Field of Science

Monday, monday

Monday started early when a cat woke TPP to tell him that a thunderstorm was approaching, a fact he would find out himself in another 10 to 15 minutes. She's got good hearing and is a little afraid of thunder. The morning news confirmed that here in Lincolnland politics particularly the state's gerrymandered election districts were not going change because a political hired gun of a legal persuasion managed to convince a judge that the half a million signatures, more than twice the total needed, were invalid so the voter initiative would not be on the ballot. Democracy in action. Yeah, sure. BTW you only need 5000 signatures to become a candidate for governor. And then SCOTUS amazes us with the contorted legal logic they use to empower corporations at the expense of individuals. This after the most buffered branch of the government decides that women entering clinics don't need any spatial protection from the friendly counselors attempting to harass and intimidate them. SCOTUS needs a good dose of their own medicine.  Actually some of the justices just need to get out every year or so and see how people actually live and behave. On the good news front, more rain fell and Costa Rica won at the world cup. Ole mis amigos. Maybe the cat has the right idea; find a quiet place safe from thunder boomers and go back to sleep. 

Garden gnome drone

TPP thinks he's on to something. First, let's assume you have a ceramic garden gnome because you cannot find anything more interesting to put in your garden like a chair. Second, never under estimate how lazy people can be. So the innovative thought here is to make a ceramic garden gnome drone.  The gnome functions as camouflage for the drone. There you are on the patio with a nice cold cocktail, and you want to know how much it rained last night. Fly your drone gnome to the rain gauge to check without ever getting up from your chair. Does the neighbor's clematis look better than yours this year?  Send the drone to check. Oh, even better, equip your gnome drone with a laser, or maybe just a pellet gun, and go hunting bunnies!  OK, there's real sales potential here. Actually maybe the gnome itself can be the weapon. Imagine sending a ceramic planet-busting gnome crashing down upon a bunny, thus taking care of two issues at once, a bunny and a ceramic gnome in a collision of mutual annihilation, like matter and antimatter, presuming the gnome is made of antimatter!  There probably is some kind of ordinance prohibiting antimatter gnome drones. If only there was an ordinance prohibiting ceramic garden gnomes.

Where did June go?

Next week is the 4th of July?  What?  Where did June go?  Dang, guess we've been busy because June just evaporated. Several signs suggest everything but us are on schedule. Had some black raspberries for breakfast; they aren't cultivated, just "tended" in the wildish black raspberry preserve at the rear of our property. Had 2/3s of a garden tomato, the 1st, and it was wonderful, but some tomato-loving critter ate a big chunk out of it. Typical. Having a wildlife friendly yard isn't all its cracked up to be at times. Zucchini, beans, peppers, eggplant are on the way. Usually by mid-June our gardens are in good shape and then the lilies, all sorts, break into flower for the mid-summer. This year there's still a lot of our yearly cleanup to do, and then all the gardens that we usually don't have to do anything to.  Where did all the weeds come from? The Phactors are still planting new things mostly to repair the winter's damage. So work is longer term. Some American hollies had been demonstrating for several years that hollies don't like growing in the upper Midwest; this winter truly convinced them.  TPP bit the bullet and removed them, well, what was left of them today. You know you've done the right thing when the space left looks better than it did with the hollies in place. Four of them were females, and birds loved the berries, especially cedar waxwings, but the male tree totally died so even if the others were growing well, their best feature, the red berries, were going to be absent.  A relocation of a mock orange and a new oak leafed hydrangea should help fix things up.  A ever larger Magnolia salicifolia is encroaching on this garden from the other side of a fence, so not so much space to fill. All this cutting and pulling is real work and TPP has had enough of it for today. Time to cool down, clean up, and blog.  Off to a cocktail party at 5. Later to Hyde Park.

Let's see what unfolds!

Usually we await the opening of flower buds to see how the flower looks, but sometimes, the flower bud itself is pretty attractive. This flower bud is from a plant growing, on its own, just outside an access door to our greenhouse in a gravel bed used to fill in space between some building
electrical equipment and the foundation of the greenhouse, not the most hospitable of places, so yes, the plant is a tad weedy, but no so much so that it isn't used as an ornamental. This particular aestivation (term for how floral parts are arranged in the bud) is called convolute, sort of a pin wheel type overlapping. The bud opens in the early evening and then the flower wilts the next morning.  The flower is white, with some pinkish highlights, trumpet shaped and at least 20 cm long, quite lovely and quite fragrant. This is probably Datura inoxia (nightshade family) (downy leaves, spiny fruit), which is a way more handsome plant than the better known jimson weed. 

