Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Royal Hort Society photographic competition 2013

TPP is surprised people have not been dunning him for the lack of FFF blogs even though it is the off season for flowers.  Really, you people are just too polite, too quiet for your own good.  Well, here's a nice link to images from the UK Royal Horticulture Society's 2013 photographic competition, and yes, it has more than one FFF!  Gardens are so marvelously cheering to see during the winter. TPP's favorite of the images shown here is the view of the Kentwall Hall moat, sans moat monsters.  Last summer the Phactors added a photograph to their art collection that had that same quality to it, almost a still life painting what with the way the light and colors seem.  So enjoy, and don't look at the weather system strung out to the west that is to bring more ice and snow for the whole weekend polished off by more sub-zero weather!  

Lone Star Science

Well, it don't surprise me none that all of the candidates for Lt. Gov. of Texas wants to teach creationism in schools.  This is a special brand of ignorance that doesn't see any difference between what science knows and what they believe, and no matter what, they want their beliefs to be taught as truth  in public schools even though this is only one of many religious truths.  This means that in teaching creationism the state becomes a de facto promoter of the Christian religion, a constitutional no-no.  And no matter what they really think, none of these politicians want to chance any nuanced position no matter how many times creationism has been ruled a purely religious idea. It's not that creationism or its offspring intelligent design are wrong, it's that they are useless.  You can't use them to do science, which also reflects how badly science is being taught, and this is the all important criterion of science: theories must be useful. As my colleague notes: "Evolution isn’t politics, it’s science. And science is a reflection of our attempts to understand how the Universe works. Evolution isn’t a guess, or a cynical move to promote atheism, or whatever feverishly imagined bugaboo flies around in the heads of these four men." Unfortunately such ignorance far from being a deal breaker, this is how you get elected in Texas, and in a number of other states too. It's no wonder that "red states" are leading education in the USA into further decline.

Darn those germy students!

This has been happening for years.  Students go home for the winter break, wallow in the local germs at that location, and then they bring samples of all these different germs back to campus and begin swapping them around creating a new germ pool where everyone lacks immunity to one or more of these cold germs.  Thus just about two weeks after the semester begins TPP gets a cold or the flu. So right on schedule, TPP finds himself and a box of tissue sitting at his laptop in a bath robe.  Since this cold/flu involves a low grade temperature and severe congestion, it probably counts as flu, and adds to an almost perfect record of always getting the flu whenever he's gotten a flu shot.  How totally annoying.  Coincidentally, the university has cancelled classes because of the extreme cold, so no matter what there will be material that will need to be made up. Hard to argue with the closure when one student was found dead of exposure already, although the circumstances remain uncertain. The worst thing is that congested sinuses really ruins the ability to think and concentrate, so it's not like this is a nice break to get a few things done.  Drat.
While watching the TV, my attention was drawn to a commercial where a doctor looking woman was examining some kids and then turns to the camera and says something to the effect I always recommend [brand name] homeopathic cold remedies.  Now either these things are supplements and therefore unregulated or they are remedies. Of course they want it both ways because these are purely bogus remedies but it's pretty safe to recommend them for a "cold" because mostly you get better anyways, so anything at all will work as well. 

Yo-yo weather here in Lincolnland

Here in the upper Midwest long time residents will tell you that if you don't like the current weather just wait a few minutes and it will change.  Today the high temperature will be just above freezing, and it's almost balmy in comparison to the severe cold and wind chills of the previous week.  Now another Arctic front will arrive in a couple of days to repeat this pattern.  This is producing temperature swings of around 30 C.  These cold snaps are not actually unusual or more severe than expected for this  region, however they have been less and less common in the past two decades so now these Arctic fronts seem colder and more severe.  The amount of snowfall has not been all that great, but the extended cold has kept what snow we have gotten on the ground. This resulted in a near assault on our person by anxious squirrels and birds while restocking all of the feeding stations. In addition to feeding the wildlife, it provides wishful cat entertainment.  People this year have taken an inordinate interest in the gold fish that occupy our lily/lotus pond. Naturally, the pond is frozen over, but a compressor is continuing to pump air into the pond so it should not become anaerobic. At a recent gathering of garden devotees, everyone wanted to talk about potential damage to plants.  Well, it's a wait and see game, just like with the fish. Right now the temperature is falling, fast, so the Arctic front is arriving and with it a lot of wind. How nice.

Chase those winter blues shoes!

Ladies, Depressed?  Cold?  Got those mid-winter blues?  Planning a sunny cruise or tropical get away?  Well, if TPP is any judge, here's some garden sandals that will chase away any winter blues and put a smile on your face.  Normally TPP would buy a pair of these for Mrs. Phactor without hesitation except for the factor of 10 rule, which is when splurging on such a gift, the complementary sun dress, jewelry, and hand bag will end up costing him at least 10 times more than the original gift.  Oh, yes, he has data!  At any rate, these sandals by Mohop, an ecofriendly company (kickstart campaign here), are just purely cheerful.  Sorry guys.

