Field of Science

Free speech explained

Free speech is a difficult concept for many people, particularly those people who feel entitled to say anything they please because they are ludicrously rich. Exercising your freedom of speech is not without consequences, and here to explain this fully is a wonderfully direct way is xkcd, a favorite cartoon of this author.

A new Magnolia record!

Two new magnolias, a yellow-flowered butterflies hybrid and an anise magnolia (M. salicifolia) were both in flower for the first time.  The anise magnolia is 10-12 years old but was just a stick when obtained; now it's a substantial small tree and just getting mature. These joined our mainstays of the past few years: a saucer magnolia (M. x soulangiana), a star magnolia (M. stellata), and a tulip-flowered magnolia (M. liliiflora - 'Anne')(pictured).  So a new record - 5 magnolias in flower at the same time!  The anise and star are the earliest, and the butterflies and saucer are the latest, so they are at different stages, but overlapping. Our other magnolias are early summer flowering so this record is likely to stand for awhile, unless TPP buys some more magnolias.  Wonder when that special order will show up? 

Exhausted social butterflies

Near the end of semesters, especially the spring one, all sorts of social events get piled up on one another, and then there's spring stuff too. So Friday night the Phactors were out for pizza with a couple of young couples, and a couple of old couples (oh, we're one of those!), a sort of mixer type of social event, which was quite fun until they dropped our deep dish supreme as it came out of the oven!  The next morning the Phactors paid off the purchasers of a charity auction treating this charitable bunch to brunch after a wildflower walk. You can figure out TPP's part in all of this; funny how similar a taxonomy class field trip and a wildflower walk can be.  It was great weather, great food, and great fun. And you had a choice of Bloody Mary recipes, all well spiced, and with vodka, tequila, or akvavit.  If you have never tried the latter, do so.  That evening was a student awards banquet; great fun but hard to recognize everyone when they're all cleaned up as you never see them. Nice to see all the achievements recognized too. The next morning was a double header where the church president (Mrs. Phactor) was organizing and lobbying and having a congregational meeting to decide about replacing a furnace with geothermal system at an additional cost.  And in addition, TPP was speaking to the congregation about biodiversity and human population.  After that, immediately after that, our long time dinner group was having its spring brunch, and to make that possible at all, the Phactors were cooking yesterday during the afternoon and evening (before and after the banquet); our recipe was smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in filo pastry, a sort of breakfast strudel (most excellent).  And there is always way too much food.  Just 3 hours later, the Phactors went to another awards reception and retirement celebration. Now we are just plain exhausted, both overfed and over indulged in diverse beverages. It was a great weekend, but man, wouldn't want to try and keep up that schedule for very long. Is tomorrow a Monday? We need to rest up!

Simple pleasures - first lettuce of spring

Anytime the Phactors get garden lettuce prior to May it's considered to be a successful start to the gardening season.  It's hard to argue with garden fresh lettuce (and spring onions).  TPP uses big old black plastic pots or planter boxes and a row cover material.  Bibb and romaine lettuces (which come as plantlets), as well as broccoli, grow very well and have no problem with frosty nights. Last night our spring lettuce salad was one of those simple pleasures of life provided by a garden. The narcissi in the vase were another.

Taxonomy class field trip

A late spring always truncates TPP's plant taxonomy class, but what can you do?  Well, today TPP guided his class to a seep spring, a smallish marshy-boggy habitat where in this particular area is one of the few places where marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), which is not a marigold at all, but a rather spectacular member of the buttercup family, grows. This is also the only place to see a skunk cabbage (in flower no less!) within a day's driving range, and while it looks to be in the right place, TPP happens to know that it was planted in this location by a retired biologist!  The class also managed to identify spring beauty, a second species of Dicentra, D. canadensis, (got Dutchman's breeches last week), cutleaf toothwort (which used to be Dentaria, but now is a Cardamine), and a yellow violet (V. pubescens).  On the whole not a too bad field trip, and in particular most of this class is becoming quite good at using their field guide and identifying these spring flowers. Didn't have a camera, so this image is from the Wikimedia Creative Commons - thanks carol.