A damned big Jack-in-the-pulpit

If you've never seen, or smelled, an Amorphophallus in flower, it's something to see (see if you can figure out the name).  Like all aroids, this isn't a flower, but an inflorescence and a modified leaf, a bract, in the terminology of the family, a spadix and a spathe.  Hundreds of unisexual flowers are hidden from view at the base of the spadix.  This is the titan, the largest such inflorescence in the world at 2+ meters tall.  TPP once had a smaller species bloom in his house, not exactly a planned event, but the basketball sized corm was being overwintered when it flowered.  This smaller species had an inflorescence just a bit over a meter tall and it was raised on a half-meter stalk.  The fragrance produced lures in pollinators, beetles and flies, and it smells like rotting flesh, carrion.  The pollinators use carrion for a brood substrate, which is not provided, so they are cruelly deceived by the plant. Beetles are particularly fun because as the beetles fly in they more or less fly directly into the pylon that is the spadix, and as the fall, the funnel like spathe dumps them down to the bottom where the female flowers are located, ready to be pollinated provided that the beetles have chanced upon another such aroid a bit earlier.  At any rate these are a lot of fun to see, in someone else's greenhouse. Many of these inflorescences also heat up, a mechanism for dispersing more of their attractant odor. Jolly good fun for the whole family.  Aroids aren't the only flowers that use such pollinators (see here, here, and here), aroids are just the most famous.

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

The Phactors pride themselves on having a wild-life friendly yard; it provides lots of cover, water, and food.  This is why so many critters are seen and live on our urban property.  Mrs. Phactor was quite excited to add the great blue heron to her yard life list, but not so happy to see that most of the gold fish living in the lily pond were the price to be paid for the lengthening of her bird list. Yes, with one exception, they were just gold fish, but you do grow attached to them just the same.  Of course TPP grows attached to the plants the bunnies eat too.  So a fish every now and again, no problem, but that was one big, hungry bird.  And thanks to the effective heron discouragement practices of our neighbors (way to go guys!), our big fish were easy pickings. The problem has more or less solved itself as no one, especially a hungry heron, will fish in an empty pond.  But remember this bird, we know where you live 

What is biodynamic wine?

What is biodynamic wine?  A reasonable question, but TPP had never heard of such a thing.  Biodynamic is one of those words that doesn’t mean too much and so is subject to appropriation for jargon. Apparently biodynamic wines have done well in blind taste tests. Some poking around the subject suggests that “biodynamic” agriculture is multi-faceted organic agriculture with a big old dose of mystical, magical woo thrown in for good measure.

Yes, seasons are important for farming but not so the ascension of Aquarius "to balance the vital life forces" of your garden.  Multi-faceted organic agriculture is a good thing, and grapes as a perennial crop seem well suited to be grown with soil-improvement techniques, integrated pest management, and the like.  All well and good, but checking the phase of the moon and the astrological sign to determine when to plant, prune, or harvest?  Go for it, but it won’t make one whit of difference.  Although based on ancient beliefs, celestial events affecting vital energies is pure pseudoscience. So why does the wine taste better?  Soils, and weather, and water and all make lots of differences which is why different vintage wines even from the same grapes in the same vineyard differ in taste year to year, so picking a fair basis for comparison is next to impossible.  The organic techniques may make better tasting wine.  Great!   But here’s my bet, a taste comparison between “biodynamic” wine and “organic” wine treated the same way but minus the woo wouldn’t find a consistent difference. But it requires some careful planning and controls or it doesn't prove a thing.


Osmundastrum? Oh, no, phylogenetic taxonomy has done it to me again!

TPP could not believe it, but there it was, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum, cinnamon fern with a new name!  Dang, it's happened again!  TPP active botanical life has exceeded another taxonomic name. Imagine what Linnaeus would think. As explained in here previously, cinnamon fern is the oldest confirmed species on Earth.  It's fossils demonstrate that cinnamon fern was alive and well growing in Jurassic Park. Pretty amazing. Some of you many know the other two species, royal fern (O. regalis or O. spectabilis - depending if old world or from the Americas) and interrupted fern, O. claytoniana.  The reason for the change is that cinnamon fern is sister group to all of the other members of this fern family, Osmundaceae.  In other words the family is a single lineage and basal branch is cinnamon fern so it has an ancient common ancestry with all of the other ferns in this family, some of which are placed in other genera (e.g., Todea).  Now you have two choices: one, every species in the family becomes a member of the genus Osmunda so there would be only one genus, or two, cinnamon fern gets renamed and you can see what choice was made.  When the specific epithet cinnamomea got switched from Osmunda to Osmundastrum a change in Latin gender required a new ending - thus cinnamomeum, -a to -um. This will be annoying for some time to come.  This may be the taxonomic outcome of such great longevity; everyone is your ancestor.  Maybe it should have been named Methusosmunda. 

