Field of Science

2014 retrospective - Blog #323

The past 12 months have been pretty good for TPP personally. Things have gone very well although not without some aggravating episodes, e.g., getting you retirement money out of Lincolnland's clutches. The F1 had a good year, new job, higher salary, engagement, and nothing makes parents happier than to see good things happen to their offspring. The Phactors had a good year; anytime you can spend a month in Tuscany, you've had a good year. And how did our gardens grow? Pretty well actually, and a good start was made on refurbishing the front garden after having all its failing trees removed. Professionally things went very well as they do when you finally get your book published.  Yea!  Although older for certain, our health remained good in comparison to that of many other people. Always best to have health insurance and not need it. And while Affordable Care provided some relief from worry for many, circumstances and bone-headed states still keep many people left to play the health lottery. It wasn't a good year in politics, international events, diseases, human relations, and the environment. It was good to see the failed, cold-war foreign policy toward Cuba finally gave way to common sense (Hey, Marco, the 1960s called and they want their foreign policy back.) and reality. It took regular doses of margaritas (negronis during August), the Daily Show (and John Oliver), and blogging to retain one's sanity. Yes, this is a form of therapy, blowing off steam, and generally connecting with others in a rather one-sided sort of way; TPP blogs, 323 of them to be exact (as soon as he hits the publish key) - and around 250,000 page reads with few comments. And this is not much different from teaching college students, where you wonder how many in your class were really there, but there will be no exams.  The new year offers a lot of potential change too; TPP will be working on some new projects and community activities to keep himself out of trouble and amused. Surely there will be some bloggable material arising from that. Best wishes for the new year to all.

Great Blog Galaxy - Almost big enough to be seen!


This galaxy of blogs is the result of asking over 600 science bloggers what science blogs they read and then construct it as a network of bloggers reading blogs. The more people who read  your blog, the bigger your dot and name. And right there in the right middle is The Phytophactor, almost big enough to be seen!  If you drop straight down from the C in American of Scientific American, there's TPP.  Wow, does this ever give your ego a boost. And the funny thing is that TPP usually doesn't read that blog. Yikes, my dot just disappeared!  Just kidding!

Monday morning brain boggling - optical illusions

Here's a video of a pretty powerful optical illusion of a checkerboard. Non-random placement of the white dots creates the illusion of a bulge. When the dots are removed, the illusion disappears. Several other similar optical illusions can be accessed via this video and they all are pretty troubling in that you can't make you brain see what is actually there. Why does TPP look at such things on a Monday morning before the second cup of coffee, as if that would matter? In other instances of optical illusions, TPP has noticed that he often has a strong reaction to such illusions and wonders if that is in some way related to all his years of looking through microscopes?  HT to Mano Singham's blog; he's a physicist.

Holiday flowering

It's been a good holiday season for flowering. As a consequence of spending summers and early fall outside, almost all of our tropical houseplants regularly flower. This was a particularly good year because so many plants came into flower at one time, but some were sort of over whelmed by the holiday decorations. Nonetheless several visitors did notice and appreciate several of them. So here's the list: forced paper white narcissas, the queen's tears (a bromeliad), a mistletoe cactus, the big blue bromeliad, an azalea (which itself gets decorated), an Aeschynanthus (a gesner), an orchid (an unknown hybrid). On the whole a pretty cheerful display. Although all have their charm, the queen's tears is a favorite because of the unusual combination of colors, which is good because otherwise the plant is not particularly attractive. Most of these have been featured in this blog before, thus the links.

Over packaging

Holiday gift giving provides lots of data points for observing packaging. Is there anything with more wasteful packaging than men's shirts?  Let's see if the packaging can be listed: an adhesive size sticker, a cardboard tag attached by a nylon anchor rope, a plastic ring around the collar, a plastic piece over the neck button, a cardboard collar insert, two pieces of tissue paper inside, a piece of cardboard inside, and three metal paper clip sort of things to keep the shirt folded. You end up having to start your own recycling center just to try on the shirt. Not all shirts came that way. A heavy-duty, out-of-doors sort of shirt from a place up in Maine, was folded nicely inside a plastic bag, and there was only one other cardboard tag attached by a piece of twine! In a women's store all the merch was neatly folded or on hangers, and without all the extras. So what is it with men's shirts? Are they supposed to look like they are starched and just back from the laundry. In the day's before stay-press fabrics, it cost 50 cents to have a shirt laundered and just have the cuffs and collar pressed. Pull over sweaters completed the subterfuge. Not everyone was unhappy about the packaging; the kitty-girls found the ribbons, tissue papers, and boxes lots of fun, especially when a new catnip, furry mouse is added. Gift beverages now almost universally come in specially made, and rather durable, gift bags, which can be saved and reused. We have probably gotten, and given, at least one of these on several occasions, and on the gift bag travels. While rather festive, it's too bad so much material gets either discarded or recycled. It was also interesting to see the surprised look on some retailers faces when you produced your own shopping bag. Grocery stores have become used to them, but not so most others places. Clearly the majority of people got and wanted those big bags provided by the retailers. The kitty-girls also like those, but some of the handles pose a choking danger and have to be cut, thereby rendering the bag rather useless from our perspective.

Long, long ago, far, far away

This is a pretty amazing photograph of NGC 1398, the barred galaxy. There is something strangely compelling about images like this of things so huge and so far away. Their camera must have a mighty fine zoom lens. Think about how many stars are in such a galaxy. Then think about all those other little lights in the background that are also galaxies (all of them), and just in this one little bit of space. Some intellect out there is probably pointing their see-far thingy at the Milky Way, and saying, let me write a blog about how amazing this is.

Banishing the darkness on the winter solstice

Did you notice that the days are getting longer? Yes, the world will not be consumed by darkness as the days continued to shorten. But rather than have fires, or feasts, or religious events to banish the darkness, TPP knows what really does it. On this solstice our premier symbol of rebirth and spring arrived just as we had hoped to banish the darkness and let the sun begin its trek back higher in the sky (Yes, it's axial tilt, but hey.). The first seed and plant catalog came by mail, and just like that things seemed a bit more like spring. Actually it was not all psychological, the high temperature here abouts was around 50 F today and lots of spring sprouts can be seen appearing as things have already had several weeks of quite cold weather in November. If the temps don't get back to a more seasonal range some plants are in for quite a surprise. As it is witchhazels are in flower and so was a dandelion in a protected south-facing location. Either that or they'll be bun-bun nibbles.

Holiday recipe for you - Liquore di zabaglione

This recipe showed up in last Sunday's ChiTown Trib just in time to be used for part of an Italian dinner for friends and family. In August TPP made zabaglione, an liquor flavored egg custard & whipped cream combo for a topping on fresh mixed berries, and we had it for breakfast no less!  Pure decadence. So this is basically a hooched up version of the same complements of Italian cookbook author Domenica Marchetti. 
Part 1: 1 cup whole milk, 1 cup heavy cream, 1 cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract (or use 1/2 of a vanilla bean slit open and scrape the seeds out and cut into several pieces).
Stir together the milk, cream, and sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the vanilla and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Keep stirring until the milk just begins to simmer. Do not let it boil. Remove from heat.
Part 2: 4 large egg yolks, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup dry Marsala, 1/2 cup vodka, 1/4 cup brandy (a dark aged rum or bourbon could be substituted).
Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thick and lighter in color. Add a dribble of the milk/cream mixture and whisk vigorously to keep the yolks from curdling. Continue adding the milk/cream mixture little at a time and whisking thoroughly until it is all incorporated. Whisk in the 3 liquors.  If you used the vanilla bean remove the pieces.  Pour into a stoppered bottle and chill thoroughly. This will last up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator. Shake before serving especially if you used the vanilla bean.
This is one seriously sweet, egg-noggy, high octane concoction. 

