don't you just want one?  Man.  TPP has a birthday coming up.  Hint, hint!  OK, this isn't likely on the market soon, but what a nifty, creative idea.  Now if it only came with a laser for shooting down domestic drones or squirrels! Vroom! Vroom!  HT to Treehugger.



Largest scratching post ever

This couch is actually a piece of functional art by France's Mathieu Mercier as shown at Galerie Mehdi Chouarkri.  The idea is simple, you get the bracket and then set whatever you want upon it.  As shown here with 2 roles of tangerine carpet, you get a couch.  A reviewer says, "I'm convinced that the more unsellably hideous the carpet, the better it would look on Mercier's bench, providing an endless demand for textile designers' mistakes", a sort of back-handed green washing.  But it's hard to argue with the main contention; try to imagine this color carpet looking good on any floor in any room.  However, without even reading one tiddle of the piece, TPP's first thought upon looking at this is that someone has made the biggest cat scratching post and piece of feline lounge furniture ever, no question, no doubt.  It's hard enough to try to convince the kitty girls that not everything, especially the living room couch, is a scratching post, but this would be a total non-starter in terms of cat discipline.  Actually the two cats presently possessing our house are pretty good girls.  Mostly they use the carpets (wake-up, yawn, stretch, scratch), and that's exactly why they would just totally, absolutely adore this couch.  And cat color vision is skewed to the other end of the spectrum, so this jarring tangerine would be perceived as a mid-shade of gray. 

Global warming - one bright note

My colleagues are not very optimistic about global warming.  In fact they seldom talk about it because it's such a depressing conversation.  But every now and then, something positive emerges, which in no way suggests we're all OK with climate change.

From an IPCC document …
Wine and recent warming

Wine-grapes are known to be highly sensitive to climatic conditions, especially temperature (e.g., viticulture was thriving in England during the last medieval warm period). They have been used as an indicator of observed changes in agriculture related to warming trends, particularly in Europe and in some areas of North America. In Alsace, France, the number of days with a mean daily temperature above 10°C (favourable for vine activity) has increased
from 170 around 1970 to 210 at the end of the 20th century (Duchêne and Schneider, 2005). An increase associated with a lower year-to-year variability in the last 15 years of the heliothermal index of Huglin (Seguin et al., 2004) has been observed for all the wine-producing areas of France, documenting favourable conditions for wine, in terms of both quality and stability. Similar trends in the average growing-season temperatures (April-October for the Northern Hemisphere) have been observed at the main sites of viticultural production in Europe (Jones, 2005). The same tendencies have also been found in the
California, Oregon and Washington vineyards of the USA (Nemani et al., 2001; Jones, 2005).
The consequences of warming are already detectable in wine quality, as shown by Duchêne and Schneider (2005), with a gradual increase in the potential alcohol levels at harvest for Riesling in Alsace of nearly 2% volume in the last 30 years. On a worldwide scale, for 25 of the 30 analysed regions, increasing trends of vintage ratings (average rise of 13.3 points on a 100-point scale for every 1°C warmer during the growing season), with lower vintage-to-vintage variation, has been established (Jones, 2005).
Let's have a special toast to all of the human folly that has given us global warming.  It wasn't all totally bad. 

Wilting Tomatoes - This could be bad

The kitchen garden was off to a slow, late start this year, but finally beginning to look like something.  But now the tomato plants (a resistant variety!) are showing signs of a wilt, probably verticillium, but need to check leaves for lesions.  First, the one on the end of the row, now the next one in the row.  They'll be pulled, but it may not help at all.  Verticillium is wide spread and the spores can last in the soil for years.  And members of the nightshade family are particularly susceptible, and the only possible action is to do some long-term crop rotation.  However since the primary crops in the summer kitchen garden are tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant plus curcurbits, there are too few options in too little space.  Just in case a couple of late tomatoes, also resistant, were planted in large pots.  This may be the beginning of some upward gardening avoiding the native soil for a few years.  There are times when the combination of animal and fungal pests make small scale gardening a rather disheartening enterprise.  Verticillium wilt could also explain the rapid decline of raspberries (also very susceptable) last year that was blamed on the drought. Two years ago several well established trees here and there around the yard just up and died after a sudden wilting.  Replacements have done well enough, but this renews my worries.  Drat. 

Do SCOTUS justices have defective memories?

50 years is a long time, but not so long that TPP has forgotten the 1960s, his high school and college years.  In those days TPP was very involved in social justice and civil rights, a typical activist and supporter of civil liberties.  The lessons of those years certainly helped bolster my "liberal" (in the classic sense) attitudes and political leanings.  True many of the outward manifestations of racism have disappeared.  As a child brought up in upstate NY, when visiting his southern kin (up north we had relatives), he got very confused about the notion of "colored" water provided by an obvious choice of drinking fountains, and he wanted the colored water of course.  Now there's only one fountain, but you can bet certain people will not use it as a result. The voting rights act may be based upon out-dated data, and quite reasonably SCOTUS could have ruled that the data should be updated, say based on the past decade, but no.  The conservative justices' ruling seemed to suggest that racism is gone, that no attempts were being made to disenfranchise minority voters, or change voting districts or rules to limit minority representation.  Don't the SCOTUS justices remember the 1960s?  Did the SCOTUS justices check the record to see how many recent voting rights litigations there have been?  The list was easy to find.  Here's a recent one, and fairly typical.
United States v. Town of Lake Park, FL (S.D. Fla. 2009)
On October 26, 2009, the Court entered a consent judgment and decree replacing the current at-large method of election with a limited voting plan providing for the election of four Commissioners with concurrent terms. On March 31, 2009, the Department filed a complaint against the Town of Lake Park in Palm Beach County, FL for violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The complaint alleges that the Town's at-large system of electing its Commissioners denies black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. Although black voting age citizens compose 38% of Lake Park's total citizen voting age population, no black candidate ever has been elected to office since the Town's founding in 1923.
That's only 86 years!  How could this be a problem?  Is this part of the out-of-date data that invalidated the VRA?  This was the whole point of Voting Rights Act wasn't it?  Voting units from towns to states were routinely and regularly violating people's rights particularly racial minorities, and they still do.  Well, those who forget the past are doomed to let these mistakes repeat, and the big mistake of the conservative justices is to forget that the primary constitutional freedom they are to protect is equal treatment under the law.  But as Justice Scalia has so amply demonstrated in his descent of the DOMA ruling; you can put a black robe on a bigot, but you still got a bigot.