Spring field work

Well, it's been a late spring, and our field work has finally begun. This sort of sounds silly, but the first job is to actually find our study plots. Yes, they are marked, and yes, we've been using these plots, a long-term study, since 2006, but the markers must be able to survive prairie burnings, so they are metal and not too big. Our numbered tags got well scorched, dirty, and buried in ash, again. At times you can be standing just inches from a tag and not be able to see it. So, the prairie was burned last week, and today we started looking for them.  Burned prairies are dirty, dusty places, but already the green shoots are appearing through the black ash. It's fun to see what else lurked on the prairie that ends up being exposed after a burn.  Hmm, we found the charred "bones" of a meter stick, and the two brass ends were still exactly 1 meter apart.  Hate to think how many of these high tech instruments we've damaged over the years.  The partially melted remains of a fairly nice compass was found still in the middle of one study plot. A couple of small snakes that did not slither fast enough were roasted, so were the eggs of a ground-nesting bird, a big one, goose or duck? Quite a few bones here and there, nice and brightly white. Fortunately a couple of students lent us their young eyes, and we set a  new record in finding all the plots. Wow! What a huge help! It's a good start to the season, but man, TPP was just about black from the elbows to hands, and from the knees down.  

Earth Day 2014

Wow, has it been that long?  Yes, the 1st Earth Day was 44 years ago, a whole academic career ago, and at times you wonder what was accomplished?  What the frack is happening to the Clean Water Act of 1972?  Well, Walt Kelly's Pogo had it right all along. Too many papers, too much field work, and other semester debris piling up too quickly to write much more.  Too depressing to think about many of our pressing issues. 

What's on a cat's mind?

No one really knows, especially what's on this one's mind. Mind? This is an interesting article about people who study animal intelligence, and they say cats are just really, really difficult to work with.  People like to think that dogs are smarter than cats, but in TPP's opinion this is largely because humans and dogs understand each other better.  Communicating with a cat is more like trying to figure out an alien life form. Humans just don't think like cats. Naturally as solitary predators, cats are very self-centered even those that are very friendly and very well socialized. You just get them many of the things they like: warm place to sleep, kibble, etc. Cats are very good at figuring out how to get into and out of tricky places, and this takes some problem solving and evaluation of what you physically can and cannot do. When presented with a problem (how to get out of my yard), they find solutions. Go up onto the back steps, jump to the hand rail and walk along it. Jump to the top beam of the gate and walk across.  Then jump up onto the garage roof.  Jump across the narrow alley between our garage and the neighbor's garage.  From here access the back neighbors fence, and so on.  Retreat and retrace those umpteen steps when caught by startled owner.  Yes, this was a real adventure of the F1's mighty cat, a 26 lb. Maine coon cat. A lot of cat behavior seems very hard-wired, but cats are very careful and aware of their environment and they notice everything, when a piece of furniture is moved, they get upset because this is something that might affect their choice of a nap location.  Dogs don't seem to notice except to avoid bumping into it. Cats are very curious and investigative of their environment, and they find lots of things, for example, lost toys and things they consider to be toys, and they remember where little things were for quite some time, and they remember their "tricks" for quite some time, and both things would make them successful hunters. So this is a very different type of intelligence and humans haven't been smart enough to figure out how to test cats, but doggy tests won't work, and it ain't because they're smarter.

Dehydrated Jack Daniels?

One of my colleagues always used to kid around about having packed dehydrated Jack Daniels for field work. And now someone has invented a powdered alcoholic beverage?  OK, based on what TPP knows about chemistry, you can separate the water and alcohol, but then you still have to carry the same weight to rehydrate it later, and alcohol doesn't dry out; gas, liquid, solid, but not a dry powder. Something doesn't make sense. This powdered alcohol is called Palcohol, and when first this made the news TPP figured the Onion was at it again. Crazy! Can someone explain this and direct us to the dry margaritas?