Open house etiquette

It was a busy weekend socially and the internet connection was flaky, even more than usual so no blogs. Since the Martha Stewart fairy dusted our home with decorations, some one volunteered to host a church open house. This can present several questions of etiquette. Do you serve a jar of home canned sweet pickles that were dated 1999?  OK, that's pretty easy. No, and they weren't that good even when young. Do you serve a bottle of wine that you don't like to get rid of it? Rieslings are just too sweet, but yes, you can serve it because some of you guests may like that type of wine and it wasn't 15 years old like the pickles. Is is ethical to serve a smoked salmon dip that you adore even though most of the guests might be vegetarian? As a note, all of the other snacks and dishes to share were non-meat. Well, of course it's OK, and all the more for yourself! People have to keep an open mind. Do you serve the pickled Brussel's sprouts just because your boss made them? Heck yes, but not because of the boss, but because otherwise they might be left for you. Do you have to worry about wishing people Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas? No, they're Unitarians and very accepting of holidays in general. Our dinner group is trickier because of a large contingent from the Temple not to mention Buddism, Hinduism, and Pastafarianism. Growing up in NY you kept your options open and took off all the religious holidays. Do you discuss politics or current events, or steer conversations to the football playoffs? Around here people take their football seriously so you are better off sticking to current events and politics. The concensus is that SONY was foolish to make even a stupid movie about a real head of state. Did anyone doubt who Charlie Chaplin was mocking in the Great Dictator? It would seem there were no major faux pas or other breaches of etiquette or protocol. The offending wine was consumed and enjoyed. Pickled Brussel's sprouts by comparison made the ancient pickles sound good. Actually, they were edible, but not actually in the good category, but if enough people come, they each only need make the mistake once to accomplish our goal of consuming them. Many people enjoyed the salmon, and TPP still had some left over for himself. All in all a fine open house.

Hard to know what to say about the torture report so leave it to Tom Tomorrow

The release of the summary of the torture report more or less tells us something most people already knew, so it's hard to know how to respond or comment. Only a real Pollyanna would think the USA doesn't have numerous secret closets filled with dirty-dealing skeletons. The only real surprise was that this report acknowledges as much of the dirty dealings as it does. Even still it won't make a big impression on the "USA is number 1" crowd; us cynics weren't disappointed, again. Everyone pretty much already knows that torture as a interrogation technique doesn't work, and this just reinforces that view. Everyone pretty much knows that the CIA and other spooky sets of initials lie, all the time, they can't help it, they're spooks. And if anyone had any doubt that Darth Cheney is the worst person on Earth, his responses certainly have cleared that up. Mostly TPP felt a great sadness that so many people in this country and in our government operate and promote politics and policies of fear, and that they have been so effective in messing with our national psyche. Tom Tomorrow nails it, and provides us with a grin in the process. Strange when your primary source of hope is cartoonists.

Shamanistic origin of Santa Claus?

Far out, man! In this nifty little article about Amanita muscari, the fly agaric, a spectacular mushroom, they suggest a story that TPP had never heard before. Now any botanist who knows their humanistic botany knows that this mushroom is a well known hallucinogen and toxic enough to scare the pants off this botanist. Yikes, don't try this mushroom at home folks, it could be your last trip. Siberian shamen were known to favor living in groves of birch trees, trees of life in some cultures, and the fly agaric forms symbiotic relationships with the trees' roots. Naturally the mushrooms appear there too, and supposedly shamen gave them out as seasonal gifts, perhaps the winter solstice. First, you have the Santa Claus colors, red caps flecked with white. Then up there in raindeer country, you have "flying" raindeer, perhaps a not uncommon hallucination for people who rely on them for life. And then you have gifts of magic mushrooms. Could these be the very ancient origins of Santa Claus? The Phactors do have a fly agaric tree ornament, and many early Christian churches and manuscripts have drawings of "trees" that look pretty much like this mushroom. Hey, it's a good story!  Sorry, thought there was a nice image in my files, but couldn't find one. Nice image at the link above, and here's a blog where TPP linked to other images of this mushroom just a couple of months ago. Ho, ho, ho!

Biodiversity in the maize and soybean desert

TPP has long joked about living in the maize and soybean desert of the upper midwest. Sadly this does a grave injustice to deserts because even the harshest desert has more biodiversity than our agricultural fields. 200 years ago this was tall grass prairie which has a surprising and substantial biodiversity and this same grassland community built some of the richest soil in the world. Here in Lincolnland the tall grass prairie is all but gone, less than 1% remains, and it was largely displaced by maize, and later soybeans. In a photoessay of the world's biodiversity, David Liittschwager would document all the biodiversity in a one-cubic foot volume found in a day. In a Costa Rican rain forest, 150 different species were found in his one-cubic-foot placed in the canopy of a strangler fig tree. And all over the world he found surprising biodiversity, and it's mostly surprising because humans pay very little attention to the little organisms. But in a maize field here in north central Lincolnland he got quite a different surprise. Sadly, he found nothing, nothing but maize. In our zeal, in our passion, in our desire for maize, our agricultural methods have come as close as possible to creating a complete monoculture. It's no wonder that more wildlife lives in our cities and towns than outside the city limits because out there it's a biological wasteland, except for crops.  This represents nature bent entirely to human will, and again because little attention is paid to this, it's been estimated based on measurements here and there, that half of this marvelous prairie soil is gone, and so is the community that made it. So how smart are humans anyways? Do you need a crystal ball to see what the future may bring?

Hunt them varmints & vermin

Well, good old Bobcat Bill got his bobcat hunting bill (HB4226) through both houses of the Lincolnland legislature without even considering or allowing biological or ecological testimony. Here's a little background on this purely stupid action. Bobcat hunting was banned in Illinois in 1972 after the species became threatened.  Bobcat populations have recovered in several counties - a recent SIU study found significant recovery in 17 counties in Southern Lincolnland, but there is no data to suggest at what level the population can sustain hunting. What is it that motivates some people to want to shoot (or trap) anything they see?  Bobcats are important apex predators (and certainly not unwanted or undesirable as the definition of varmints and vermin suggests) that live on a diet of rodents and small mammals and contribute to an overall healthy ecosystem, and they are not responsible for the loss of quail or turkey as some proponents of this bill suggested. The bill that passed has significant problematic issues.  First, the bill does not limit the areas or set bobcat population standards for counties to restrict hunting; hunting can be allowed in any county in the state. There may be a bobcat in our area, and if so then probably a young male, and this bill would allow our population of 1 to be hunted, and then there would be none. Second, the proposed hunting season overlaps portions of the bobcat breeding season, putting both bobcats with kittens and pregnant bobcats at risk. This is generally at odds with any good hunting practices. Finally, there is no emergency or automatic procedure to close the season if the species becomes threatened again. There has been significant citizen opposition on this bill and it helped to almost defeat the bill in the Senate (passed by one vote). There are other ways to enjoy wildlife than killing it, and it hunting is allowed where the bobcat is more populous, then the species will certainly not recover in other areas of the state. Ask the Governor to veto this bill by going to this link to sign a petition. Probably best to refrain if you're not a resident of this great nearly sterile state (more on this later). Do pass this blog on to other interested parties.

Dirt vs. soil, disease vs. disorder

OK, let's get some things clear, by definition if necessary. So a lot of plant experiments, especially those done in glass houses in pots require a growth medium for the plants. While mixing up a batch for some 240 pots, a security person on rounds came by and said, "So are you mixing up some dirt?"  Our stock answer followed, "No, dirt is something you find under your finger nails and in certain types of books and movies."  "We're mixing up some soil." This does mean that mixing soil can result in dirt under your finger nails. Similarly and widely misused are the terms disease and disorder. A disease is an illness that has a causative organism, a disease organism. A disorder is has a genetic or nutritional basis, but no causative organism is involved. Unfortunately the two terms are thrown around willy-nilly and used as basically interchangeable. So let's be a little more precise out there, people.