Giving weeds no [lamb's] quarter

This has been a great year for certain weeds, weeds that are generally no so much of a problem. Thousands of sugar maple and red bud seedlings are quite usual because when you have huge sugar maple trees and many redbuds, well, that's just what you get.  In the lawns the seedlings just  get mowed, but so much of our yard are gardens woody weeds just have to be pulled or your garden starts becoming a forest, an unwanted succession.  A 3 foot tall redbud "sapling" was found in the raspberry bed, and the weed wrench (greatest tool not being sold any more as a political protest against government intrusion?) managed to pull it from the rain-softened ground 5 foot long root and all!  Hackberry seedlings are also a problem for the same reasons. This year lamb's quarter is everywhere in remarkable numbers as if someone had sprinkled it's seeds everywhere.  No idea how or why such a population boom occurred; it wasn't because we were neglectful last year. Wild lettuce and black nightshade is also pretty common this year too.  Some disturbances upwind may be the source of so many new weeds in such numbers. Pokeweed is pretty common in some areas, and in this case it's because some neighbors think poke a nice plant whose berries are good food for birds. Poke seedlings are clustered under bird perch locations, so they are quite right, and our yard provides lots of lodging while the neighbor's yard provides lots of food whose seed then gets transferred. A lot of work has gotten us to the point of almost being on top of the situation, although you realize you'll just have to do it again next year.

Remembering my high school English teacher

A visit back to upstate New York triggered some nostalgia, and quite by chance TPP stumbled upon one old memory, our high school English teacher.  Wow, was that a long time ago!  This happened because the Phactors had stopped by a bar and grill, a so-called clam shack, that we used to visit every now and again.  The décor hadn't changed much if at all in a long time, and there was a picture of a woman that was an advertisement for Genessee Beer. You probably wouldn't know this unless you were from Rochester, New York, a city bisected by the Genessee River, which further south where it meets the Niagara escarpment forms the "grand canyon" of the east.  At any rate, my high school English teacher was the dark-haired, long-legged model upon which the bar maid "Jenny", the local nickname for the beer, was based. She was quite proud of that as it turned out, and she had already proved to be an excellent teacher by the time her students figured out she had been a model before becoming a teacher. 

What's the Anti-party for?

Tom Tomorrow is also Tom Terrific (Anyone out there old enough to remember that?) when it comes to summing up the way things are here in the USA.  In a few short frames TT shows what the Anti-party is for, or against, and for all these reasons, it's the GnOPe (NOPE - if the G is silent) in TPP's parlance.  What a sad, miserable, and ultimately empty perspective on human nature this cartoon portrays. How is it they get any votes at all?  Oh, there's a lot of sad, miserable, and ultimately empty people out there. 

Slow learners

Some people are just slow learners, or stubborn. In this case some people must learn the hard way about planting certain plants.  TPP has warned you about plume poppies (here also) and bishop's weed, and a hardy bamboo; never plant these plants, period.   In the not quite so terrible category, but you are properly warned anyways, are loosestrifes (Lysimachia).  Presently one shady bed has a sizeable population of L. clethroides, the gooseneck loosestrife. In flower the curving racemes of white flowers are quite handsome, but it takes some effort to keep this population in its place. If would be harder if the area were wetter.  The worst species in our experience is L. punctata, which can really crank out the rhizomes and aggressively colonize an area although the dense spikes of yellow flowers are very handsome, and like the others, it flowers in summer when flowering of other plants is limited. Fortunately, L. congestifolia is not hardy here and must be replanted, but it's a low spreader just like L. nummularia which can even invade lawns. So why or why did the Phactors decide to try yet one more species, L. ciliata, in a semi-shady area near our
pond?  Well, it's flowers are large and pretty of course (image courtesy of Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Creative Commons), and this is a bit of a tough place, but something tells TPP this decision will be regretted. Even as the plants were slipped out of their 4" pots, the rhizomes were ready to go suggesting this is another spreader, although this location won't let it roam too far circumscribed by barriers as it is. Anyone with experience with this species can let us know how big of a mistake we are making, but we'll probably have to learn for ourselves.  In the questionable plant ethics category, our local gardening shop (who called it to TPP's attention) has a variegated variety of creeping Charlie for sale as if anyone would deliberately pay money to plant it!  It was part of a whole shipment, so not deliberately selected. 

