Field of Science


January Berry-Go-Round

January 2013's Berry-Go-Round, the latest botanical blog carnival, is posted over at Agricultural Biodiversity with it's usual excellent round up style.  Once again TPP has neglected to submit a post; my bad, my loss. 

This is not an endorsement

In order to produce high quality/resolution illustrations, TPP has been learning/working with the Adobe Illustrator.  In retrospect TPP wishes he'd kept track of how many programs he's taught himself to use resulting in a range of aptitudes from expert to toddler.  The number would be impressive because he's was part of the vanguard of PC users.  So take my observations for what they are that of a reasonably compentent user who is pretty adept at figuring things out.  Let me say this first about AI: this software is quite impressive in terms of what it is capable of doing.  However, this is one of the least intuitive, most obtuse pieces of software TPP has ever learned (OK begun to learn) how to use.  Here's an example.  A lot of programs allow you to import files from else where.  In virtually ever single one of these you find an IMPORT function under a file menu and it asks you what you want imported.  This is one of those universal features of software.  Look around AI in vane for an import function.  Oh, there it is, under the terribly non-descriptive term PLACE.  Parking place, park place, play place, carefully place, no bells of recognition went off, so you resort to very obtuse an online help resource that does not seem to believe in step-by-step instrucions.  All of the previous illustration programs TPP has used allow you to resize an image or object.  So does AI, but it's called "scale" located under the Transformers menu.  You keep waiting for your printer to convert into something else.  Now once you know these features, all is well, but the learning curve on this program is remarkably steep because there are dozens of such querky things.  Naturally our institution provides all sorts of technical assistance, but they have never been much help because TPP always manages to get beyond the introductory level on his own, and they teach/instruct you on everything as though you were a slow learner, and none of them then know more than you do.  Sigh.  So on you go on your own; that's been the way of my computing career.  TPP tries to learn one new AI function with each illustration, and presently illustrations can now be attempted that were technically beyond my ability just a month ago.  Those people who have mastered this beast have my admiration;   the interface designers not so much. 

Crazy weather

Here in the upper midwest, if you don't like the weather just wait a day and it'll change.  Fortunately the predicted ice storm failed to fully freeze leaving the predictors' record of failure for major weather events intact.  Yesterday the high temperature was 64F and new record for January 29th by 3 degrees.  Thunderstorms swept through the region giving us about an inch of badly needed precipitation.  This mid-winter thaw came immediately after the coldest week of the winter.  This morning the temperature was still in the 50s but the low tonight is predicted to be about 28F, and the low tomorrow around 2 F, a change of 62 degrees in a bit over 48 hours.  As for my snowdrops in flower, this is not good news because as tough as they are single digit freezing temperatures may be too much for them.  Lots of bulbs are pushing up, and if covered with a layer of snow they would be fine, but sticking up bereft of any insulation some leaf tips will get damaged.  The lily pond is now quite full and while almost completely frozen over previously, most of the ice has melted.  Whoosh.  The sound of battling fronts, warm, moist ones from the southwest and brutally cold dry ones from the northwest, some of that imported Great White North weather.  So what's our border policy on letting in this foreign weather? 

Today's Laboratory - Survey of algae

Surveys, breadth without depth, are hardly ideal, but watcha gonna do?  TPP's classroom is over 800 miles from seawater at a public university that cannot afford stools for students to sit on let alone paying for a nice shipment of seaweeds from a coastal area.  So you have to make do with small ones, immature ones, pickled and dried specimens, and prepared slides.  Lots of other green beasties get covered in this survey too: cyanobacteria (formerly called blue-green algae), diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenoids.  No chloroarachniophytes though.  Too bad.  Little green spidery organisms are kinda cute.  This survey is an observational challenge for students because many of these organisms are small, very small.  Some are motile and more agile than are students at the controls of a microscope.  Too often students get too much material on a slide for observation; if you can see it with the naked eye, you don't need a microscope.  Less is often better.  Patience helps because you have to look around, a lot to see what you can see, and students today are not practiced observers, and they aren't very patient.  Instant gratification is more the norm.  It doesn't help that their instructor can usually observe more in a glance than they have in several minutes.  You can make it look too easy, but then again, you're dealing with a dozen and a half students, so you can't tarry long to pretend it takes you a lot of time.  Still a few will observe some nifty things, and others will be motivated to shop for more images on line, and slowly mental constructs of these organisms begin to form.  Rome wasn't taught botany in a day.

Consult a botanist - we're cheap!

How much would it cost people to be botanically correct?  The magic of many movies has been ruined by recognizing a plant that does not and could not grow where the scene is allegedly taking place.  Granted no one else in the theater noticed, but what would it have cost to get it right?  And the CSI shows are just down right botanically stupid, ludicrous even.  Oh, to have $10 for every mistake they make!  Most of these botanical mistakes are easily correctable by simply consulting a botanist.  Sometimes making botanical errors can be quite costly, yes, especially in denominations of $20, $50, and $100.  Citizens of the Great White North use the maple leaf as a national symbol, but it's not just any maple leaf, it's a sugar maple leaf, and any botanist worth the label could have, would have noticed that the engraver of their new currency used a Norway maple instead.  Yes, botanists notice things like this; it's what we do, eh?  Now what would this have cost?  A case of decent Canadian whisky and a gallon of maple syrup at most.  So when you need to have your botany fact-checked just drop TPP a note; if he doesn't know the answer, he knows the people who do.  So, if your currency features some plant, send a few thousand notes along for TPP to check.  Or else, you risk being ridiculed by some obscure botanical blogger. HT to the Garden Rant. 