Tree tunnel in N. Ireland

Tree tunnels are pretty cool things. TPP pointed you to a photo essay about them once before, and this particular tree tunnel, the Dark Hedges, was included, but only one image. The link provided here will show you several more images of this beech tree tunnel that grows in Northern Ireland. The light gray color of the bark of beech trees is one of the things that makes them so spectacular, but when planted in two long rows, the effect of the trunks and their interlocking crowns is quite impressive, quite handsome.

Bad arboriculture - This isn't going to turn out well

Sadly the first time TPP saw a picture like this was on a bulletin board in a school of forestry and the caption attached said, "Here's what happens when you chain your bike to a tree and come back 10 years later." Of course, trees don't grow that way, and ironically that very week the faculty were debating about reducing the amount of botany forestry students should be required to take. At any rate, this isn't going to turn out well. Straps, chains, cables, or the like simply will not under almost all circumstances help a tree that is prone to splitting. They just aren't strong enough to hold a split trunk in place, and see what is happening? The secondary growth of the tree is in the process of engulfing the chain, incrementally, year by year. This will produce a weak zone in the wood damaging both trunks. Trying to remove the chain may well now rip the bark and cambium producing quite an injury. Why do people do these things? Actually these are pretty vertically oriented trunks and no particular problem was evident that the chain was meant to alleviate. In all likelihood, this preventative measure will cause more real damage and help shorten the longevity of this tree. There are worse things you can do, but this isn't a good practice. And in case you didn't understand, this chain is at exactly the same height off the ground as it was when it was first placed there. 

Birth of a lichen


Lichens are symbiotic organisms consisting of a highly organized fungal mycelium enclosing algal cells. What's strange about lichens is that without the algae, the fungus just looks like a fungus. Without the fungus, the algae is just algae. They only take on the form recognized as a lichen when the two organisms are in that symbiotic association, and of course, the term itself means "living together". This presents some interesting aspects of reproduction. This illustration is from the November 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany.  The sexual reproduction of the lichen is fungal in nature, so to form a new lichen, the fungus must capture a compatible algal cell anew.  This illustration shows this very early stage where fungal hyphae (filaments) have found and encircled an algae cell. The proliferation of the hyphae and the division of the algal cell is a demonstration that the symbiotic interaction, the lichenization, has begun. The accompanying article by William Sanders provides illustrated diagrams of the sexual and asexual reproductive cycles of lichens, all very nicely done.

Christmas present for a cat

All cat people know that the only thing to get a cat for a present is a catnip toy. Here's another of those terribly clever animations of Simon's cat.  It perfectly captures the usual reaction of a cat to a new catnip toy. The animation is a present to us from the cartoonist. Enjoy.

Winter survival supplies - fresh batteries

The Phactors were just sitting around the other evening reading the Sunday papers and assorted other periodicals, and eventually it came to their attention that they were cold. Say what?  Yes, the temperature in the house was several degrees below what is considered comfortable. Sort of reminded TPP of the story about putting a frog in a pot of water and warming it so slowly such that the frog never jumps out and just gets cooked. Might the same thing happen to a couple of senior citizens that are found sitting there with their papers frozen? How come they didn't see why the furnace wasn't coming on?  Naturally this event kicks problem solving activities into high gear, and the first suspect was the battery-powered thermostat, which itself did not seem to be responding. The decision was made to change the 2 AA batteries only to discover that a self-destructing battery was threatening the integrity of the whole thermostat, and leaving you wondering how it could have been working at all?  So, keep some fresh batteries on hand because this is one of those things, one of those times, when fancy programmable thermostats reveal their weakness, they need some juice! 

Neighborhood vandalism

Vandalism just about tops the list of urban dwellers pet peeves, so when a neighbor reports being the target of vandalism, everyone gets concerned. When the vandalism kept occurring they called the cops. Someone was cutting branches off their little newly-planted redbud at night. Sigh. How well TPP knows the repeated and wanton vandalism the neighbors were talking about because you would not believe how many shrubs and small trees have to be fenced in our gardens to protect them from vandalism in the winter. Bunnies. Cute, fuzzy, little vandals. At times it's a toss up about whether squirrels or rabbits are the biggest yard/garden vandals. Still glad it wasn't TPP who had to apologize to the police. Fortunately the predator police, red-tailed hawks and/or red fox, have been keeping the bunny population down a little bit this year. But the fences went up anyways by force of habit. 

Hawaiian shirts making a come back


What?? Hawaiian shirts are making a fashion come back.  When did Hawaiian shirts ever go out of style? Certainly none of the tropical biologists TPP associates with have ever stopped wearing them, and hey, who gets to dictate tropical style if not tropical botanists. It was many years ago now that TPP got to thinking about professional attire, and the basic premise was that neckties were truly stupid, although to be fair, TPP was gifted a couple of Jerry Garcia ties that had pretty cool designs. But things had already gone so far that most of the ties TPP wore were actually intended to parody really stylish ties. One of the great things about being a tenured full professor is that you can do certain things with no repercussions what so ever, and dressing "non-professionally" is one of them. Almost immediately you recognize that your new tropical uniform helped distinguish you from the administrative class, i.e., that guy must be faculty because no administrator has the stuff to dress that way. Students quickly accepted Hawaiian shirts as normal attire. In fact very sharp ones finally figure out that botanical shirts were being worn in a thematic manner to coordinate with lecture and discussion topics. One administrator thought that TPP was not showing students enough respect by dressing so "casually"!  "How does dressing like an undertaker show respect?", one might ask. This story will get filled under good news! Getting decent aloha shirts (the preferred name) is much easier than getting a decent Panama hat.   

What have we learned from the recent spate of incidents of police violence on black victims?

What have we learned from recent spate of incidents of police violence on black victims?  Tom Tomorrow has the answers, at least from one perspective. All of this seems to be symptoms of a much more serious, troubling, and deep-seated problem in our culture, in our country. Did all of our city police departments use training films taken in Selma during the 1960s? And even in a "nice" Midwestern college town minorities are subject to unjustified profiling and harassment at a rate well above that of others. A sharp-dressing, minority colleague who happened to drive a somewhat flashy car told me how often he got stopped by traffic police, 4-5 times a year, and a non-sharp dressing botanist who happens to drive a non-flashy car in the same has never been stopped ever. So it must be the car. Right.

Don't need no stinkin' science

Us residents of Lincolnland are pretty lucky. Yes, there are legislators here that deny science, but there are also legislators in the state senate like Bill McCann who can do science so fast and easy that he should give lessons to us field researchers. It's been a long time since bobcats (Lynx rufus) were common in this state because like other cats it's a top predator and they are always the most vulnerable. So ultimately the bobcat ended up on the endangered species list, but in some areas, the populations have increased so that bobcats are no longer in danger. Of course, no one knows actually because the state DNR wildlifers and university biologists don't have the personnel or funding to monitor and study such populations, to find out how fast or slow the population is growing or declining.  But Senator McCann, well, he can just take a walk in the woods and you know every time he does he sees a bobcat, or 2 or 3, or 4 or 5. Really? Can we see the data? And how wide spread is this burgeoning population of bobcats in the state? The good senator just knows that bobcats now need to be hunted to manage their numbers. Heck, he don't need no stinkin' science, no troublesome data, we'll just make it legal to hunt those suckers. Now of course bobcat is a non-game species, and they need to be managed, to keep their numbers in check, because, well, because they might get a chicken or two somewhere.  So McCann proposes just the most banal form of hunting, shooting something just to shoot something. It probably wouldn't matter if there really was some scientific study because the good senator would just ignore the findings and recommendations anyways, unless the bobcat study said, "Shoot to kill." This is quite the display of ignorance from one of the boom-boom boys.

Why are all baby animals so cute?

One of the great side benefits of having done a lot of field work in Queensland Australia is that TPP has seen a lot of really unusual animals, but none is any more fun or any cuter than the platypus. TPP has observed them many times in several different places. They are apparently fairly common even if less commonly seen. Here's a nice article about the natural history of platypuses, and an image borrowed from the article. Never saw baby platypuses before, but they are sure are cute. 