New top predator! Reaction mixed!

On several occasions TPP has sought the assistance of top predators, some natural help to control the bunny and squirrel populations, welcoming them to our wildlife friendly estate.  Yesterday and today a new top predator appeared, a great blue heron. This was very exciting because it's the biggest bird ever to visit our property and its a new species for Mrs. Phactor's bird list, and it is a top predator.  But of course it preys upon the wrong wildlife. Fortunately our pond doesn't make the best heron fishing ground because it's too deep, and the neighbors' smaller, shallower pond with many more small gold fish was more attractive, but until a complete fish census has been completed, feelings are mixed about our new visiting top predator. Supposedly a pair of red-tailed hawks have been seen building a nest high atop the lighting towers of a neighboring institution of higher education only 3 blocks away.  Now we talking top predator!

Does "convergent intersectionality" bridge the gulf between science and the humanities?

“When I graduate from Duke University with a liberal-arts degree…, I will never have taken a physics class..., I won’t have studied organic chemistry or … biology.”  “My excuse for my lack of background knowledge is that I am a humanities person. ….It’s actually the design of the intellectual environment of contemporary higher education that makes it difficult for a humanities major to take physics”[.., chemistry, or biology].  Or “vice versa”.

So writes Leslie Niro, a humanties major at Duke, in a column published in the CHE. Ah gee, another humanities major who laments never having had to take a science course (so perhaps her self-designed curriculum, of which she seems proud, leaves something to be desired) but basically what Leslie is really saying is that she isn’t taking science because it’s sounds like science, it's taught like science, and ideally you should learn at least some of it by doing science. It rather sounds like she wants to understand science, if only it weren't science.
Ms. Niro says, “The compartmentalized humanities and sciences have become divorced from each other.”

And when were they married? Not recently, and the divorce occurred because as science developed its methodology for learning it became quite impossible for science to remain in any way similar to the humanities. So unlike Ms. Niro’s contention, compartmentalization did not force a separation between the sciences and the humanities, but the very success of science is because of the difference in its way of learning. First, understand the differences in emphasis. While discussing something with a friend in the classics, TPP dismissed a story about something botanical as “that's only anecdotal”. And he said, what’s wrong with anecdotal? Well, it isn’t very good evidence. And he replied, “It’s the best evidence I have.”  A historian of some note sagely counseled TPP early in his career to come up with a new "theory" and then go find the data to support it, not realizing that doesn't work so well in biology. The sciences and the humanities also are separated because of the scope of study. The humanities study human artifacts, the art, literature, thoughts, and history of ourselves.  The sciences study life, the universe and everything else. And yet the humanities dominate the core curricula of universities.

Ms. Niro says, they are “compartmentalized because the nature of the undergraduate major means that most students in either division of the university don’t often delve into upper-level courses outside their majors.”

Yes, so very true.  It takes a considerable effort to learn enough of the basics to “delve into” the more sophisticated, upper-level courses. And we have pre-requisites to keep unprepared students out of such courses least they drag the courses back down to an intro level.

Ms. Niro says it “feels like I’m missing out on an entirely different perspective. The science [scientific] one.

But here’s the rub, her solution seems to be if only science more like the humanities she wouldn't miss out on this perspective. Ms. Niro doesn’t seem to appreciate that science is hierarchical; certain knowledge is needed to learn the next level. And science is operationally different from the humanities for the most part.  

 “What a college environment should offer is an increased emphasis on convergent intersectionality.”  [Emphasis mine]

Ah, TPP misunderstood her solution.Oh, boy! Convergent intersectionality. Now such things are done between disciplines in biology, and thus are called "interdisciplinary", as she herself illustrates in one of the -ologies, and many biological studies display a convergence between, say, systematics, evolution, and genetics. And some of my colleagues do this with colleagues in math and computer sciences, and even with colleagues in geography. But those are all the kind of sciency stuff avoided by most humanities majors. 

"Imagine an environment where the arts, humanities, and sciences converged. Perhaps an entirely different species of learning would rise." 