Gardening the hole day

TPP is bushed, tired, not politically inept. Yes, hole not whole, because that's what he did today; TPP dug holes. That's the bloody trouble with new shrubs, they need holes.  And when you take down 5 or 6 old spruce you end up with an empty space that's at least 65' x 20' to re-landscape, and that's what we be doing.  Let's see a Japanese snowbell, a fancy purple lilac, a Korean pine, a Korean azalea (hmm, is there a trend here?), a June berry, a double-file viburnum, a couple of Korean spicebush viburnums (yes, definitely a trend!), and something, something else?  Oh, a fancy dwarf conifer for the Japanese garden, but that's out back, and a quite nice plum yew was planted there too (Cephalotaxus - look it up!).  Of course lot's of old standard hostas were moved to make room for the new stuff; in our gardens, it's never an easy planting because things must be removed to plant something new.  Anchoring this new front garden is a large Japanese maple, a Crimson Prince who is at least 8' tall with a 3-4" trunk, a fairly big fellow, so the Phactors wisely paid younger, stronger backs to plant that one, and it already looks terrific. This is high impact gardening, a hobby, a life-style, with a built-in exercise program.  Watch for our exercise video out soon.

Walt Disney at Dawson Lake

This poem was written by James McGowan and read at a memorial service in celebration of this life.  In a real coincidence, Mrs. Phactor called the poem to my attention today, the day that the second stanza was observed for real by my taxonomy class out in the field (finally).  Enjoy it. Jim did.

He's grab his sketch book
              go in April, May
              for the Spring flowers--
to make them characters,
his little men and women, boys and girls.
He'll do a film
              where they all sing and dance around--
but he must catch them first:

There's Hepatica,
she's trying on dresses,
              white to pink to blue, deep purple.
O that giddy girl look good in every one.

Spring Beauty laughs; she's everywhere
she owns the uplands, sings soprano
             she'll be the chorus
(alto Blue Bell answers from the creek,
             Wild Ginger, red-faced, croaks the bass).

Jack-in-the-Pulpit needs to loosen up.
Walt's going to match him with
that ditzy blond, the Bellwort.
There with the druggy Toothwort
             they'll cavort.

Some extras: White Trout Lily as a pious bride,
her yellow sis a freckled tomboy farmer's daughter.
Blue-eyed Mary is a peppy prep,
             cheer-leader through and through.
That Dutchman's breeches is a bumpkin oaf,
             comic relief,
Squirrel Corn his steadier brother (lots of heart).

A plot?  Who knows. Old Walt will work it out--
a new Fantasia of Spring
Set in that wholesome heartland,


So here's Hepatica acutiloba in one of her rarer dresses; around here the dress color is usually white to very pale pink. And this year it's too early for any of the other "characters" to have flowered.

Spot the human artifact - on Mars!

Human artifacts are just so easy to distinguish from natural objects.  But still this is kind of cool.  See if you can spot the human artifact in this image of Mars' surface before you enlargen the image. It's just a human thing to do; leave a mark.

Much ado about very little: office art

Our local newspaper sounded the outrage about a relatively minor government official who bought “over $1000 of art” for their office.  Now there are several things wrong here, so let’s look at them in no particular order.  “Over $1000 of art” is obviously meant to enrage the taxpayer that so much of their money was spent on art.  The amount was actually something like $1027, yes, over $1000, but $1000? That’s not a lot of art. The Phactors have several pieces in their living room (well, at least 4) that cost more than $1000 each.  So what are we talking here?  Oh, 5 or 6 framed prints or something like that for just over $1000, so just about nothing. Now the real outrage should be that tax money was spent on cheap-ass, knock-off  pseudo-art that was probably bought to match their sofa.  But that isn’t the most troubling part.  What kind of cultural Philistine thinks art in a public work place is some kind of outrageous waste of tax money even if it is stuff?  This is a university city, so starving artists abound, and buying one nice piece of art from a local artist would be a better expenditure; local economy, quality of life, support the arts, and all that. Apparently if your workplace is a public one, then you should just live with the blank, institutional-pastel walls and be content in your bleak, soul-sucking, gray cubicle.  