Well aged specimens

You never know what you'll find when poking around in the deep, dark seldom-visited corners of an herbarium. So TPP keeps getting surprises. So you find a slim folder hidden away beneath a pile of unmounted specimens and out of curiosity you take the folder out for a look see.  The folder contained 5 specimens from the Lamiaceae, the mint family, 2 species of Lamium (deadnettles) and 3 species of Nepeta (cat mints).  OK, not too remarkable really. The specimens were collected in Greece in April '61, some 53 years ago. But the paper looks pretty old and clearly the specimens should be remounted, which fortunately can be done. The collector was Von Heldreich (Theodor), a German naturalist who lived from 1822 until 1902 making these specimens 153 years old actually. One wonders how long they had been at the bottom of that stack and why?  Although hand-written in European script, the labels are legible enough once you work out a letter or two. Who knows? The species names have been entered into the database. They are all new species to our collection, so species folder labels have been printed, and the specimens moved to a new pile, a pile awaiting some volunteer action to remount them on modern acid-free paper. Once this is done they'll be good for another 150 years.  This is one aspect of herbarium curation.

A mystery tree to identify

Let's have some fun!  You readers haven't had a challenge for awhile. Here's a photo, the only photo, that TPP got by email today.  Can I identify this tree?  What other information do we have? Well, it's a tree.  It was photographed in Indiana, which really narrows things down a lot.  And if you notice, there's a garden fence, so it could be an exotic ornamental. Oh, yes, TPP got this one.

Scientific Advent Calendar

Wow!  It's December Oneth!  OK, having survived Thanksgiving and the obscene start to holiday shopping, here's a great little gift brought to our attention by PZ Myers, the Cosmic Genome Science Advent Calendar 2014.  Yep, today you get to open the first little door and inside is little bit of science for your edification and enjoyment. Enjoy.

Wilt proof for winter protection

It's a bit warmer this weekend, so late season garden chores go to the top of the list. This weekend is also when the Phactors traditionally purchase a nice fir tree for holiday decorating. The reason for this is simple; the trees have been harvested and won't get any fresher. While it isn't time to set up the tree inside, the tree is set in a bucket of water in our garage. If the weather accomodates, i.e., it isn't really cold, it gets sprayed with wilt proof. The commerical product is a waxy substance that makes a coating that slows down transpiration, water loss, and with a cut tree, it reduces needle drop, or at least slows it down. TPP has been asked a number of times if it's worth it to spray your broad-leafed evergreen shrubs because wilt proof (the commerical produce isn't spelled this way) is kind of pricy. In theory it works the same way; the coating slows water loss during the winter when it's hard or nearly impossible for plants to replace the water loss, so leaves dry out and die. TPP doesn't know the answer. Here in the upper midwest, broad-leafed evergreen shrubs seem to have a tough time; "winter kill" is pretty common among certain plants, e.g., rhododendrons. Of course, members of the heath family, the Ericaceae, hate our heavy, basic soils, so raising some of them is a fool's errand anyways. But back to the basic question. Is it worth it? If your evergreen shrubs have been doing OK over the winter, then it probably isn't worth it. But if you've been buying replacement shrubs, then it might be worth spraying them as insurance. Probably your best bet is to work on soil improvement so that the shrubs develop a robust root system. TPP will admit that he sprays his broad-leafed evergreen shrubs because they seem to suffer less damage over the winter. This falls short of an enthusiastic endorsement. It does increase the longevity of cut trees by reducing needle fall, but curiously, TPP doesn't know of any tree sellers that offer a spraying as an option (unless it's some hideous flocking). Spraying won't do you any good if you don't also protect your shrubs from hungry bunnies who turn into bark browsers if other food gets hard to come by.

Black Friday - Who is not with the program?

The daily newspaper on Wednesday must have weighed 10 pounds. News-wise it was a fairly scanty day; it was all the advertising inserts. If you live in the USA, and read a daily newspaper, yours was probably similarly fattened. For reasons that remain mysterious to TPP, the friday after Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday for reasons that remain mysterious to TPP, has turned into the biggest shopping day of the year. Part of this is because Christmas is only a month away although it's influence seems to creep into things earlier and earlier every year. Part of this is because almost everyone has Friday off, but since the stock market was open Friday AM, Mrs. Phactor had to woman her office until it closed. What this all means to TPP is big box and mall avoidance like they were handing out free ebola. It was even bad getting petrol for the car! For academics Thanksgiving means now is the headlong rush toward the end of the semester. A week or two (just a week this year) of classes left to cover maybe a third of your syllabus (they are only a promisory document) then final exams followed by reading them all and grading. TPP could just never get into a holiday spirit until all of that was over. And it always took quite a bit of desire to get TPP to go shopping even though he likes getting all the women in his life gifts (the cats are easiest). Mrs. Phactor annoyingly annouced that she was done with holiday shopping! The looks she received were not pretty. Of course in her defense this is a pretty busy time of year in her business and she does a fair amount of volunteer/chaity work as well. Since TPP's academic counterpart has retired, time should be no issue, but decades of habit are hard to change. You can't just listen to Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant one day and switch to Christmas shopping the next. It isn't done in proper circles, but it looks like it is being done on a grand scale by many. 

Produce bus for food deserts

There are places even in small cities where grocery stores
are too far away for walking/biking access. This is especially important when it comes to fresh and sustainable produce. In urban areas with well developed mass transit, there will often be small, strategically placed markets at major transit hubs, but neither of these is common place in the USA. This produce bus idea makes the produce market movable and capable of serving several neighborhoods. Many parts of the world still operate with lots of small markets, many specializing in just one component of groceries: green grocers, butchers, bakers, dairy, but in the USA someone invented the car and then someone else invented the super market, and while it had everything it isn't convenient for in and out shopping, so people had to buy a week's worth of groceries. This then requires much bigger refrigerators and more storage, a whole cascade of inefficiency. So it's fun to see this all devolving change back toward small and local. Friends of ours retired to a Chi-town high rise over looking Lake Michigan, a non-gardeners paradise, and they have a convenience store for dairy, produce, and meat in their building. TPP's own neighborhood has just barely walkable shopping; it takes about 20 min to walk to the "people's" market and about the same to walk to the small business areas on either side of our campus, but those areas are both bereft of real grocery shopping. While TPP does this regularly, few of his neighbors do. While living in Zurich, TPP was quite enamored with small, convenient groceries at tram stops selling food in smaller quantities, e.g., eggs come in cartons of 4, 6, and 8. Beer came in 3 bottle packs. Fresh pastas and sauces were just enough for 2, and so were smaller loaves of bread. In all of this TPP sees some hope. For example, the USA has gone through a beer revolution. There was a time when every city had one or more breweries; our own little city had up to 5, the influence of German immigrants. Then someone invented pasteurizing and bottling for beer, and bigger breweries bought up small breweries, closed them and then distributed their product over that area. And of course the beer was brewed to be all things to all people, so mediocre at best. This continued until there were only 37 breweries left in the whole USA! Now microbreweries have proliferated and more craft beers are consumed than Budweiser, once the number one beer. So smallifying and local is good if a trend.