Fungal fruit mummies

While having dinner and drinks with friends, TPP was shown this image, on a little cell phone screen, and asked, "What is this?"  This question has been asked, and answered, before, but at the time the name of the fungus would not pop out of the memory banks.  These are fungal fruit mummies, and when first you see such "fruit" they do look quite strange.  They have been totally parasitized.  The organism that does this is Taphrina pruni.  The problem here is that it is uncertain what the fruit is supposed to be, and the picture was taken in San Diego, so that doesn't limit things very much what with all the exotics that grow there.  The tree certainly looks like a Prunus, a plum perphaps, but those ain't plums no more. No, it can't be a plum with the floral remnants at the end characteristic of Maloideae.  Hmm.  Second guess, a quince, Cydonia, or some sort of Asian member of the Rose family?  Anyone got a better suggestion?  

Misunderstanding science in Louisiana

In a recent hearing on science education, Louisiana state Sen. Mike Walsworth was questioning a science teacher about the teaching of evolution. He asked if there was an experiment that would prove the theory of evolution “without a shadow of a doubt.” 
How do you answer such a moronic, ignorant question?  TPP would be tempted to respond, “Wow, I don’t know how to respond to someone who understands so little about science that  they would ask that question.”  Actually, the Senator probably knew the answer, and this is the sort of gotcha question lawyers like to use, so attempting to answer it is playing his game, and he’s picking on a high school teacher not an evolutionary biologist.  You’d be tempted to say, “Senator, given that more than enough evidence exists to convince virtually all biologists of the factual nature of evolution, and yet you remain unconvinced, clearly one experiment of any kind, on any subject with any result isn’t going to convince you of anything.”  And when the teacher told the Senator of Richard Linski’s quite amazing experiment in bacterial evolution, a good example for a single experiment, the Senator asks if any of the bacteria evolved into a person.  Yes, and they became a state legislator.  Any biologist who claimed or suggested such a thing would be a certified loonie, so again the Senator is playing games to try to get a proponent of evolution to admit that the experiment didn’t show bacteria could evolve into people even though the theory of evolution never would predict such an event.  What the experiment does show amply is that natural selection can generate surprising amounts of genetic modifications in a very short period of time.  What evolution does say is that much, much earlier in Earth history both humans and bacteria shared a common ancestor. 
It would probably be useless to try to explain to this fellow that science doesn’t try to prove anything; science falsifies the alternatives.  Over 150 years ago Darwin said that evolution was descent with modification and he proposed that natural selection, differential reproduction of genetic variants, was the mechanism by which this modification occurred.  So ever since then, biologists of all sorts have been trying to falsify the idea of descent with modification, and they have failed.  Along the way a lot of hypotheses about specific descents have been falsified, but nothing has shaken this hypothesis at all.  And biologists have been examining natural selection in the lab and in the field such that now thousands of examples of how selection works are well documented, and not only that but biologists have found additional mechanisms that also generate modifications.  So Senator, once you know about all of this mountain of evidence, biologists are quite justified in saying that evolution is true “without a shadow of a doubt.” 
TPP will be in Louisiana this summer and we'll have a special symposium on evolution for people like the Senator where we'll ask the question, "Can people like this demonstrate any ability to learn science, and if they can't, can they just learn to leave the teaching of science to the people who can?"

Remarkable Saturday

Remarkable!  The Phactors actually don't have anything particularly pressing, no actual, events or appointments or anything on their calendar.  What a Saturday!  It's also a quite nice day for January, a high temperature right around freezing, sunny, with no wind. None the less things were found to keep us active and amused.  Having perused the most recent issue of bon appetit magazine, a couple of recipes caught our attention, so a trip to a grocery store was needed to buy a few items needed so that those recipes could be made during the coming week: a mushroom, leek, and fontina frittata, and shrimp and wilted escarole salad.  A wedding gift was picked out and shipping arranged, a set of dishes with a very tasteful floral pattern, for a niece in Florida.  Framing was chosen for a small print purchased at the end of last semester from a student sale.  A stop at the local pet store was necessary to get kitty kibble and admire the latest bunch of cats for adoption.  A very handsome patterned and slightly cross-eyed orphan got some oohs, but another adoption is out of the question right now.  Mrs. Phactor set to making a batch of double-chocolate (white & regular) cherry cookies.  This is definitely a keeper recipe although it only made 71 cookies not the 72 cookies it said it made!  Me thinks someone snagged one.  Winter always take a toll on the estate and although all the winter storm warnings so far have been duds, sooner or later one will be predicted correctly, so if the predicted ice storm hits tomorrow, it will be a mess.  Precipitation just never comes in the form you'd like.  But the pleasant weather did allow TPP to police the yard and gardens taking several wheel barrel loads of limbs and twigs out for pickup.  Might as well start with a clean slate if an ice storm is coming.  Later dinner is planned with friends at an Indian restaurant with a southern menu, and then betides out for drinks.  On the whole not a bad day at all for having nothing to do.

No idle hands around here!

Part of TPP's job is to keep students from being idle.  Students learn about science and how to do it, how to become a biologist, by basically apprenticing with masters, the faculty.  Fortunately, my research is rather non-technical in the sense of instrumentation and techniques, so there are lots of questions and jobs for students to pursue.  Let's see what they're up to.
Oh, this is really almost unfair, but you never know.  A hort/botany student is working with environmental parameters and plant hormones to see if he can get a particularly stubborn seed to germinate on cue so to speak.  This problem is keeping us from doing several experiments.
A student is interning in the herbarium to learn the basics of curation.  This is not something very many students get interested in, so at times you worry where the next generation of curators is going to come from.  Joining this student are about a dozen mostly retirees who have become master naturalists and are embarking on project to conduct a floristic inventory of local conservation areas, a quite worthy task.  A group of students are doing a live plant growth assay of soil fertility collected from different areas of a prairie dominated by different plants.  Another pair are setting up an experiment to determine if an invasive plant chemically inhibits the growth of other plants. TPP has students interning at a science museum, a zoo, and a nature center.  Now if only there were more of me to go around.  Oh, and then we have people, especially legislators, who think we are only teaching when we are in the classroom and that research plays no educational role.  One does get weary of clueless critics.  