Iowan proclaimation calls for prayer and humble repentance

Dear Pastor Grandstand (Branstad or something like that),

Thank you for your invitation to join in thoughtful prayer and humble repentance, but for what exactly?  Yes, your proclamation was for Iowa, but surely it would still count just across the river, or is the God you mention a small one?  Is repentance necessary because Iowa has been wicked? But no, you say our nation has “fallen from her intended purpose”?  Hmm, TPP didn’t even know our nation was female let alone that it had an intended purpose?  What a revelation! And where did this information about our nation come from, pray tell.  Granted, TPP is not a great historical scholar, especially concerning our nation, but somehow there was this idea that our nation’s founding had a great deal to do with religious freedom.  Now this means everyone has the freedom to believe, as long as that belief doesn’t infringe upon the freedoms of others (a concept that gets frequently over looked, and this is only mentioned because, Pastor Grandstand, you seem unaware of this).  You quote some Corinthians thing to support your declaration, but what is this?  Didn't it involve sacrifice of a lot of animals?  It sounds very Biblical, but since many of us are not of the Biblical persuasion, you cannot possibly be proclaiming in direct opposition to one of the basic tenets of our nation.  You must be  concerned that Christians who have no understanding of religious freedoms are trying to stomp all over the religious freedoms of others, a noble cause, but you sure have a daffy way of expressing it, especially as a political leader sworn to uphold our constitution.  So is that the problem?  Our nation’s intended purpose is to follow our constitution, but you call for prayer and Christian repentance because Christians are not giving others their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of religion?  This is very confusing, but no more confusing than having a governor act as though he were the high priest of Iowa.  So, no thanks your Immanence, and we give thanks for the governor we have on this side of the river, who is not a great savior, but at least he understands that part of the constitution.  Next time read it, not 2nd Corinthians.  Sincerely, TPP

Ferns have it made in the shade

Here's a great bit of research just reported by my colleague Emily over at the No seeds, no fruits, no flowers: no problem blog.  Everyone knows that ferns grow well in the deep forest shade, but this is no easy trick because that leaf canopy overhead captures most of the sunlight, especially at the blue end of the spectrum. Ferns have a neochrome pigment that allows them to use both red and blue light more efficiently.  This isn't news in and of itself, but the real news is that the gene for this pigment comes from a hornwort (image by Jason Hollinger, Wikimedia Creative Commons), a little bryophyte that may represent the basal lineage of living land
plants. Ferns are not a direct ancestor of hornworts, and the two lineages would have diverged over 400 million years ago, and the molecular clock would put the date at which ferns acquired these genes at less than 200 million years ago.  How did they do that?  The unsatisfying answer is that we don't know. This transfer of whole genes seems to happen way more commonly than biologists thought and the hypothesized mechanism is called horizontal gene transfer, basically nature's own GMOs.  But no one knows how it happens!  Maybe a virus does it?  This genetic event really allowed ferns to adapt to the understory of gymnosperms and then angiosperms, so it's a big event in fern evolutionary history.  Here's a nice news account of this research from the Economist (link also provided by Emily)((TPP only gets the Economist to read after his wife is done with it at her office, so he's behind.)).  Go ahead compare this science article to whatever news periodical you read.   

Landscaping challenge

One thing leads to another, and the Phactors done one thing, in this instance, removing several old declining spruces, a big old ugly yew, and a rear-view mirror-removing redbud with no other redeeming features (it grew immediately adjacent to the neighbor's driveway). This leaves a 65 foot, south-facing, bed, our eastern front garden without any trees. After so many years of seeking shade-tolerant plants, to be seeking full-sun plants is quite a different challenge. However, with several notable, specimen trees in the background, new trees are not needed, so the front garden will be converted to a flowering shrub border. So the Phactors are shopping. One very exciting find was a Japanese snowbell (an American snowbell is already in a shadier garden) of some size, but the front garden is probably too sunny and dry, but TPP cannot resist and will plant it near our patio. (More good news - the severe cold did not harm our young Pterostyrax, epaulet tree, although a new beauty berry may not have been so lucky.)  The winter also killed a small plum yew, but the locale nursery surprised TPP by having a nice size replacement.  Let's see, naturally a new magnolia will be included. Lilacs are being considered because presently only one small bush and a Korean dwarf are our only plants. TPP would love a giant dogwood, but finding good-sized nursery stock is a problem. So the hunt begins. If you know of something wonderful, do pass along the information.