Squirrel olympic training

The primary training season for the squirrel olympics is underway. The primaryevent is always the same: get into the bird feeder and hog down all bird seed. So far this year the event has mainly involved the long jump and who knows how far the squirrels can be pushed to go. But that's part of the training, to push the athletes to ever higher and longer distances. The event used to involve a lot of pole climbing, but the advent and application of fairly effective baffles has pretty much ended things. Yes, the young ones try it a time or two, and that's it. A change in the garden configuration resulted in a repositioning of a bird feeder on a pole to a position that was further than ever from a large sugar maple tree. It seemed a safe bet because no squirrel had ever jumped that far before. But that was before this year! Please understand that these are fox squirrels, big, husky, handsome, and well-fed. Our gardens are prime fox squirrel habitat and that's why some 12 to 18 of them live here abouts. At any given time you can see 8-10. Well, an olympic aspirant found out that you could jump from higher up in the maple tree and land on the feeder. Others soon copied the example. A cage around the feeder did not deter the squirrels either, finding their way in withint 2 hrs of its construction. So during the weekend's break in the cold weather the bird feeder was moved another 3 feet from the maple tree. Several squirrels were seen sizing up the distance yesterday, but no one was attempting the new jump. But this morning, a squirrel was sitting in the feeder having his breakfast. No official were present so the distance of the jump could not be verified, and as certain as possible without making them all wear numbered shirts, only one squirrel has thus far qualified for the long jump. The training will continue

Great seasonal garden decorations

This little garden just wowed TPP when he noticed that the grasses in the center of this little traffic island had been bundled for the winter, a practice not all that unusual, but then enhanced by some choice additions of greens, and reds, and ribbon.  The over all effect, augmented by a bit of clinging snow, was terrific.  No idea at all who was so creative. Generally this bed is planted and kept by the
campus grounds crew, but they have never done anything like this before, nothing quite so ornamental, and as usual, the budget is always tight. Maybe a demonstration horticulture project by a student?  Technically the island is in a city street, so perhaps the city's crew, but somebody deserves some credit for a job really well done.  The golden brown tops enhanced by some red and white twigs contrast so nicely with the green and red sprigs hanging down.  So simple, yet so effective. Anyone ever seen something like this before?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tea

The best thing about having a glasshouse at your disposal, more or less, is that things are always happening in there plant-wise. The glasshouse plant collection is support of teaching and research, so specimens tend to fall into certain types and one of those categories is plants important by virtue of their importance to humans. Although it isn't very big this little shrub flowers every year although the flower isn't as big or attractive as some of its ornamental relatives. Did you recognize this flower as a Camellia? For a long time, tea was Thea sinensis, just the Latinized name for tea, but modern systematic analysis places Thea smack dab in the middle of the genus Camellia, so now tea is Camellia sinensis, however the family remains Theaceae, based on the genus Thea which is now Camelia.  Not sure about why that name is conserved after the genus has been subsumed into another. At any rate once you know tea is a Camellia, the resemblance is pretty clear. 

Gotta get one of these! Starry, starry bike path

TPP often blogs about bicycles; always liked them. But never before has there been a reason to blog about the bike path.  This is just super duper, although it has been years since TPP road a bike at night, this bike path would change my mind. Isn't this just great! Hopefully you didn't need TPP to point out that this glow-in-the-dark bike path has a design based on Van Gogh's famous painting. It's as iconic as art gets. To heck with bikes, TPP wants this for a pathway through his garden, oh yes, a glow-in-the-dark starry night garden path!  Wow!  This is just way too cool. Now what kind of music to have piped in?
 

Snow snow snow

Western upstate New York is getting some snow, like 77 inches of snow with another foot or two on the way. This is the stuff of lake effect snow storms. These storms pick up moisture as they move across the Great Lakes and then when they reach colder land, it all gets dumped as snow, snow that can fall at the rate of 3 to 5 inches an hour. TPP grew up there and attended college there and personally witnessed a 104" snow fall in 48 hours. Yikes!  What else is there to say. The pictures from the Buffalo region, studies in frozen black and white taken about 60 miles from TPP's childhood home near the shore of Lake Ontario, are familiar reminders of those winter snows, although TPP has not seen that type
of snow for more than 40 years now. TPP has had lake effect snow clog the space between his eyes and his glasses, a real white-out. Lake effect snow sometimes moves in as a wall-like front, one minute no snow is falling, then a few flurries appear, and then a curtain of snow is drawn across the scenery in front of you. TPP got caught about a mile from our campus when one of these snows moved in. Creeping along the road, or where you thought the road was because  nothing was in sight, but it was West Lake Road, so the shore of Lake Ontario was right there to the left, somewhere. And then out of the white a telephone post appeared just feet in front of the center of the hood of the car. Great! To which TPP had to ask, well, does anyone remember if the telephone poles are on the lake side of the road or not?  It seemed important to know. So far out here in the upper Midwest, it's been bitter cold and windy, terrible really, but no snow accumulation of any sort yet. TPP prefers the nostalgia to the real thing.

Retirement project for the garden

Somehow the Phactors managed to accumulate a few hundred green wine bottles all cleaned up nicely. The idea was to commission a glass artist to do something for our garden with all those bottles, but that idea collapsed when the warehouse studio of this young fellow also collapsed. But the bottles remain, and for some why valuable stuff like that begins to annoy Mrs. Phactor, a trait perhaps inherited from her Mother who tossed anything without immediate utility. Not sure how TPP managed to survive those early years. But when it comes to creative recycling one must keep their minds open to possibilities. Something amusing, something fun, and quirky, but without going all Magic Gardens on the estate. So perhaps some type of bottle wall mosaic
defining a garden bed or seating area would be nice, someplace to set your wine glass in between sips. Could this be a retirement project? This might work out if a lot more wine bottles are needed. 

Water, fire, & insects

These are three primary worries of herbarium curators. The collection TPP curates is small, only 50,000 or so specimens.  Some of them date back 200 years, some were collected by famous people, and some are precious records of prior diversity. Basically our herbarium is a teaching facility. Still such collections are irreplaceable so their safety must be insured. Insects have not been a problem for us, and the sealed cases work well. However, the collection is on the first floor of a 4 story building and the infrastructure is crumbling particularly the plumbing. See where this is going? Leaks are quite common, and were even more common, and more noxious, when some chemists lived up stairs. When you turn on the tap in a sink in TPP's lab the water runs brown for quite awhile. Now some of the plumbing is due to be replaced, by necessity, so when maintenance people say there may be some unanticipated leaks while repairs are being made, us herbarium curators sit up and pay attention. Oh, and while fire is a long-shot problem, you have to make certain that water isn't used to put out a fire in the herbarium, and you hope no fire must be put out on the floors above. Water always finds its way down. So during the rest of this week TPP will be fitting some plastic sheeting over the rows of specimen cases to offer some protection should the worst happen. Ironically, while doing this the message arrives telling us that the building will be without water over the Thanksgiving break except maybe for leaks. TPP took some time to show the plumbers what the worry was, and interestingly enough, they were impressed by the age and condition of old specimens, and the size of the collection. The next day a big roll of plastic sheeting arrived.

Far out, man!

Consider TPP's mind blown!  One mighty strange nostalgia trip that came from reading the Chi-town Trib this fine Sunday AM, and that doesn't happen very often. This was a time machine instant trip to 1968 where there were lots of trips you could take, good trips, bad trips, tripping trips. Now to be quite honest, 1968 at a state college in upstate NY was nothing like 1968 in San Francisco. TPP was not a monk, but being in a cultural backwater was probably why he remembers so much of the 60s so clearly. Nothing was more emblematic of the late 60s than Zap Comics, the creation of R. Crumb, who if you don't know is one seriously, cosmically, weird dude, still! You do have to wonder about the creative mind that produces such art, but that was what was so enthralling, that someone could make such art, and as an art minor (oh, yes!) it was fascinating. So what a surprise to see the entire collection of Zap Comics for sale in a boxed set (What's happened to you R.?) for what must be more than 100 times their original price!  These were not the comics of my childhood, and they still are not for anyone that is easily offended. OK, that's not fair. They are sure to offend just about anyone at some level because of R. Crumb's artfully tasteless sense of humor (?) if that's what it's called. Still it was a strange comic for a strange time. 

How to make someone happy

Based on a recent observation, it's pretty simple to make someone really happy - send them cookies.  This morning while waiting for my pusher to prepare my caffeine fix, a couple of foreign students came in with a package from home (the post office is nearby). There was such excitement.  The box wasn't very big, but it was packed with different kinds of cookies, in this particular case Chinese cookies, familiar treats for a student studying a long ways from home. There was pure joy and happiness in that moment. So think about it; send someone some cookies. 