Old fashioned cocktails

As TPP has mentioned before one of his favorite cocktails is an Old Fashioned, and he is not particularly impressed by supposed new fangled twists on this cocktail using tequila, or gin & Campari,  or other spirits.  When you drastically change the basic ingredients the drink actually becomes something else, call it what you will, but an Old Fashioned is made with bourbon.  Would you take a tomato soup recipe, leave out the tomatos, substitute some other fruit, and then still call it tomato soup?  Would you change the beef to chicken and still call it beef stew?  The thing about an old fashioned Old Fashion is its utter simplicity.  The best Old Fashioned TPP was ever served in a bar or restaurant was at the Girl and the Goat in Chi-town.  They made two minor, but excellent changes to the recipe; they used orange bitters and rubbed the rim of the glass with a strip of orange peel rather than muddling the fruit.  Being a bit hard core, and not liking things overly sweet, TPP suggests you try one without the sugar or simple syrup.  A dash of club soda is a waste of time and water, and although colorful, maraschino cherries are nothing but a sweet, red-dyed zombies of the former fruit.  Nothing is left except the "skeleton" of the cherry.  Creepy!  The cocktail craze is actually rather a refreshing trend of late, and Mrs. Phactor is having fun trying various recipes to find drinks to her taste.  The latest involved muddled tangerine and campari.  It was not to my taste at all.  Perhaps she'll share some of the better recipes.  Check the comments after this post for the recipe for very nice Aperol cocktail, or reading on, its Campari counterpart.   

Drought worrying at official start

It remains bone dry here in the upper midwest of the USA.  January is almost at an end and the amount of precipitation has been way below average.  This area has received none for the past 10 days or so.  The ground is bare exposing ground level plants to the worse of the recent cold without any of the insulating properties of snow.  For many years during my childhood a small mimosa tree/shrub survived in our garden just about 3 miles south of Lake Ontario in an area which was a hard zone five.  My Mother was a southerner who really liked this reminder of the south, so it was planted where a snow drift reliably formed, and if you know anything at all about the snow belt of upstate NY, the snow is reliable.  Any part of the mimosa sticking up got frozen, but the lower parts always survived.  The temperature has reached zero, a funny designation in F degrees because that is 32 degrees below freezing.  Come on people, can't we please switch to C like the rest of the world?  At any rate this may kill some not so hardy plants, but more likely will be the death of plants, particularly newly planted ones, from desiccation.  Yes, plants can freeze, but more damage and plant death comes from the dry conditions of winter than from the cold.  So far our winter has been fairly mild with only one week of fairly cold temperatures so far.  Our winters are basically desert conditions at low temperatures; December through February are the driest months here in terms of precipitation, about 2-3 inches a month tops.  When the soil is frozen because of the lack of snow cover, even less water is available to plants.  So it would appear that the drought, relieved somewhat during the fall, is continuing and looking forward this will make for a dry spring.  Farmers will be happy about being able to get out onto their fields early, but this happiness will be short lived if the dry conditions continue.  So TPP doesn't like the current conditions at all, so the official worrying has begun.  It's a gardener thing.

Eradicat in New Zealand

Eradicat?  Eradicate cats?  In New Zealand?  In one sense this fellow is right.  Cats are hard wired to hunt and kill anything furry or feathery thing they can get their paws on.  And they are very good at it.  This can and does harm wildlife.  While all of this is true, it still does not follow that the solution is to eradicate cats.  Clearly this fellow likes a good suck-up pet like a dog, but that's on him.  The Phactors have a wildlife friendly yard: plant cover, water, food, and yes, every now and then some wildlife must be relocated because in general woodchucks exceed our yard's carrying capacity.  But our kitty girls don't harm any wildlife even though they dearly would like to.  The reason cats harm wildlife is because of irresponsible owners.  One, cats are pets, and all the best people have them.  Two, as pets as opposed to purposeful breeding stock, they should be neutered.  Three, cats should be indoor animals unless supervised.  The idea that it's cruel or mean to keep cats inside (incarcerate?) is pure BS.  Our kitties only venture out of doors when harnessed and attached to a long lead, or like the F1 who has a tall fenced yard and a lazy cat.  Let's face it, you really can't walk a cat, but you can let a cat prowl around, explore, and get some exercise without turning them loose.  Would you turn a 5 year old loose in a big box store?  Of course not, to do so is irresponsible.  Even still every so often a squirrel with lower IQ or a less attentive attitude, neither good for survival, has come close to letting our mightiest hunter get her paws on them and improve the local gene pool.  So far it's only been good clean fun allowing both parties some exercise.  We can agree with the concept of eradicat by eliminating the circumstances that allow them to go feral.   

Flowers - a cosmic, comic interpretation

Imagining how our customs appear from an alien perspective is always a great comic device, so this cartoon is pretty funny, and a good introduction to SMBC Comics (Saturday morning breakfast cereal, in case you didn't know).  Some of our flower customs are pretty ancient; apparently Neanderthals were buried with bundles of flowers.  However, no matter how amusing, TPP remains annoyed by the idea that floral parts are plant genitalia.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  The gaudy floral parts are largely sterile, modified leaves with a function of attraction.  The other parts are sporophylls, modified leaves bearing sporangia, a form of asexual reproduction.  This rather carries the wrong message doesn't it?  Sterility and no sex involved.  But clearly giving the focus of your affection a vial of pollen (Look at all those virile haploid male plants!) may send the wrong message.  Of course the plant genitalia misconception is also very long standing as are the very wrong labels derived from this misconception (gynoecium, androecium, ovary, ovule).  So every semester TPP girds his loins to battle once again such misconceptions, generally losing out to in some cases to the "I don't care if it's wrong, it's how I know it" complacency.  HT to a Million Gods

Quinoa the international commodity

Quinoa, a pseudocereal native to Bolivia, is growing in popularity, although TPP still thinks it has a grassy sort of non-descript taste that he can’t get excited about.   However its popularity in North America is driving up demand and prices such that growers in the Andes make more money selling it as an export crop.  This means the price is too expensive for farm workers who would be harvesting this crop and eating it as a staple food.  Until this situation has improved, TPP resolves not to buy any more quinoa.  If a variety that grows well in North America is found that may solve this problem, and since it was probably domesticated from a weed, this might not be too tough.  Years ago TPP found a similar situation in southern India, a region where cashews were grown.  Oh, yes, cashews at the local producers price!  But cashews were such a valuable export crop you could not find any for sale anywhere right where they were being grown!  This gives you some idea of how the global commodities market doesn’t work for people at the low end of the economic scale. 