Do you think? No. Actually science and the humanities do converge, culturally, historically, philosophically. Generally this hasn’t turned out well for the scientists of those times as the predominate convergence seems to be one of castigating scientists and suppressing scientific study, even though the science was accurate for the time. This is because science attempts to discover the truths of life and the universe without regard for the prevailing cultural view. This still drives some humanities people crazy, and they, knowledge denialists, wish to diminish science to just one more narrative. But the entirely different species of learning that did arise is called science. Melding humanities and science into some sort of hybrid may well yield sterility, as it sometimes does in nature, the inability to do either properly.   

Mr. Niro observes that, "Taking two classes carrying a “natural sciences” code doesn’t mean that by the end of those two classes, I’ll have a deep understanding of anything related to those topics. It’s like being an academic butterfly, fluttering in and out of cognitive psychology or environmental science. ….Breadth does not equate with depth."

Ms. Niro is quite right. Two courses won’t provide a deep understanding of anything particularly in science. But if you think an “intersectional convergence” will provide a deeper understanding, then you really don’t understand what a deep understanding is.  TPP has socialized and worked with smart people his whole life, and most of them, smart as they are, have only a very superficial and mostly wrongish concept of evolution. She is also correct that “breadth does not equate with depth”, and here TPP is quite critical of the modern approach to core curricula that provides only the former and almost never the latter. It took considerable effort and wrangling for TPP to minor in the fine arts while majoring in the sciences. TPP will further contend that MOOCs are not the way to develop any depth either.  In the sciences, that depth only comes from actually getting into the lab or out into the field and doing biology because science isn't just a body of knowledge, it's a process. This seems to be at the crux of what Ms. Niro fails to understand. Without the process it isn't science, and that process, while working well with the natural world, doesn't seem to work at all for the humanities unless you wish to count the use of certain words in Paradise Lost and use the data to challenge Milton's authorship of this poem. 

TPP must disagree with Ms. Niro on another point. In spite of the differences, in spite of the methodological gulf, the sciences and humanities are not pitted against each other except as competitors for limited resources often in a zero-sum game. They are just different intellectual endeavors.  TPP spends some time discussing the humanities component of their education with our biology majors in a senior seminar. Their most common reaction is one of not really caring all that much about the humanities although they often had a particular favorite course – philosophy is the most common. Most of them feel that the humanities wasted their time and they wanted more control over how much or how little of a subject to take [like Ms. Niro], many opting for more depth, less breadth. Most certainly the non-majors taking biology feel much the same way; they simply don’t care very much about the subject. Some part of this is the language of science, the jargon, poses a learning barrier, as do concepts for the 70% of beginning college students who remain concrete thinkers, memorizers rather than conceptualizers. 

Ms. Niro contends that she and her cohorts “are coaxing intersectionality into our compartmentalized intellectual environment.”

Now of course this takes place within the sciences, and between the disciplines within a broad field such as biology. The interfaces with chemistry, geology, and physics are many and sharp boundaries don’t exist, but between biology and history, or biology and literature, or whatever not so much except what you learn by studying the history of science. And yes, they each know different things, and they learn from each other.  Hey, that's being educated! 

Ms. Niro suggests “we must create more opportunities for students from the humanities and the sciences to work together.”
OK, in general TPP agrees with Ms. Niro, but here TPP observes, and this is a massive generalization with notable exceptions, but people in the sciences generally know way more about the humanities and the arts than the humanities or arts people know about science. This is probably because people can and do pursue their interests in history, or art, or literature, on their own. This can be done with science, but not as easily. In science's early days, "amateurs" made many important contributions to various fields, but that hardly happens at all any more. TPP loves art and was good enough at it to minor in art, and the Phactors collect art and support artists, but nothing in all of that has improved my science or taught me a “new way” to do or approach biology, although well-versed biologists do coin concepts using ideas from the humanities, like the "red queen" [reference to Alice in Wonderland] hypothesis in evolution, and the like.

 Here’s Ms. Niro’s thought of the day. “Intersectionality … is the place where English and physics intimately tango and constructively duel simultaneously.

Well, it is hard to express many concepts in science in spoken language, and sometimes ideas are presented by using analogies, but really Ms. Niro? Seriously?  Mutualistic? Good thing you’re in the humanities where such notions can get your blog published.  Notice what’s missing? Examples!  Your data! You did not provide one single example of where some creative people in the humanities and sciences produced an inclusive, collaborative intellectual intersectionality of value.  Conclusion: TPP thinks Ms. Niro knows not enough to envision the reality other than it’s a good sounding bit of jargon. TPP has a colleague who delved deeply enough into poetry to earn a master’s degree in literature.  And then she became a biologist. And when asked why, the thoughtful reply was that compared to studying biology, studying literature, while enjoyable, was really quite a trivial pursuit.  Teasing ideas out of poetry was not as intellectually challenging as finding out how nature works.  And mostly Ms. Niro’s quest for convergent intersectionality is not much of an intellectual pursuit either.