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Native orchids of Indiana

This is pretty great, a real botanizing effort to find and photograph all of the orchids native to Indiana, unless by now they are extinct!  Here's the link to the U-tube slide show complements of the Get Your Botany On! blog (see the side bar).  That's over 11 mins. of orchid pictures; hope you can stand it. One of the first pictures is Calopogon, the grass pink (note: it's neither grass nor a pink) and it looks upside down, but it's actually a right-side up orchid; almost all other orchids are resupinate, i.e., twisted 180 degrees on their flower stalks so that they are upside down. TPP has seen almost all of these, but over many years, and in many places.  Enjoy.    

Cure for winter blues - the tropics

It snowed today, the 13th of November, and rather early for these parts. It technically snowed yesterday too. The novelty of this form of precipitation has worn off already. Saw enough of it growing up in the snow belt of upstate New York to last several lifetimes. One of the great joys, and head aches, of TPP's academic career was developing and instructing a course in rainforest ecology, an out growth of his tropical field research. This year's class is busily getting all their gear packed for their field trip to Costa Rica over Thanksgiving break. While walking to campus in the gently falling snow, TPP was thinking maybe it wouldn't have been such a bad thing to have gone with the class this year.  What the ever-loving-hell is the problem? It's one of the reasons to retire. And yet, here is where TPP is.  Oh, yes, blew all the money on that month long field trip to Tuscany. Nice, but sometimes you just want the tropics. If you readers are curious, or equally desperate, the location from where this image was taken will be disclosed for the right price. You will not regret it. TPP didn't. 

Money, the root of all evil

Here you go, a nice cartoon. Don't know how many of you are familiar with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, but it is often very funny, and very on target, like this one about money. However TPP is a bit skeptical about there being trace amounts of ethics in all human dealings. As evidence a number of Lincolnland politicians are offered.  When TPP first found this cartoon, just the name was hilarious because it reminded him of a childhood where Saturday mornings were spent (wasted - parental translation) watching non-stop cartoons on TV and fighting with sibs about what cartoon to watch.  Of course the primary sponsors of these kids' cartoons were breakfast cereals (remember Quisp and Quake?), and to help fix that memory, Saturday morning was the only time your Mother let you have one of those sugary cereals as a breakfast treat (but we did have to eat in the kitchen).

Disappointing fall color - Persian ironwood

A Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) was installed in our gardens about 14-15 months ago. It was decent sized, nicely shaped, and a reasonable price, so it seemed like a good idea. The tree has established itself in the medium back border of our lily pond, and looks handsome enough. Well, the fall color was pretty good this year, now most of the trees are pretty bare. Now some very cold weather is bearing down on us, so the fall color season will officially be over tonight. The Persian ironwood is still mostly green; only a few leaves are showing any sign of changing. In the same family as witch hazel and Fothergilla, Hamamelidaceae, the Persian ironwood is mostly planted for its fall color, and it's still green! What's up with that? Hard to say. The tree has plenty of flower buds, so it will flower in late winter/very early spring, right along with the witch hazels, but let's just say that in comparison the witch hazels put on quite a flowering display. The flowers are similar, but Persian ironwood lacks a corolla/petals although the anthers are red and a bit conspicuous, but not so much as Fothergilla. The fall has been so mild, perhaps a good hard frost was needed earlier to get things going. The genus is a nice example of an honorific name honoring Johann Jacob Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot, a German naturalist.

Putting the gardens to bed for the winter

Since the leaf elves have come and gone, and some hard freezing temperatures are on their way, only a few more things need to be done to finish up the fall gardening. The fountain pond must be emptied and covered for the winter. The lily pond still needs to be de-leafed by removing the leaf catching net and sucking up the leaves around the margins. Then the filter system and cascade pump will be turned off for the winter and drained. The compressor keeps going. Some beds will need to be mulched with the chopped leaves left by the elves. Some herbs will be harvested for later use, and the parsley will be mulched. Some beds, for example all the rhododendrons still need to be fenced to keep the bun-buns from girdling their stems. Same too with various shrubs here and there; this chore is almost done as many cages are in place simply transferring them from delicious herbaceous perennials to equally delicious shrubs. Such is life with a wildlife friendly property. Some foxes have been seen and the bun-buns seem a bit less frequent, but the spring will start with woodchuck in place that wouldn't cooperate with our relocation plan. Lastly if the weather cooperates because you need a mild day but after when you are pretty sure no more warm days will occur to spray a protective wax coating on broad leaf evergreens to limit winter desiccation, and it you didn't know this before, hear me now, the most damaging aspect of winter is how dry it is. In particular this spray protects rhododendrons and mountain laurels and others of a similar nature. This is one of those practices that TPP wishes he had better data on; it seems to work, but it is a tad expensive, just not nearly as expensive as replacing big old shrubs. As an additional hint, the Phactors usually buy their holiday tree at the end of November when they show up, put them in a bucket of water, and then spray them with the waxy spray to reduce transpiration and needle drop; this certainly works. Remember, those cut trees don't get any fresher. 

A visit from the leaf elves

For those of you who may not know, the Phactors' estate has something like a dozen very large deciduous trees, and this means that our lawns and gardens get buried, deeply, in leaves. Enough leaves that senior citizens don't consider raking them for even a nanosecond. In addition to the raking, dragging heavy tarps loaded with leaves to the curb, when the curb can be 300 feet away, is nothing to be undertaken lightly even though our gardens are both our hobby and exercise program. This is one of those times of year when TPP resents the spandex clad harlequins who jog by, accomplishing nothing but health. So several years ago TPP resorted to renting the Billy Goat, a massive leaf vacuum that sucks up and shreds up to 8 cubic feet of leaves, a not inconsiderable mass to drag away and empty. The problem here is that the recoil starter required a football lineman to repeatedly pull the cord, and with as many leaves as there are, that was a lot of starts. And all that for $80 rental. So, Mrs. Phactor discovered among her clients a fellow who employs leaf elves who visit during the day, when no one is around, and all the leaves disappear! So neat, so clean, and all those leaves piled up so neatly! And elves only cost $50 more than the Billy Goat! OK, you have to leave out some milk and cookies, but that's a small price to pay for not aggravating and old "tennis elbow" injury (no, TPP doesn't play tennis; it was a field trip injury). There was a lot of anticipation because you are never completely sure when the elves may visit. So our excitement is quite genuine. And those clean lawns and gardens, now the envy of the neighborhood, are a terrific gift every year. 

Fall Fungi - Fly Agaric

Here's a link to some nice images of fly agarics (Amanita muscaria). They are a very spectacular mushroom, large, colorful!  TPP's best advice; don't eat them. They are extremely toxic and while hallucinogenic, way too scary for even an adventurous botanist. A mild fall and quite a bit of rain have been very good to the fungi. 

Public domain book illustrations

Here's a huge HT to the Agricultural Biodiversity Blog for  alerting us to the over 14 million images obtained by scanning books in the public domain, books on which the intellectual property rights have expired, a date that varies quite a bit from place to place, generally 70 years after the death of the author in the USA. At any rate, these are available at the Internet Archive but just browsing could take quite awhile. Search the commons on botany or plants and you'll get to see all manner of great old line drawings and illustrations, some of excellent detail and accuracy especially given their age. Here's an Epiphyllum, an orchid cactus, from Paxton's Magazine of Botany (1841); it caught TPP's attention because mine started flowering today, about three weeks after being brought inside for the winter.  