What do botanists do when not in their office or lab?

Field work!  Protecting biodiversity is a tough job, and biologists are racing against extinction, mostly from habitat loss, and now perhaps from climate change.  To help document and preserve plant biodiversity requires documenting species with specimens and in the case of rare species collecting seeds.  Usually you don't find important specimens growing in city parks, so field botanists end up in very remote areas where access can be difficult.  Sit down at a table of field botanists, buy them some beer, and ask them how many vehicle axles they've broken.  Ask them how many times they've been bogged down in the mud.  Ask them how many times they've been drenched trying to keep their specimens safe and dry.  Ask them about the worst illness or parasite they ever picked up in the field.  Everyone of them will have a story.  Even TPP has his blood enshrined in the CDC for bringing home a disease organisms fortunately without its vector.  Here's a nice promotional/educational film of a field expedition out of Kew Gardens on a plant collecting trip.  A short segment starting at about 6:30 shows you some views of the spiny forest in Madagascar.  HT to Agricultural Biodiversity who always finds the best stuff.

Indoor cats

The kitty girls that currently reside with us are indoor cats.  Outdoor cats get into trouble as does any cat anywhere when lacking supervision.  One of two, and one of the previous two were privileged and allowed outdoor romps, but only when securely tethered by a long, strong cord.  So generally no one is going out in the winter because who wants to supervise a cat walk in the winter?  So in spite of magnificent winter coats, our girls are weather marsh mellows, the kind of cat who turns tail and runs for a nice warm arm chair after just one little puff of cold, snowy winter in her face.  They cannot understand why that stuff is so cold/wet, and you certainly don't want to put your paws in it.  So this video of a cat discovering snow was most certainly not filmed using any of our cats. 

1968 nostalgia

Listening to a speaker the other evening trying to tell students what it was like in 1968, even though that was the year of his birth, brought on quite a wave of nostalgia.  The sixties were TPP's high school and college years, and those were challenging times to be that age.  The decade included the height of the cold war, civil rights, assassinations of MLK and the Kennedys, and last but not least the Vietnam war gave you a lot to be concerned about.  What with helping people build bomb shelters in their basements, getting caught in race riots, and becoming draft age, it does all make an impression on you.  It got me thinking about all the other things that happened that year.  While more or less ambling down memory lane and playing a lot of music of the era, the 1968 album Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company came to my attention, my introduction to Janis Joplin.  Coincidentally today is her birthday and she would have been 70, but that's hard to imagine just as in the sixties it was impossible to imagine myself in my sixties.  She was at her best singing the blues.  Here's her version of the Turtle Blues.  Happy birthday, Janis.

Squirrel recipes?

The local free-loading, well-fattened fox squirrels, while quite handsome, gather in our "wildlife friendly" gardens in great numbers during the winter season because the Phactors provide an excellent free lunch.  Where upon they literally trample gardens with their tiny little paws, and then they chew on tree branches and break small trees and shrubs.  Without any particular data the population density of maybe 5 to 6 squirrels per acre would seen adequate to be "friendly".  Since some 18 squirrels are presently hanging around, literally a herd of them, a bit of wildlife control might be in order.  At least one of the kitty girls is eager to assist, but her youthful enthusiasm must be balanced against her relative inexperience at killing anything more dangerous than catnip stuffed furry toys, which she does viciously.  Mrs. Phactor is not all together keen on squirrel culling so perhaps a wonderful new recipe might tip the balance, so your favorite squirrel recipes would be appreciated. 

Friday fabulous clubmoss

This is a rather poor picture of a very young Selaginella sporophyte (~1.5 mm), the typical and familiar generation of this club moss.  A student has been investigating the use of various common materials for cultivating the haploid generation of free-sporing vascular plants (ferns, clubmosses, horsetails).  It turns out that fine grained terrarium sand sold in pet stores works rather well for this when wet with very dilute liquid fertilizer.  Selaginella has rather smallish and poorly differentiated cones bearing their sporangia at the tips of branches.  The spores come in two flavors, big and little, differing greatly in their ability to disperse and their number.  The big spores become female gametophytes and the little spores become males, which are little more than a sex organ that produces sperm.  This is the same as pollen.  The females stay largely within their spore living primarily on stored food.  The arrow points to the large spore within which resides the female gametophyte that got impregnated and gave rise to this little diploid offspring.  On the grain below the arrow a few little brownish flecks are the little spores that house males.  Some cobwebby rhizoids can be seen above the arrow, outgrows of the female for anchoring, absorbing, and even entrapping small spores so that little males grow in her vicinity.  This part of their life cycle is seldom noticed and when you take pictures with a regular camera through a microscope the depth of field can be rather shallow. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - Pencil cactus

Yes, it's Saturday (forget this, it's Thursday, it took that long to get the image where it could be uploaded), but the idea to blog this came yesterday.  One to TPP's favorite winter flowering plants is a pencil cactus (Hatiora salicornoides, probably).  The stem segments are knobbier than most illustrations or photographs show, but haven't found a better candidate yet.  At any rate my plant is now a couple of decades old, and it's gotten pretty large, maybe 3 feet from top of the crown to bottom of the cascading branches.  In nature it grows as an epiphyte generally sort of cascading down from the crotch of a tree. The oldest stems are about a half inch in diameter and woody.  The flowers aren't large, but when a cute little yellow flower is produced at the tip of nearly every one of the several hundred branches, it makes for quite a cheerful winter display.  This is another one of those plants that loves being outside for the summer although of late it has taken some effort to find something stout enough to bear the weight of this increasingly massive cactus.  Otherwise this is an easy plant to grow. 