Cryptic coloration? Not hardly!

This is one really gaudy jumping spider.  So often predators are cryptically colored.  Looks like some sort of Mardi Gras costume.  Makes you wonder how it works.  A false face?  Mating plumage for a pint sized peacock? 

Smoke trees

Sorry for the misleading title if there are any stoners out there, but in this instance "smoke" isn't a verb.  Our smoke trees (Cotinus obovatus) usually flower and then produce a hazy purple display for days before we notice.  Many of you are probably familiar with the smoke bush (C. coggygria), a fairly common ornamental shrub of Eurasian origin, but for reasons we have been unable to determine, our yard has 4 smoke trees, and they are native (N. Amer.) members of the anacard family (sumacs).  This time of year they put on quite a display that it tends to go unnoticed because it's up there in the crown of these 30-35 foot trees. Our smoke trees have clearly been there for some decades, and around here they are quite uncommon; ours are the only ones we know of in the area. So they are a puzzle as to how they came to be here. The "smoky" display is produced by the persistent, reddish-purple flower stalks of the much branched, poofty (technical term) inflorescences. Our neighbors have the best view, and that's how it goes. Several other ornamentals plants perform better for neighbors than for us.

Algal architecture

Here is a new concept: algal culturing architecture, real green architecture.  Could your abode grow both your energy and your food (Soylent green?  Chlorophytobits?  Algal patties?).  TPP has his own algal culture chamber, our lily-lotus pond (the banner picture shows one end).  And the better the algae grows the faster the greenish-brown, bio-slime accumulates on the filter pads and they need cleaning.  Although curious, TPP has never put the bio-slime under a microscope, but experience with fish tank filters and their microbial communities suggests it will be a microcosm of wee beasties where unicellular algae are the community's producers, although leaves falling into the pond are probably a significant source of energy. The actual problem is that our pond is too productive (and gets too many leaves), meaning more bio-slime, and more frequent filter cleaning.  Clearly some system integration is needed, and if only so that the filters don't need cleaning so often. TPP is happy to give away the "food". 

Maps in books quiz.

Here you go a nice little Friday quiz via the Guardian.
The quiz shows you 10 maps; you pick the book it's from (multiple guess).  TPP got 8 of 10 right, but Mrs. Phactor hasn't reported in yet and she's dynamite with maps, and she's read way more books too ( "That was a hard quiz.
I just got 5 and two of them were guesses!").  Hmm, TPP must read more books with pictures.  Have fun. Report in.

Student debt. Are universities responsible?

Student Debt Isn’t the Problem. Colleges Are.

We need to make universities responsible for their students’ outcomes. It is egregious that students, parents, and taxpayers are the ones who suffer when colleges don’t do their jobs while the colleges in question are left untouched. We simply can’t let them get away with it anymore.
So says Reihan Salam, a columnist at Slate.

Dear Reihan, respectfully, what a tool you are!  Do you think students are purchasing a degree? What do you think our university is an online degree mill?  At real universities you purchase the opportunity to learn, and while we can lead students to opportunities, we cannot learn it for them. 
You see this is the funny thing; when students do what you ask of them, they get good grades, they learn, and when they do this enough they get a degree.  BUT (notice how big the but is) they don’t always do that.  The list of reasons, some delivered with teary eyes, would fill a book. 
In Salam’s opinion, the college “simply can’t get away with this anymore”, students paying money, going into debt, and then not getting their degree.  This is something colleges "get away with"? You know the students who do accomplish a degree actually don't want us handing them out to just anyone who has paid their money.  Does Salam think the university is mugging students, taking their money, and then locking them out of classrooms?  Not providing them with opportunities?  We have students who think like this, and it’s never their fault.  One guy over the course of two semesters gave me the greatest gamut of excuses ever for a single student, and it turns out he was doing this with other faculty, and when we started checking stories he was caught out, and then summarily thrown out, and Salam thinks it’s the university’s fault he didn't get a degree. Now student debt, the result in public institutions of the withdrawal of public support, sometimes over 2-3 decades, sometimes rather abruptly, is a policy decision done with budgets to shift the fiscal responsibility to the student (and their family).  And politicians can do this without passing a bill saying that they're going to do this, and this even allows the politicians to dun the university for raising costs too. And how is it that taxpayers are suffering since the portion of their taxes going to public education has been reduced from 62% to 18% of the costs over TPP's 35 years in the business here in Lincolnland. So Reihan, our university isn't getting away with anything, if fact when you factor in the loss of state support, and the unfunded mandates the university gets handed, the real costs have risen less than the cost of living, and our salaries are proof of this.  Too bad Reihan doesn't understand how universities work, and he should be responsible for knowing because he chose to write about us.  Hope Slate doesn't let him get away with this anymore.  It's irresponsible.   
Addendum - OK, TPP will cut Salam a bit of slack when it comes to student advisement.  Some of it is poor, admittedly, but even good advice is often ignored, and Salam seems to think students arrive at university knowing what they want, what they are interested in, and what they need. 