Bitter greens of spring

TPP appreciates the anonymous tip to this poetic description of spring greens at Salt and Stone Poetry. Although if you considered TPP's comment in the last blog as anything other than saying dandelion greens were the best of a bad lot, then best this author brush up on his writing. You must understand the world of 2, or for most of you, 3 generations back. Over the winter food was canned or winter-stored; cabbage was as close to green and fresh that you got.  My Father would shovel snow and then move straw to dig fresh carrots, parsnips, and salsify from his garden, carefully planted where the snow would drift, more digging, but more insulation. Those were wonderful vegetables in the depth of winter, sweet and full of flavor. And in a day and age when the local grocery did not carry year around strawberries from the southern hemisphere, those first fresh greens of spring were very special and very welcome break in the winter food monotony. It was a different time and the poem's author doesn't understand that deep desire for something fresh and green, even if a bit bitter, something to make that corn cake taste other than a corn cake. This was the world of my grandparents that barely resides in my memory. 

Eat the weeds?

Generally TPP like the articles posted at Treehugger, but not this one on edible weeds so much.  The reasons are the usual ones: dubious advice.  OK here's the list of 9 weeds they recommend: dandelion, purslane, clover, lamb's quarters, plantain, chickweed, mallow, wild amaranth (pigweed), curly dock.  The best of the bunch are very young dandelion leaves, but they are better if you get the more upright growing meadow race rather than the very flat rosette lawn-mower selected race of lawns, but even then arugula and mustard greens are better.  Purslane, lamb's quarters, plantain (Plantago), chickweed, mallow, and pigweed are just sort of Ok you can eat them, but do you really want to?  Nothing much to write home about in this bunch except they are edible.  Curly dock has a lot of oxalic acid, and the article recommends changing the cooking water, and generally when that's required you are far better off getting some nice lightly wilted spinach and ditch the dock.  The picture along with the recommendation for clover shows Trifolium praetense, purple or red clover, but the article does not specify.  This is seldom a lawn weed (grows too tall); the more usual species is T. repens, and it and other species contain cyanogenic glycosides (they generate cyanide when eaten).  So this is just dubious advice without being more specific, and there are "clovers" in other genera too, e.g., Melilotus. At the end of the article, they beg off saying this isn't a field guide, but most of these have to be eaten at a juvenile stage, and most field guides focus on more mature flowering stages. Most amateurs aren't good enough to ID many plants in their juvenile stages. Here's an example from a couple of years ago - you pick out the edible wild carrot.  The images show you the problem, but hey, it might be your last mistake.  So basically TPP is never all that impressed by such advice as "eat the weeds".  Many of our leafy greens did start out as agricultural weeds, but they have been selected for better taste (less toxic) and more succulent tissues. Weeds - why bother?

Friday Fabulous Future Flowers - the blue lawn

The Phactors' blue lawn is almost upon us (which TPP has reported on before); the peak flowering of the thousands of Scilla bulbs that actually form a major component of our lawn in the spring. Dang, if we aren't going to be so busy that it'll be tough to find the time to enjoy the display. All that blue will be a minor pain in a few weeks, but right now all those blue flowers are a cheerful reminder than spring has sprung (and fortunately or unfortunately bunnies don't eat it).  It may be that so much squill exists because bunnies don't eat it. Decades ago someone turned this plant loose upon this property, and they've multiplied a bit. Way back there the yellow is Forsythia in flower. This year our the Forsythia flowers are toast (so this image is from last year) unless some survived below the snow line, but fortunately the dwarf forsythia or white (pinkish) forsythia (Abeliophyllum) is way more hardy.  If you don't have this smallish shrub anywhere in your landscaping (it is shade tolerant too), you really should consider it. And be careful where you plant your squill.

Colbert is dangerous and bad for our country?

If the big, blustering Bully O’Really thinks Stephen Colbert is dangerous for our country, then TPP is more than certain that Colbert is doing exactly the right thing.  In this case, demonstrating through satire the flawed and often simplistic thought that passes for intellectualism among today’s political conservatives. Airbags like O’Really need to be regularly deflated by punching holes in their arguments, by making fun of their pretentious proclamations, and no one is better at that than Colbert who of course bases his comic persona on O’Really, which is why Colbert really gets Bully's goat.  