Who's happy? Doesn't surprise me!

As virtually all gardeners can attest there is something very satisfying about working with plants.  TPP knows a lot of botanists, and virtually all of them love being a botanist, although they may not like being an academic, but this is something of a different matter.  No matter how disappointing a garden may be one year, gardeners are out there planting the next, a very optimistic attitude.  You can't be a defeatist and garden.  A colleague once said, "It takes a particularly sophisticated and mature intellect to appreciate something as subtle and elegant as a plant".  Well, hard to disagree with that.  And perhaps this leads to a healthy attitude about life in general, certainly a major factor in being happy, so no surprise that this survey finds that "plant people" are the happiest people.  Growing plants keeps you active and interested.  You don't need reality shows to amuse yourself.  All kinds of bloggers complain about the negativity of the internet, but TPP gets very few negative comments.  Questions directed to this blog are almost all people wanting to understand or learn something new, very positive things.  Another news story said that people were more satisfied with wanting something than with having the thing they wanted.  Maybe it's the garden catalogs thing all the time; plant people so very much want their plants to grow well, look beautiful, and produce with profusion even though this only happens every now and again.  So you always have something to work toward, never having that empty feeling than comes from nothing to look forward to.  This botanical blogger is still having fun with plants, and he intends to continue until time comes to be composted.  Do us plant people need a "I grow plants, so I'm happy!" t-shirt or bumper sticker?  Oh, and who are the most miserable people?  Bankers! 

Hybrid pedal electric vehicle

Oh, TPP would really like one of these little fellows - a Twike.  This is a pretty clever electric vehicle that uses pedal power to charge batteries and extend your cruising range.  For those of us who only do short distance commuting and errands, this could be a real winner.    

How to run a university – the pseudobusiness model

Our great public university says it is a “student-centered” institution.  Wonderful!  No arguments from TPP.  It also promotes the idea of shared governance where students, faculty, and administrators cooperate and collaborate to decide on various policies, but when it comes to the fiscal side of things, somehow this sharing comes up short.  The Provost seems to want to run things based on the corporate model.  Now actually TPP is willing to give this a try, at least if they really mean what they say when they say a business model.  But here’s an example of how it really goes.  A whole bunch of lab classroom stools all break at about the same time; apparently 12 years is their useful life expectancy due to a design flaw (who knew?), and they were all bought at the same time, so where do you get the money for stools?  There’s no money in the dept budget and the need could not have been anticipated, and recently even well justified needs go unfunded.  So you ask your dean, who also has no resources, so they turn to the provost.  The provost says that this instructional infrastructure is the responsibility of the dept.  Now you would expect a student-centered institution to want students to have a seat in a classroom, but apparently only academic departments are student-centered enough to care.  So what’s the problem?  Why can’t this be solved in a business- like manner?  BECAUSE THE FREAKIN’ PROVOST HAS ALL THE TUITION MONEY!  Yes, in a real business model the academic unit that earns the credit hours should get the tuition money.  Then we could decide which services the department needs and wants to pay for.  Custodians? Sure. Grounds maintenance? Why not?  Administrators could submit their reason for existing, and we academics could decide if we want an assistant to the vice provost.  Provost?  Let us think about that one awhile.  So our university is being run on a phony baloney business model where the person with all the fiscal resources turns around and tells you everything is your responsibility but they withhold the resources you earned and need to take responsibility.  So whose fault is it if students find themselves standing up?  Perhaps we need a peasant revolt because something around here is revolting.   

Sustainable community - Sign me up?

What could possibly be wrong with a planned sustainable community?  Why not form one with like-minded people?  Well, this one is just perfect for the right kind of gun-loving paranoid conspiracy theorist apocalyptic survivalist greenie, if those aren't contradictions in terms.  This might work OK if they could be locked in, or tricked into a siege mentality so they locked themselves in.  When you build it to look like a medieval strong hold, or prison, this might not be too difficult.    

Growing some haploid ferns

Today's task is to have students start growing some haploid ferns.  Your familiar ferns are diploids and they are asexual producing spores.  Novices often think they have spores but really they have sporangia, which have 128, 256, or 512 spores, there abouts, in them.  They are looking for something small, but they don't realize how small.  If you want to do this yourselves, here's how.  Find a fern with mature sporangia.  The sori, clusters of sporangia, usually look brown at this stage. Take two pieces of white paper.  Fold one into corners and crease it, then flatten the paper back out.  Place the fern frond on the paper sporangia side down.  Cover with the other piece of paper and leave it over night.  As the specimen dries out, the spores are shed onto the paper; look for brownish dust.  The creases make it easy to gather the spores by tapping the paper.  Go to a local garden store and buy a Jiffy 7; they cost about 15 cents.  It's a little compressed pellet of peaty soil in a little mesh bag.  Soak it in water overnight and it will expand.  Get a wide mouth pint canning jar, or an empty peanut butter jar, or something similar.  Turn it upside down and place the Jiffy 7, now more like a Jiffy 42 on the lid to produce a growth chamber terrarium.  Tap spores sparsely onto the surface of the Jiffy 7.  Cover with the jar, screw into the lid and place in a north window.  You don't want direct sunlight, so you also could place it back a ways from a brighter window.  A couple of weeks later you should see green growth.  It's OK to take them out to examine them, and should they need a bit of water place the Jiffy 7 in some shallow water for a few minutes, then return it to its growth chamber.  In 2 months you should have flat haploid ferns about the size of your little finger nail; they are actually called a gametophyte thallus, but it's still a fern, just haploid.  This is the sexual stage of the fern.  A mist of water will cause mature antheridia to release sperm and should a mature egg be around, fertilization will occur and a bit later you'll see the first frond of a diploid fern appear (the familiar phase).  With some patience this can will grow to maturity. 