TPP hates chiggers; chiggers love him. Hate is a strong emotion, and there are very few things, very few people, that can elicit this emotion. Chiggers make the grade. Now those of you who belong to the PETTM (pet'em - people for the ethical treatment of thrombulicid mites) are just a lost cause as far at TPP is concerned.  An infestation of chiggers is what happens this time of year when you mow the grass, and the ichiest bites are the dozen or so on the insteps of my feet. As a PG (plant gardening) blog, the location of the other primary infestation will not be shown or discussed. It was after all early June, and that's when chiggers appear, that is when the infest-your-body life stage appears.  Turns out tropical Australia has a similar critter that produces "scrub itch". They liked TPP too.  Turns out they like other people even more and at least one biologist seeking plants that produce predatory mite domatia gathered an even bigger population of chiggers than anyone has ever seen before.  His body looked like it was covered with red freckles, that itch. Damn, it was hard to even look at.  So every year it's the same; TPP has to learn an initial lesson.  Turns out Ms. Phactor had forgotten her lessons too.  Wonder about all those neighbors who visited our yard for a picnic?

Ubergeek to dork in a blink

TPP entered his local coffee emporium this morning having ridden his BikeE from home and thus was in need of caffeinated fuel for the rest of the morning. Your position on this bike, while very comfortable, does not allow you to turn around, so you need a rear-view mirror. TPP wears a small rear-view mirror that mounts onto the frame of his glasses (left side). Many people are unfamiliar with such a device, and while waiting for his coffee, another patron, a stylish lady, walked up, looked at my mirror and said, "Wow, someone with Google glasses, right here!"  TPP: Sorry to disappoint, but it's just a rear-view mirror for riding a bike.  Her admiration for my happenin' techiness faded in an instant. What would she think if she knew TPP doesn't even own a cell phone?

Early summer flowering slump

Early June is a quiet time for our gardens; late spring plants are done and real summer-flowering plants just haven't begun. Two weeks ago, festoons of columbine and Mrs. Phactor's iris cheerfully were coloring the garden, and now they are done (time to deadhead the bloody columbine!). This is not now because of our late spring unless the plant died back because of the winter cold.  Right now the deviation from regular flowering dates is less than 2 days. Our last and latest flowering Rhododendron is in flower, but it's usual big display is limited this year to about half a dozen inflorescences. The bay magnolia is in flower; you can smell it as soon as you step out of the back door, an almost intoxicating fragrance. Friends were coming over for a dinner party and it was actually hard to find some nice flowers for a table bouquet.  Finally combined a stalk of a big pink bell flower (C. punctata) with some almost there snowball hydrangea; they look lovely together. First time to try the bellflower in a vase; herbivores have always before eaten it off. All it took were land mines and a deep monster-filled moat to keep the bun-buns away. Waterlilies have started to flower; our pond has 4 varieties, 4 colors. Does it seem TPP complains too much?  Actually, quite a few plants are coming into flower, but in comparison to the profusion of spring it just seems a quite time.  Oh, the lamb's quarter, oxalis, and Asiatic day flower are doing so very well it's depressing. Today the Phactor's are hosting a neighborhood picnic because our gardens are large enough and many of the neighbors seem to enjoy an opportunity to visit once every year or two, and several new families have joined the hood. 

Does a pet share your bed?