What a batting average!

.280, a respectable, although not great major league baseball batting average. Oh, but this isn't about baseball, it's about accurate reporting of climate science news on PHLOX News.  Yes, that's right, good old PHLOX News is presenting inaccurate information about climate news over 70% of the time, and just like in baseball that's how many times you strike out.  So, if you're a PHLOX News fan, a regular listener who relies on the PHLOX network for information, then you probably don't know nuttin.  And that's because in the classic neocon tradition, you know your conclusion and you make up "facts" to fit it, and then you call it "news" for the neo-gullible.

Ouch! Things are tough all over, even at Kew.

When people think of botanical gardens, if they know their stuff, they think of Kew. Botanical gardens are not just pretty places, they do lots of what you would generally call conservation biology that are increasingly impossible or incompatible with university botanical science.  It takes no small number of people to run a garden like Kew, knowledgeable people, skilled people, and even still these people do not make salaries that make other people say, "Wow, there's real money in that science stuff!"  In that sense, the staff at Kew are a lot like faculty at university, and clearly their value, the value of Kew and its work are of little value, a low priority, especially when dealing with politicians who have not gotten beyond thinking of gardens as just pretty places (or universities as places for "job training".  Some belt tightening is a continuing fact of our present times, but when faced with a massive budget cut, it's not just fat getting cut. You begin to gut the institution, and it's ability to carry out a science mission, especially when it would mean a 20% cut in staffing.  A similar event took place at a similar institution in Brooklyn, but it was even more drastic a change, the BBG stopped doing science all together and fired its science staff in toto.  A similar personnel cut also took place at the Field Museum of Natural History. Science is pricey, but it isn't a luxury, and unfortunately it isn't at all valued. 

Should you wish, you may sign an online petition in support of funding Kew.

Pave paradise, put up a parking lot

What the bloody hell are they thinking? Please understand, far northern Queensland is one of TPP's favorite places, so why does big money interests continue to try to pave paradise and put up a parking lot?  In an early bout of developmental insanity, moneyed interests ruined Port Douglas.  What was previously a sleepy outpost on the Daintree River, a last bit of civilization on the edge of rainforest and coral reef (one of the few places on Earth where the two meet).  Port Douglas was at the end of a 11 km road. All of the tropical vegetation was bulldozed, resorts and (gad!) golf courses were built, all to attract Japanese tourists, but a transportation glitch (if TPP remembers correctly) left all this new development without tourists, and the Japanese bought it all at bankruptcy sales. Man, in the old days you only needed a sarong and a pair of flip-flops to wander along an unspoiled beach.  TPP cannot bring himself to return. Well, this development idea is even worse. North of Cairns are a series of beach communities, wonderful places to sort of just drop out. The beaches are wonderfully undeveloped, and then mostly small, locally owned businesses.  At any rate, look at this monstrosity, the Aquis project!  A project way out of proportion with far northern Queensland, especially when located near Yorkeys Knob, an otherwise lovely beach community.  And then get this. "A gigantic resort proposed for far north Queensland does not need federal environmental assessment, its backers have argued, even though it includes two casinos, eight accommodation towers, a golf course and a 33-hectare lake filled via a 2.2km pipeline from the Great Barrier Reef."  Yes, that's right!  An environmental impact study isn't needed because something like this project isn't going to have any serious impact on the local environment even though located on an estuary flood plain. Just the construction alone will produce a huge amount of sediment that will wash out to sea. And naturally several thousand guests won't produce any waste water needing treatment. Anyone who has visited Cairns will know that the seaside Esplanade, while lovely, overlooks a mud flat, actually a biologically interesting area, but not a beach, the result of soil loss from sugar cane farming. And sediments always affects the Barrier Reef too, so the developers are showing a total disregard for the environment. Might as well fill in those mangroves and pave the area for parking. So, in this humble opinion, such projects will ruin the unique nature and culture of far northern Queensland, not to mention the environmental damage. TPP is greatly saddened.