December avian visitors

Birds hang out where ever they find a combination of shelter, food, and water.  This of course is a good description of our gardens from an avian perspective: shelter (including big conifers), food, and water.  While TPP keeps track of plants and flowering events, Mrs. Phactor keeps the data on birds here in the upper midwest.  Here's the list of our avian visitors for this December: red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, cardinal, house finch, gold finch, junco, Carolina wren, nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch, common flicker, mourning dove, white-throated sparrow, robin, blue jay, chickadee, brown creeper, rufous-sided towhee, and starling.  Regularly, Cooper's hawks pass over, but none were observed perching in our trees this month.  They used to hang out more, but a small roof over the platform feeder made it more difficult for them to pick off cardinals by dive bombing from the top of a nearby shingle oak. There are times when 30 or more birds are visible from our observation post, the kitchen table, and this is why we go through a hundred or more pounds of sunflower "seed".  In November a pair of tufted titmice, uncommon visitors, were hanging around, but they were no-shows in December. The towhee, a pair, are a first record for our yard, and according to a local authority, none were seen on the December bird count for this area.    

Garden catalogs

As soon as the Christmas season is over and you've seen the last of gift catalogs for a short while, well, until they figure out what merchandise they have left to flog off on post-holiday sales, the first of the garden catalogs arrives!  Seeds, bulbs, and plants, and the Phactors peruse each one looking for things that might fill in this spot or grow in that spot.  This is a gardeners favorite winter-time activity, day-dreaming about new plants for our gardens.  A lot of corners get folded down, but ultimately, reason prevails, and you end up ordering some of those things.  As somewhat jaded gardeners, novel plants grab our attention, mostly because a lot of others have been tried and failed to deliver.  And of course these catalogs are largely pictorial promissory notes.  Look at what this is going to look like in your garden!  And so you dream of how good this will look.  In general bulbs have been the most reliable of catalog items to look the way the pictures say they will look.  Shrubs are another matter.  Now our azure beauty berry has been a great success growing in a very tough spot.  But some plants are famous, part of our pantheon of tremendous disappointments, some of which have been tried several times as our memories are dimmed by fabulous pictures indicating that somewhere at least once one of these plants looked this good.  One of our great disappointments has been weigelias; they just never look very good, wimpy bushes, wane flowers always duller and fewer than anticipated, and after a couple few years it gets the ho-hum yawn and yank.  But that's how it works, you fall for the promises every time. 

The semester begins when!?

TPP suffers from a day-date disconnect that only gets when complicated by holidays.  Having operated on a M-F schedule for so many decades, it is hard to think in other terms, and things like dates don't matter much.  Here is how it doesn't work.  OK, having checked with Mrs. Phactor that today is a Friday, TPP proceeds to get lost in various activities.  This means that while well aware that the semester begins on January 14, it comes as rather a surprise that that is this coming Monday, according to the dept secretaries who remind faculty of such things.  Things also get out of whack when a day off makes the next day seem like a Monday, and the M-F schedule resets automatically.  Now is not the time to panic; no matter what, the students will still be less well prepared than the faculty.  So on Monday, the first day of class, some students won't be present.  "Didn't figure you'd cover anything too important."  Yeah, we'll go over the syllabus, the whole plan for the course, the lab, the lab portfolios, exams, grading, and all the rest, so they'll be lost later, and will actually take offense when they ask questions later if you point out that they missed that material by figuring you wouldn't cover anything important, and the reason why would be that too many students would be absent.  If TPP stayed away until the class was ready to start, you know when they all agreed it was time to get going, how long would it be until they came and got me?  Best not try that experiment. My philosophy is that if the material is covered once in class, clearly, with supporting documentation, my duty has been fulfilled, and now the responsibility rests with the student, strike that, young adult!  Who wants to be a nag?   None of this matters because each semester starts with a sense of anticipation, a positive feeling, and good intentions.  Now what needs to be done!  Panic!

Winter weather?

The winter of '12-'13 is looking like another mild one as records fall for most number of days without a inch of snowfall.  Having grown up in the upstate New York snow belt, TPP has witnessed a 104 inch snowfall in 48 hours, and that did not set a state record, which is something like 78 inches in 24 hours.  So far this winter the precipitation totals have been less than 2 inches of snow, and pretty mild temperatures too.  But it is the impact of the former, not the latter that is a concern and the reason is because all the excess precipitation here in the upper midwest heads for the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River, which has its ups and downs.  A number of years ago the Phactors and friends owned a cabin perched on a bluff above the Mississippi, and during that time Old Man River favored us with a remarkable flood that we could observe safely from on high, although briefly all the access roads, which cross the flood plains, were were inundated.  So this year a dry winter is following a dry summer, and the water level in the Mississippi is lower than anyone can remember especially between St. Louis and Cairo ("kay-row" in the local tongue) where the Ohio River enters the equation.  This will have a major impact on farming because a significant proportion of corn and soybean crops so prevalent here abouts are shipped on this river  down to New Orleans for export.  If the river drops any further this shallow section will block shipping and already barges are being only partially loaded to raise their draft.  This is just a small example of how climate change can disrupt human affairs.  Of course if the drought continues not so much corn and soybeans will be raised for shipping either.  As these things add up, we can all wonder when politicians will get serious. 