Horrible, terrible, no good, very bad changes - SCOTUS to blame

Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing is as discouraging, as disgusting, as bad as the roll back on voter rights sanctioned by SCOTUS. What the ever loving hell are these black-robed morons thinking?  OK, not all of them, but the majority. Voting rights were hard fought to give minorities and the poor access to the ballot box, and it was not pretty at all. But now all sorts of states are doing everything they can to disenfranchise voters, especially minorities and the poor. So what gives? One party, the GnOPe has rightly concluded that they do not represent a majority, so voter suppression can limit the voter participation improving the chances of their  minority party winning. None of this is a bit surprising, but you think that maybe SCOTUS would protect voter rights.  Their failure to do so provides certain evidence of conservative justices acting on ideology rather protecting rights. This is the worst thing that has happened in the USA in the 5 decades TPP has been paying attention to politics. Expectations for the likes of Scalia and Thomas are pretty low, but until now it seemed as though Roberts might be more principled. But this does show how far this country has not come. Remove the government protections for voter rights, and Jim Crow laws pop right back up again. Sad.

The gods themselves...

OK, so there are parallel universes which may influence our own universe, and yes, quantum effects can register a full 10 point Oh on the weird stuff-a-meter. This news was an instant reminder of Issac Asimov's 1972 scifi novel, The Gods Themselves, which deals with a parallel universe with different physical laws, and an interaction between the two universes which is beneficial to one, but potentially deadly for the other, at least locally. This is a relatively short novel, and a pretty interesting novel to read especially if you are not a fan of scifi. Always amusing when someone's far out imagination turns out to be so close to reality. 

Is it ethical for candidates to lie to the electorate? Is it ethical to lie to pollsters?

Hooweee!  Does TPP ever feel popular!  As the midterm elections approach and the campaign for governor of Lincolnland remains neck and neck, the telephone calls are unrelenting. You keep expecting one of them to say, "I'll go away if you just promise to vote for me."  And that's just the candidates, then there are the pollsters, those hired by the two parties, those hired by the different candidates, and those run by students who are learning about politics (3 just yesterday!). Caller: "We are conducting an independent poll.  Do you know who you are going to vote for?"  TPP: "Yes."  Caller: "Will you share with us your decision?"  TPP: "Yes, but understand that I may lie." Caller: "What?"  TPP: "My answer may or may not be truthful.  Do you want to proceed?"  Caller: "If you don't tell the truth then our poll won't be accurate."  TPP: "Yes, isn't that a shame? Please understand that I have no vested interest in the accuracy of your poll." Caller: "Why would you lie?"  TPP: "The candidates lie to us, so let's call it tit for tat."  Caller: "So you answer will be a lie?"  TPP: "It's not that easy, it only may be a lie."  Caller: "Good bye, sir." TPP: "Have a nice day."  Based on the response, it would appear that not many people tell pollsters that they may lie to them. It only seems fair based upon how many times the candidates have lied to us. To curtail the amount of dishonesty during election campaigning, perhaps this nation needs something like a PolitiFact people's court. To borrow from ice hockey, candidates and their campaigners have to spend time in the penalty box for lying about the other candidate, perhaps a number of days of complete silence. So you tell a half-truth or a misleading statement, maybe you get a 1 day timeout. Your statement is judged to be false, and you get a 3-day time out. And if you makeup a complete whopper, a real pants-on-fire falsehood, you get a week in the penalty box of silence. This gives the cleaner campaign a "power play".  Might that not raise the tone of political discourse?  Of course, having the candidates stand on a piece of paper would raise the political discourse significantly. So, please, no more calls from either of you. A vote will be cast, and maybe for one of you.

How to medicate to have the memory of a 30 year old

TPP worries about having more senior moments, episodes of memory lapses. Of course the darned things, memories, continue to accumulate, so if some one says TPP has the memory of a 30-year-old that would just mean he only has about 45% of the memories he should have now. So it is not completely clear whether this younger memory is a good thing to desire. The memory lapses are mostly quick recall, not the loss of the memory in toto, so this is about access time, and search time is going to increase the bigger the data base. Now here's the good news should you decide to medicate yourself, some of the constituents of cocoa, the base ingredient of chocolate, seem to improve recall memory. This year's cold, windy weather greatly curtailed the trick-or-treating with the result that quite a bit of "memory medicine" was left over in nice single dosage packets. Now if TPP could only remember where it was put? 

Parsnips vs. Turnips

It just happened again. TPP was buying parsnips to make some sausage, lentil, and parsnip soup. The check-out clerk had no idea what the parsnip were and so could not enter the correct reference number. The helpful know-it-all bagger said to the clerk, "You don't know what parsnips are?" And then she adds to me, "They're just like turnips." Amazing. Why do people think this?  Other than having the same basic color, they are nothing at all alike, so obviously the person speaking has never eaten them. Parsnips are much tastier, much sweeter, and a much under appreciated vegetable. Turnips are not a favorite and fall somewhere below kohlrabi on TPP's list of vegetable likes. But why do people think parsnips are like turnips? And nobody ever says, "Yum, turnips."  Is it the -nip thing? A sounds the same, tastes the same kind of association?  Here's TPP's advice on parsnips. Never ever boil and mash them. This is a crime against a nice root vegetable. Peel and slice the parsnips into 1/4 inch thick pieces, cross-wise or length-wise. Par boil for about 8 min. until just tender. Blot dry, and sautĂ© in butter on a griddle until lightly browned and a bit caramelized. Parsnips are quite sweet with a quite unique taste, which is nothing whatever like a turnip. Here's another rule: don't write a blog and try to cook sausage at the same time, you might burn them.

How to run a university - value of the blanket C

Back in the good old days when you enrolled in a common curriculum course at university, you stood about a 60% chance of getting a C more or less for just showing up and sort of trying. About 10% of the class would be grade gunners and receive As; and the 15% who didn't quite make As but out-distanced the Cs would get Bs. The real screw offs and the academically unfortunate would get the Ds (10%) and Fs (5%).  This was called the "blanket C" and it only required faculty to distinguish those students in the upper and lower groups; everyone else just got a C.  You expected it. Grade expectations of parents, employers, and graduate schools were adjusted to the blanket C and anything on the sunny side of 2.0 was looked upon favorably. TPP will not mention his own undergrad GPA which was sort of embarrassing even in the blanket C era. Let's just say he lived up to the low expectations. Now the point here is that jocks were still jocks, but not one objected when the hulking brute sitting behind you in English passed forward a page torn from a spiral notebook with a couple of paragraphs printed on it in pencil, signed Hulkowski- Football in big, bold letters at the top, which you could not help notice as you covered it with your own page and a half typed essay that you slaved over for at least 2 hours.  When the papers were handed back, your own essay would be covered with red marks and emblazoned with a C, as expected, and as expected, Hulko's paper would also have a C at the top, but it had remained pristine and unmarked. Why should either party bother, because you see, it was OK for jocks to get Cs. Well, grade inflation has just shot the hell out of the blanket C, a grade now reserved for the no-shows, or maybe not used at all. As explained by a dean to a colleague who had the audacity to give no-shows Cs at a Carolina university (Luke, Puke, something like that), "We are a selective school; there just aren't any "average" students here."  Even jocks had to get As, and they had to take more courses than just "Coaching winning fill-in-the-sport 101".  This is the reason for the huge uproar at another university also in the Carolinas, which one doesn't really matter because this could have happened at more than two of them because this is just how things are, and it isn't even limited to those states, but if you want a list, check the national rankings in football. When it was just a blanket C, no one got upset, because the jock-student was actually there to turn in and receive the assignment back, but with grade inflation and rising expectations for better preparation of jocks for the major leagues, jocks could no longer bother any more with even the pretense of being a student. You got an A in certain courses just for existing and playing your sport. Those graduates and students who are actually at university to get their 3.8 GPA even though it has now been greatly devalued because everyone else also has a similar GPA get upset when their GPA isn't higher than that of the non-attending athlete, or anyone else for that matter. Alumni from years before who had a 3.8 in the era of blanket Cs (TPP will not mention Mrs. Phactor here, but he could.) are really upset because this practice just tears the lid off of the higher education, except for sports, problem. It means their prestigious institution of higher education has laxer standards and much higher tuition than the local community college. People are upset at finding out the whole system is broke because some careless people got caught, but it opens the door for the next step in this evolution by just making learning optional for big sports "undergrads" who want to play in the minor leagues hoping to grab the brass ring of a major league contract for millions of dollars paid for the 4.2 years of the average pro career and the physical disabilities there after. Then if they don't make it in the pros, and after they blow their life's earnings in 5.3 years, they can reapply to university with a different attitude about learning.   