Forcing taxonomy

Things are slowly greening up, but my taxonomy class needs more flowering specimens.  So TPP will have to resort to more forcing, that is, bringing nearly in flower specimens into the glasshouse to hurry them along.  And no, not the other kind of forcing where as a colleague of mine used to say, "I'll teach them (fill-in-the-blank) even if I have to tear their heads off and pour it in."  Actually with new learning technologies, microchips can be implanted thus eliminating the necessity of re-attaching the heads. Has anyone ever forced fragrant sumac into flower? No? And who would do so?  Well, we'll see how that goes.  Spicebush looks very close so forcing should work.  Elms are cooperating, but none are close by. Hepatica in my gardens is showing flower buds, but out in nature it'll still be one or two weeks from flowering. Hellebore flowers are opening so that will help. An example of TPP's desperation is checking out dandelions and mustardy weeds on the south sides of buildings to see how the buds are developing. Come on!  Come on! Imagine the thrill to find a star magnolia growing in a protected courtyard that is almost in flower! 

Heron rookery in early spring

The Phactors, other guests, and our country-living hosts all took a pre-dinner nature walk to work up an appetite. The destination was the banks of a nearby river where the great blue herons had returned to their rookery high in a sycamore. For those of you who have never seen a great blue heron please understand that they are a big bird about 1.2-1.4 m tall and 2-4 kg in mass. This shows the top of the tree and less than half of the nests in the rookery. There were 20-30 herons present at the time; it was difficult to get a good count because of comings and goings, and our distance (and somebody didn't bring their spotting scope).  In the summer, the rookery is rather hard to see because of the leaves, but you can hear the birds from some distance especially after the eggs hatch. 

A new record!

Well, anything on the cheerful side is most welcome right now, and last month's blog traffic was a new record totaling over 27,000 page reads, an average of just under 900 pages per day.  Thanks people!  Now this blog is not really the big time, although closing in on a million hits since its inception, but TPP doesn't flog any products, have any ads, take any money or prisoners. It reassures TPP that so many seriously disturbed, desperate, people are out there. ;-)  As always TPP will strive to keep posting interesting things, and maybe when some more spring comes, some new Friday fabulous flowers. So people, make yourself a cocktail (see previous blog), relax, and congratulate yourself for helping a poor fellow's mental health.

TGIF on a dreary week

Today has been a mixed bag, an ending of a semi-miserable week. It's been 40-ish all day, gray, damp, and very windy all day. Today was a research symposium for biology students, and TPP was pleased to see how many students had done research on botanical subjects. Some colleagues still have difficulty believing that a significant segment of our majors like plants. And best of all, the students knew what they were talking about and they all seemed to really like their research.  How great is that?  Other than the semi-depressing chores of dealing with the odds and ends that have accumulated over the past few weeks, todays news was rather depressing, even worse than the latest SCOTUS stupidity.  A neighbor has rather suddenly died, and while a senior, senior citizen, it seemed his death was unexpected and not preceded by any illness.  Wendel was a terrific person, a community activist and leader, and our historic district designation and peace treaty with commercial neighbors were largely his doing, his negotiating skills, & his tenacity. Then a hour later, TPP found out one of his longtime professional colleagues, James Wandersee, had died following a long illness. Jim is most famous for formulating the concept of "plant blindness", a real malady that TPP has struggled against for years.  So this is some blogging therapy aided in this instance by a negroni (gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth 1:1:1 on the rocks), a cheerfully red and pleasantly dry cocktail. Here's to the recently departed: your accomplishments will be long remembered. 

United States of Koch & Adelson - Bought and paid for

You want to see the bill of sale?  Well, just look at the list of donations from "individual donors", citizens in every conservative sense, a for-sale universe where money is speech and corporations are people. So this cartoon, a scene from a multiverse, is for you SCOTUS, and especially its chief. Man, do these justices have screwed up concepts of how a for-and-by-the-people democracy works. 
 HT to Pharyngula.  BTW Scenes from a Multiverse is a seriously funny cartoon.