How to carry groceries on a bicycle

Bicycles are very efficient vehicles, but not the best at carrying things like groceries that tend to be rather heavy and a bunch of loose items.  Ideas abound about how better to do this particularly when you live in a nicely convenient urban area where a grocery is reasonably nearby.  If you have chosen to live in a services desert, i.e., suburbia, well, tough.  However not all ideas are good ideas, and as an experienced bicyclist, this idea just shouts "this is stupid!"  Carrying something heavy out at the end of your handle bars is a very good way to smear yourself onto the pavement.  It's a matter of something called moments of force; the further out of the bars the weight is the more force it exerts on the steering, and the more force you have to use to overcome that weight.  You can't move the bags in closer to the handle bar post because then you knees bump into the bottom of the grocery bags and your oranges go bouncing out and down the street.  Even if you could always buy exactly two bags of groceries and then balance their weight by distributing the contents, swinging bags are no fun to ride with because they tend to swing in opposition sort of pulling your handle bars back and forth.  So solutions, baskets and bags, that carry the weight directly over the front or rear tire, or astraddle the rear tire are much more practical (see here and here).  TPP's semi-recumbent BikeE has a behind-the-seat bag with a strap so it can be detached and carried as a shoulder bag.  Great for commuting to the office.  Of course some of us park our bikes right in our offices. 
Sorry still no pictures; a technical problem prevents them from being uploaded from my PC. 

Us professors got the least stressful job for sure

Susan Adams at Forbes in an article about the least stressful jobs provides a most naive perspective of the modern professorship. 
"University professors have a lot less stress than most of us.  Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two."This doesn’t surprise TPP because people who haven’t been a professor and have only seen professors from the student perspective don’t have any idea at all what we do, how we spend our time, or how much time we spend, but here’s a clue Susan, if you can’t juggle a dozen balls at once, you couldn’t cut it.  Her perspective about all of our breaks just kills me because here TPP sits, in his office, classes are not in session, but since New Year’s Day he’s been preparing materials for classes, working on his research, and illustrating a book manuscript.  Please don’t ever ask any biologist who does field work, “How was your summer vacation?”  This is sure to generate a withering glaze.  And talk about stress.  Our job is one mad rush from deadline to deadline.  Ever see someone trying to finish a grant proposal, one that their job and livelihood depends on, by a strict deadline, and then have something screw it up?  Some of my colleagues put up signs to warn people about the danger of interrupting.  Also if there are any flaws in your proposal, if you aren't totally up to date, if your idea isn't really, really good, your proposal will simply get trashed, sometimes rather nastily.  Another colleague did a time study of professors in our college (Arts and Sciences) and found out the average work week was around 59 hours, and when the study was shown to a state legislator, their reaction was to suggest it was a fraudulent because it was so much out of line with their idea that professors only worked when they were in class.   Now Susan is not completely wrong in her assessment of our jobs.  The working conditions are good (but cozy?) and reasonably civilized (Hawaiian shirts are allowed instead of ties and jackets).  The travel demands are not too great, and you can always turn down invitations to speak (to the detriment of your career), but to think conferences, otherwise called professional meetings, can be skipped suggests Susan has no idea about how science is done, where ideas and collaborations come from, because even top notch scientists’ reputations suffer if they don’t do the people part of science.  Wonder where Susan got the idea that only pre-tenure professors had publishing deadlines?   It’s so much fun when research and teaching have you maxed out to have galley proofs of an article arrive with the editor’s instructions to return the manuscript in 48 hours.  Now it is true that some people make this job look pretty easy, and you do sort of get used to the juggling and somehow find the time to get everything done, so it doesn’t seem all that stressful, mostly.   Professors do have freedom to pursue things of their particular interest, and that’s pretty amazing, although many in science have to chase the interests of funding agencies, and that’s not fun, just necessary.  No surprise that not everyone who tries this business of higher education can do the job the way it’s supposed to be done.   My introduction to research class got quite a surprise to when they figured out in detail what does into doing science, publishing science, and teaching science.  One of them commented, “Being a scientist sounds great, really interesting, and being a professor seems like a real good job, but I’m not sure I want to do that much work.”  They didn’t add, for that much pay, which is adequate, but nothing to brag about.  What are you going to do?  Hide the truth from them so they can become a journalist and write ill-informed articles about some they thought they knew? 

 An extensive addendum of comments has been added to the Forbes article, showing that her article really touched an academic nerve.  And some of my FoS colleagues have had a say about this too.

Rare as hen's teeth?

Having had a budgee take a chunk out of my finger once, the idea of birds with nice sharp teeth is a bit frightening, but teeth they had as this fossil find demonstrates. This article also mentions a rather nifty scientific discovery: birds still have the genes for teeth, but their development is turned off, that is something in the genetic instructions keeps them from developing.  This is a common enough evolutionary change - the loss of some feature.  So stay away from those Cretaceous canaries; they bite!

Dastardly tree attackers

What kind of person attacks trees?  Trees can't get away, so as a target they don't offer much sport.  And even very large trees are easy enough for a puny human to destroy using our tools, fire, saws, axes (TPP can't bring himself to watch Ax men on TV.), even if tree took decades or centuries to grow.  More likely certain trees represent something that certain people don't like.  Still what nasty, small, cowardly people these are, totally thoughtless, totally without regard for nature.  Sort of like people who throw bottles or stones through windows.  Or the kind of people who run over turtles with their cars.  Can you believe it? 

His & hers tricycle house and garden

My affection for unusual cycles knows no bounds, and this is actually very, very clever: a two person mini-house and garden mounted on two tricycles.  Now the abode is so clever - complete with shower, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, but the garden really kills me.  Who would want to have a mini-house without a mini-garden?  This really adds a new dimension to mobile living.   

Lentil, sausage, and parsnip soup

The voting did not take long to count: 1 for parsnips, none for anything else, so parsnips it is.  Parsnips were a favorite vegetable of my youth.  Parsnips, carrots, and salsify were always planted where the snow, and there was always snow because this area was (is) the Lake Ontario snow belt, drifted over the straw mulched garden.  This meant that the soil didn't freeze and these crops could be harvested at any old time so long as you shovelled away the snow and moved the straw, but that's exactly what we did every 2-3 weeks.  Now that's fresh.  Here's a favorite soup recipe.