One more thing to worry about

That's just swell! The universe could end any time, although the odds are rather low really, but still what a thing to stay awake at night worrying about. After figuring out that the universe was expanding, cosmologists wondered if the universe would end in a Big Crunch, sort of a reverse of the Big Bang, or in a Big Chill, expanding outward forever.  Then the discovery, sort of, of Dark Energy suggested that the universe would end in some sort of particle decay, a Big Rip, something that sounded rather like the show at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But no, the universe will end up being gobbled up by an expanding bubble of alien (to this universe?) energy, a Big Gulp. What to do?

Golden rain and fall color

Fall color this year is varied and very good this year, but as always fleeting. The area immediately behind our house is under the canopy of two sugar maple trees, one large and one huge, and the light especially in the late afternoon is just perfused with a completely lovely golden glow. And as a bonus, the weather was warm enough to sit on the patio and enjoy the light with a glass of wine.  But then it started to rain, not water, not cats and dogs, not frogs, but leaves, and it
rained for 3 days burying the entire area with inches of golden orange maple leaves.  Several other species have contributed to the fall color too: yellow - bottle brush buckeyes, orange - sumac, red - dogwoods, pinky orange - black haw, red-orange - black gum, and variously peachy yellow, orange, and red - Japanese maples making bright dabs of color here and there in the gardens.  This one (Acer japonicum 'aconitifolium') is fairly new, but what a beauty, what color.

Very depressing trend - decline of collections based research

The decline in collections-based research at universities has been in decline for some time as hiring decisions attempted to track newer, shinier, more fundable areas of biology. We used to say that collections-based research would only persist in museums and botanical gardens, but obviously that isn't so any longer. This is of course very short sighted, but that is actually the nature of science these days. Legislators no longer understand the need or value of basic research, and it's proven an easy target for their ridicule and criticism. Perhaps this is just another facet of the war on science and higher education in the USA, long an area of our strength. Things do not bode well for the future.

Epic battle of wills

An epic battle of wills is shaping up here in the Phactor household.  Mrs. Phactor purchased a small throw rug to place at the bottom of the stairs leading to our basement. Every time she goes by she says, "Who crumpled up this rug?" And she straightens it. Every time a certain cat goes by, she says, "Who straightened out my play rug?" And she crumples it up to her liking. Some things are just more interesting in 3D than 2D. Note the milk bottle ring, always a favorite cat toy. Thousands of them reside under our refrigerator because they usually have a "lost my playtoy" half-life of about 5 minutes. The other toy is flannel blanket that is loaded with catnip between its two layers, a much loved toy too. So far neither party has missed an opportunity to score, and neither seems to have tired of the game as yet. This contest may go into extra innings. BTW, both players take almost exactly the same amount to time change the preferred setting on the rug, but the cat seems to be having the most fun often turning in a prolonged and conscientious effort. 

17 foods Americans like that furiners find disgusting and much needed commentary


This is one of those mostly stupid www click bait lists, but inquiring minds just had to know.  Here they are in no particular order.

 1. Grits – TPP finds them to be tasteless fodder. To be fair, other cultures have their versions of tasteless fodder too.  So don’t be too quick to point your spatzle/dumpling/yuca stained fingers at grits.  Actually TPP likes yucca better than grits.  

2-3. Velveeta cheese/Cheese Whiz – Both of these were counted separately, but they’re really the same thing, a plasticized facsimile of cheese.  As one comic put it, you can be thankful that Cheese Whiz doesn’t contain either.  Although TPP will admit complicity because Cheese Whiz when melted & combined with a hot tomato salsa makes an OK quick chip dip when you badly need some comfort food. 

4. Supermarket (“Wonder”) bread – Helps build bodies 8 (then 12) ways and comes in the white wrapper with the red, yellow, and blue balloons.  Hmm, a bread that must have been heavily promoted during Saturday morning cartoon shows (along with breakfast cereals ).  Soft, sweetish, spongy, a crust in color only, and you can squeeze it into a dough ball without it crumbling. Some people out grow it, but things are getting better of late and even supermarkets are beginning to have some decent bread.

 5-6. Red licorice (Twizzlers, red rope) – Both of these were counted separately too, but they’re both really the same red, vaguely fruity, chewy, sweet plastic confection.

 7. Pop Tarts – Nothing good can be said about these cardboard confections except they’re fast.  They even make grocery store donuts look good.

 8. Casseroles containing cream of anything soup – The casseroles in question probably contain canned green beans, also disgusting, and are topped with crumbled potato chips.  But really people? You think this disgusting? What about Jello, which did not make the list? Or marshmallows!

9. Breakfast cereal – Most of these are actually Breakfast Sugar if labeling were honest.  Sugar may not be the most common ingredient because fructose, corn syrup, and dextrose weigh in separately.  It’s hard to find a breakfast cereal that isn’t sweetened any more. What ever happened to just plain shredded wheat?  Long live Weet-Bix. This is to make nice with the people who won't like what TPP has to say about their bacon.

 10. Hershey chocolate – Too sweet, too milky, too soft.  Nothing but kid stuff; grow up. Our local purveyor of chocolate puts finely ground dark roast coffee beans in a dark chocolate, a confection that will give you a real buzz. Keep away from children who wouldn't like it anyways.

 11. Snow Cones – Shaved ice and sweet syrup.  OK, but you have probably never had freshly made maple syrup drizzled on snow. Snow & shaved ice with sweetening was the original sorbet. So this confection has a bit of heritage, a bit of legitimacy, especially on a hot day.  But why can’t they have a mango syrup?

12. Root Beer Float – Root beer, birch beer, sarsaparilla are a North American thing, but a good sharp root beer combined with vanilla ice cream, sorry, this isn’t disgusting. Up to this point TPP had no arguments with the list.
13. Beef jerky – TPP has had some good Caribou jerky, but good jerky isn’t what is sold in wrappers in quickie marts.  Pemmican apparently was an invention of native Americans, so people should have some respect.

 14. Corn dogs – Let’s start with the obvious. The basic hot dog in the USA is disgusting, and then you coat it with greasy corn meal, which is not considered edible in most places outside the USA.  Lesson: two wrongs don't make a right.  The Phactors were given about 25 kilos of avocados by  Queensland friends, but holy guacamole, try to find a corn chip.  Here's an iconic bit of Americana to provide some color. It's a hot dog riding a banana?

15. Meat Loaf – These concoctions run a tremendous gamut of edibility and best can be pretty good, but in general meat loaves are sort of like a hamburger roast, something to do with cheap ground meat. But one wonders what kind of restaurant people were in where meat loaf was on the menu?
16.  American bacon – Described as thin, crispy, tough, but it’s also smoky, so it has to be someone from the British Empire who is thinks their uncooked slabs of greasy fat are better.  However TPP has dumped on turkey bacon.

 17. Biscuits and Gravy – The author of the original piece (sorry lost the link) doesn’t even know enough to know that biscuit is singular!  Biscuit and gravy, period.  Now there is nothing disgusting about good, hand-made, fresh biscuit. Foreign guests to our home have always loved the Phactors' buttermilk biscuit. So the gravy is the thing, and it can be bad or good, it depends upon the sausage and how much is used.  Hint for foreign travelers: the quality of biscuit and gravy falls off quickly as you travel north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Anybody who puts baked beans on toast for breakfast has their own burden to bear.  Urp.
Mostly then TPP agrees, but these foods do sell, so someone likes them as appalling as that may be.

Feel free to augment this  list, readers. Or argue if you like. TPP would have put light/lite beer on the list.