Springy things

It's about time that some springy things happened. A few clumps of snowdrops are now in flowering. Both early and standard crocus have begun flowering, which sort of belies the "early" concept, and the proof is right there, the bits of yellow petals left from the bunny breakfast. Scilla is also starting to flower, although full flowering will be a bit later when the thousands and thousands of them will turn the lawn blue. This is just great; Scilla is not liked by bunnies so naturally the number around would overwhelm, even satiate, those herbivores if only they liked them. Finally the witch hazel has flowered and the American filbert isn't far behind. The lily pond pump was turned on not so much for the cascade, but for the leaf skimmer to gather up all the leaves that are blowing in. Just like swallows returning to someplace, mallards return to our lily pond every spring. And weirdly enough, the mallards joined the squirrels and bunnies under the bird feeder. Well, it is a bird feeder. 

Paul Ryan. Budget proposal. April 1st?

Oh, those funsters of the GnOPe!  All those cuts to social welfare programs and federal pensions; no one could seriously propose such a thing, so it's an April Fools joke!  Why if it's not, you'd get the idea that the GnOPe doesn't think people need any public assistance ever.  And certainly let's do away with Pell grants so that people who can't afford college will have one less way to better their position.  Why you'd think Ryan Paul (brother/cousin of Rand?) doesn't understand the cost-benefit analysis in terms of what helps the economy. Hint: tax cuts don't return enough to cover their costs, while unemployment benefits and food stamps generate 130% to 170% returns on money spent. Guess that's too many facts that would get in the way of his ideology. 

Khat - more dope stupidity

Khat consists of the leaves and young stems of Catha edulis, a shrub from the horn of Africa, where for centuries, wads of the leaves have been chewed for their stimulating effect. Rather than being elicit, khat is consumed in a socially acceptable manner like coffee is here. A news article from some weeks back from the Chi-town Trib reports that some poor mope was picked up at O'Hare with 90 pounds of khat.  The article uses the following phrases to describe the haul: "illegal African substance" and "leafy drug".  First, let's make things clear. Plants harbor a number of toxic substances, and depending upon the type of chemical and the dosage, they can be stimulants or depressants, poisonous or medically beneficial, pain-killers. Only the last category are narcotic (sleep-inducing) depressants. Khat falls into the stimulant category and is used similarly to how we use coffee and tobacco, except both caffeine and nicotine are more addictive. A local candy maker sells a dark chocolate bark, a source of theobromine (similar to caffeine), filled with ground up coffee beans in it. TPP can say with certainty it will give you a euphoric buzz, as will a really strong cup of coffee. No credible reason exists for khat being considered either dangerous or a drug, but that poor fellow will undoubtedly get a Joliet vacation for his ignorance of stupid laws. Even more amusing was the estimated worth: $12,000. Who wants to buy it so badly as all that? Who will get a promotion for this drug bust?  Khat is dirt cheap in any market in east Africa. Remember your first taste of coffee?  Khat isn't so pleasant; it's a real acquired taste. Remember way back when the USA had some military adventures going on in Somalia? Our armed forces got written warnings about "drug-crazed militias" of war lords, and it was khat they were referring to. A med-evac reservist in one of my classes showed me the communication, and then marveled at the military intelligence involved. At a certain point you wonder what and who is the dope here. What a waste of tax dollars. 

Certified nutritional microscopist

Whaz that?  TPP knows more than a little bit about microscopes, but how do you get certified as a nutritional microscopist?  And by whom are you certified?  The nutritional part was puzzling as well, but apparently practioners of NM can look at your blood and figure out what nutritional changes are needed for you to maintain your health.  Apparently some CNM tend to push the boundaries a bit by diagnosing cancer and blood mould, and if that isn't enough, then they examine the iris of your eyes as opposed to adjusting the iris of their microscope.  A bit of internet investigation, a great deal of common sense, and a knowledge of biology, and an understanding of microscopy is actually way more than you need to know this is pure medical woo. A CNM diagnosis is a purely an imaginary concoction.  How do people fall for this stuff?  Oooo, you can see it on what is probably not much more than a student level microscope with a video camera. P. T. Barnum really knew what he was talking about when it comes to gullibility, but then he was only promoting entertainment.  This reminds TPP of the super high magnification microscopy, without any corresponding increase in resolution (and if that made no sense, then you don't understand microscopy at all) that allowed the "discovery" of orgone biogenesis.