A rather shallow study concludes that you get a better nights' sleep if you don't let a pet sleep on your bed.  You must be kidding?  Like it's your decision!  Like it's your bed!  Yes, the kitty-girls do sleep with the Phactors, mostly in the winter, and usually one at a time; most non-sibling cats won't tolerate a second cat on the bed. Tuesday night the cat who is scared of thunder slept with us for comfort as storms rolled through the area.  Last night was very cool, so the cat who likes the warmth of snuggling slept with us. Yes, one of our cats, a big lug of a Maine coon cat used to take up a lion's share of the bed at times and he snored or at least breathed very heavy, and he could push you out of bed too. And one likes to check to see if you are really asleep my poking your nose with her paw.  And you might think that banning such activity would allow you to sleep better, but what planet are you from?  How many times do you think you'd have to throw a cat off the bed only to have them return the second you drift back off to sleep?  Well, cat tossing will keep you busy instead of sleeping.  OK you say, just close the bedroom door.  Sure, if you like sleeping without air flow in an ACed isolation chamber of a bedroom, maybe, but if the Phactors closed their bedroom door, which probably doesn't latch anyways, there would be two cats working very hard, and noisily, trying to open the door, and whining and crying when they can't.  One of our cats is surprisingly persistent and quite confident of her ability to open doors. If pulling doesn't work, try pushing, especially using both front feet.  Jump up and grab the door knob. Pull the door against the jam over and over: bump, bump, bump...  Stand up and use your front paws to scratch at the door vigorously. Try sleeping though some of that. The only thing that TPP can conclude is that this "pets off the bed" advice is from a pet-less nimrod whose knowledge of the real world is so limited that taking their advice on anything is not advised.  Yes, and make sure a soft blanket remains on the foot of the bed because we's likes it there.  Did TPP cover everything?  (A cat is looking over my shoulder, and if this isn't written right, TPP won't be getting a decent night's sleep.)

Making sense of a messy natural world

It's a mess out there!  Or perhaps more accurately, it's complicated out there. Nature involves interactions, and they are so diverse that as a biologist you begin to wonder if you can make any sense of it at all. So two projects are underway to see if some of this messiness can be sorted out. A couple of prairie plants are involved, one being studied by a student and one being studied by TPP and his colleague. In both cases the plants interact with animals in two different ways that together determine the reproductive success of the plant. Both plants require bee pollinators, primarily bumblebees, so plants in a patch sometimes get better pollination by living in proximity to other individuals who help make this a foraging patch that attract more pollinators and provide more pollen to each other. But at the same time, other insects feed on the flower buds, flowers, young fruits, and seeds, and perhaps growing in a patch allows such insects to find you more easily, and that which aids in pollination might be detrimental in terms of loss of flowers, fruits, and seeds. To make matters even more complicated, although not part of this study, our plant is a hemiparasite that requires plant hosts. As you may guess, you expect that perhaps there is an optimal clustering for reproduction, one that provides decent enough pollination but that does not overly expose the plant to the deprivations of other insects, and of course all of this may depend upon weather events and other factors as well. This is why evolution is necessary.  Organisms must be able to adapt to all of this change, this diverse mess of interactions. And if by chance you get any signal at all out of all of the back ground noise, you become quite convince that you have figured out something quite real about how all of this operates. Now multiply all of this by the number of species in the community, and you get some idea about how many interactions are taking place all the time. None of this operates in a clock-work manner, rather out of the whole emerges the appearance of organization. And then you see one more thing, something that you had never noticed before, and you begin to realize that you've just scratched the surface. One of the weevils that feed on the flower buds of this wild indigo are very cryptically colored and it had never occurred to TPP before that it had camouflage coloring. Even a small prairie patch has several lifetimes of things to study. Wait, isn't TPP retired? 

A bit of water relief

Recent rain "events" have simply missed us, so after a pretty good soaking rain almost two weeks ago, we've had virtually none, although people only a few miles away got soaked. In general it takes a minimum of 1/2" of rain a week to keep plants going, and that's well established plants.  New plantings need more, and since our gardens have plenty of new plants, hose-dragging has been a major activity.  A lot of plants are in their growth phase, so now is the time to provide some fertilizer and keep soil moisture at a decent level.  Last night some spotty storms dropped a couple of showers, but only about one quarter of an inch, half of what we needed this week. Of course, rain or the lack thereof also affects our prairie, and two weeks ago we were slopping around in standing water, not the ground looks as dry as a bone. Of course the prairie is still nearly a meter tall in some places, and our plots are getting hard to find. As night time storms roll in, one of the kitty-girls who is scared of thunder usually alerts us to an approaching storm.  Even the water lilies needed some water because the lily pond has to be kept at a certain level to keep the pump and filter system working. Nothing worse than watering your water lilies.