12 oz pork sausage links
1 medium onion chopped
1 1/3d cup lentils
3-5 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch slices (chunks)
1 clove garlic minced
16 oz canned tomatoes with juice
1/4 tsp marjoram
salt to taste
Swiss cheese shredded
 Prep time: 1.5 hr.
In a covered heavy pot or dutch oven, cook sausage in 2 tsp water for 5 min at medium heat, then remove the cover and continue cooking until the sausage is nicely browned.  Remove the sausage, drain, cool, and cut into chunks.  Set aside.  Pour off all but 1-2 tsp of fat.  Add parsnips, onions, and garlic; cook over medium heat for about 5 min.  Stir in the lentils, marjoram, 5 cups of water, and the tomatoes.  Heat to boiling, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 25-30 min or until lentils are tender.  Add sausage chunks and cook until heated.  Salt to taste.  Serve with healthy amount of shredded Swiss cheese.  Very nice with crusty bread on the side. 

This recipe can convince people that both lentils and parsnips are mighty tasty. 

Annoying technical problem

Well, doesn't that bite?  TPP composes and prepares a Friday Fabulous Flower blog, but can't up load the image because of some stupid blogger technical problem.  OK, then that blog is on hold.  Let's see what else is on tap.  How about a blog about parsnips including our favorite lentil, sausage and parsnip soup?  (Did anyone try the roasted fruit lasagna?)  How about a blog on citizen science?  How about investigating what it takes to clean out a basement when everyone involved is nearly a hoarder?  To explain a bit about this last one, TPP grew up with a whole bunch of good old New England Yankee farmers, in a very big, very old house with several out buildings.  They basically didn't throw out anything that might ever be conceived as useful, and a great deal of creative recycling was a way of life.  So not only do the Phactors have a double car garage, a large one, it also has a 2nd story and attic!  There's also a garden shed.  Our house has considerable basement space and a large attic.  The Phactors are not hoarders, but things do tend to accumulate.  For example, several hundred green glass wine bottles have been saved with the idea of having a starving glass artist create us a piece of garden art, but when their warehouse studio collapsed, our starving artists had to find something else to do.  So once you have accumulated so many nice clean, washed, label-free wine bottles, you can't quite bring yourself to recycle them just yet, of course, they do tend to keep showing up, but label removal is quite a chore.  The bottles will probably get moved to a more remote storage area so that someday people will cluck their tongues about how many wine bottles someone found in that house/garage the Phactors use to live in.  OK, let's take this one off the list.  Parsnips anyone? 

Titillating tidbits about cucurbits

Titillating tidbits indeed!  To brighten your otherwise drab morning perhaps you will find this discussion of the origin of cucumbers and the resemblance of cucumbers and similar shaped cucurbits to slipper shoes and dildos interesting?  All done in good taste and with a scholarly attitude.  Many thanks to the Agricultural Biodiversity blog for this one!

Cave-dwelling plants

Cave-dwelling plants?  What are they, members of the Bataceae?  OK, that's just a name joke.  The family is real, an Australian endemic and halophyte, but they don't live in caves like bats.  And there is a bat flower too, but still not right, although this genus (Tacca) grows in pretty deep shade.  No, these cave dwelling plants, which grow in very, very dim light, are members of the nettle family.  The level of illumination can be as low as 0.04% of full sunlight.  That's about like growing in your closet.  Hey, maybe we have some new candidates for houseplants here, but they probably need to be fertilized by bat guano. 

Mistreating household appliances in the name of science

Setting up an experiment today using soil (remember the recent lesson?) and plant samples collected last fall.  The plant samples are to provide a bit of chopped vegetation, litter, to the top of the soil.  So there is a paper bag of big bluestem, a 2 meter tall prairie grass and not a bison in sight. So if you want more or less uniformly small pieces, you put your dry grass into - well, let's see what's on hand?  There are quite a number of household-kitchen appliances that are designed for chopping plant material so this shouldn't be a problem!  Ah, a blender!  Wonder why it's getting hot and smelling a bit like toasty insulation and ozone?  Let TPP be the first to report that blenders do a very poor job of chopping a big, dried grass.  Something closer to a bison is required, and happily a paper cutter chopped this grass up rather nicely, and proudly he still has all 10 fingers. Where do you get paper cutters sharpened?  It's something to think about.  Maybe next time we'll have to try a food processor.  Fortunately the other litter had much less fibrous leaves and the blender performed much better at chopping them into satisfactory sized pieces.  If any manufacturers what to see what their products are capable of withstanding, we'd be happy to put them to misuse in the name of science.  If they survive, we give them our seal of approval - safe for botanical research.  What a selling point!

New Year's Day odds and ends

While the calendar year length is tied to the Earth's orbit, this arbitrary end and beginning comes some 10 days after the solstice, a definable point in the orbit, so this has never had much meaning attached to it other than a new cat picture calendar from Aunt Nan gets to be admired.  Some people put great stock in omens and portents of things to come.  TPP's year started officially about 3 am when his restless wife (a bit of flu?) and her cat sleeping companion took over nearly the entire bed thus shifting yours truly to a spare bed much to the delight of the other cat who believes this bed to be her own. The day dawned quite beautiful, the worst of yesterday's winter storm having missed leaving just enough snow to make the garden look freshly frosted.  Most of the holiday decorations will be taken down today, and for a bit the house will look less festive although some nice bulbs and house plants are in flower.  Apple sauce was made from our store of fall apples that are beginning to show some signs of deteriorating.  An annual review of the freezer found that none was left from last year, but a large pot roast had resided there sufficiently long, so it is being use to make some Portuguese sopas for dinner.  So where did all the whole allspice go?  Corning a brisket probably.  Happy we are for having survived the apocalypse and the war on Christmas, and if the phrase "fiscal cliff" is never muttered again all for the best, and what passes for governing continues its stubble forward, and now there is nothing whatever to worry about other than how Lincolnland fixes its problem with pensions for state employees who may be thinking about retiring. So things are off to a nicely ordinary start and that bodes well enough.