Frost cracks in trees

Frost cracking of trees has been in the news because it does become more prevalent in very cold weather, but frost cracks are generally misunderstood, even by "tree experts". When water freezes, it expands, a rare and fortunate quality.  Most solids are denser than their liquid phase, and if this were true for water, ice wouldn't float and the other consequences are quite horrifying (read about Ice 9 in Vonnegut's novel the Cat's Cradle).  So when the water in sapwood freezes and expands it can exert enough force to forcibly crack a tree vertically, often with a loud, sharp retort.  However the ultimate cause of the crack, often determining whether the wood of a tree will or will not crack, is a prior injury to the bark and vascular cambium that often could have occurred years if not decades before. The wound healing that follows such an injury to a tree produces a radially aligned weak zone in the wood, one that extends vertically far beyond the original injury.  TPP knows this because in a former research life he spent a couple of years dissecting damaged trees under the guidance of Alex Shigo, a renown tree pathologist (his publications on trees for general consumption can be bought here).  All frost cracked trees showed evidence of prior injury, and in urban settings the most common cause of injury is lawn mowers.  Pay attention to your trees people; whacking them with your darned lawn mower isn't a good thing, nor is lawn for that matter.  Such injuries greatly limit the life span of your trees. Once frost cracked, the crack may heal over at their surface, but internally the crack remains, and it weakens the tree especially with regards to twisting forces from the wind.  So the number of trees cracking in very cold weather only makes evident the number of trees with prior wounds.  On our campus before they started putting mulch around the base of new plantings, nearly 100% of the trees were basally damaged by lawn mowing.  It is doubtful that cracks mainly occur on the SW side of trees as the wounds are more randomly placed, but real data is lacking and to say it generally occurs on one side of trees is nothing more than a tree fable. 

Tropical interlude

Yesterday was cold, today is colder, and tomorrow will be bitter cold; enough already.  Unfortunately as TPP ages, he finds he's more sensitive, or less tolerant, of cold than he used to be, even for a tropical botanist.  The best therapy is a visit to our glasshouse to breath in humid air and smell organic smells. It is very comforting, and there are two nicely placed "lawn" chairs for just the purpose of tropical therapy. 
This episode of very cold weather, the 2nd this month, may help people understand that this is winter, and it's when fronts push down from Saskatchewan in the great white north bringing in that imported Arctic weather, and while the last such front pushed down strongly and deeply, the so-called polar vortex, this event is not unusual nor atypical, but a regular, cyclical event here in the mid-continent.  As a consequence, the only relief that can be offered is to cheerfully attempt to improve your attitude with a nice, idyllic tropical scene from southern hemisphere so you will know that it looks exactly like this right now.  Note the crowds of snow-birds, the commercialized over-development, the evidences of modern e-connected life.  Oh, yes!  See how much easier it is to deal with the cold now!  Hmmm.  There must be a research project that needs doing there right now.  Turn off the internet and pack the field gear! 

Cold and plant hardiness

It's been cold, seriously cold, and while restating the obvious, it perhaps prompted a reader to ask about the effect of extreme wind chills upon plants.  OK, this is an easy one; wind chill doesn't affect plants.  Only the absolute temperature matters, not how the wind makes the cold feel to us and other animals. Recently our absolute temperature hit -17 F (-27 C), and this is very near the rock bottom hardiness for zone 5 plants. In TPP's 35 years here in northern Lincolnland, the coldest it has been is -19 F. This is the absolute limit for freezing-avoiders, a topic discussed before. Until spring you really don't know what damage has been done to what plants.  Some tender woody plants will die back, and many will sprout from the base, so be patient before cutting things back.  Our Vitex (chaste tree) will certainly be in this category.  Over the past couple of years all of it survived the winters and it had gotten 2.5+ m tall.  My Mother, a native southerner, had a pet mimosa tree in upstate New York that survived because it was planted where the ample snow fall always drifted providing it with insulation.  Granted the mimosa never grew much taller than 4 feet, but she like it anyways and in bloom it often stopped traffic.  So snow cover makes a big difference, as does mulching.  This year the deep cold came with snow, so low growing things and herbaceous perennials will probably be largely undamaged.  In a few cases TPP is worried because either he or the nurserymen were cheating by planting marginally hardy plants (TPP) or over stating the hardiness of some plants (a lot of plants labelled zone 5 on nursery tags are not so rated anywhere else).  OK, so you gamble.  But it will be another 4 months before the data can be collected about what was damaged and what was not.  Another problem associated with this is that winter kill is more often about dehydration, especially of evergreens, both conifers and other types, than it is about cold.  If you stopped watering newly planted evergreens when the weather got cooler, and drier, then you put them at risk.  Again, mulching helps greatly.  Now stay tuned because next TPP will explain about frost cracks in trees and why it happens and why it doesn't.

MLK Day - Monday

It's a strange, quiet Monday what with classes cancelled for MLK Day.  This has always struck TPP as a strange thing to do, cancel classes, when what you want is for students to learn something.  It doesn't make sense.  As a result, classroom buildings are silent as a tomb, although graduate students are putting the time to good use and are in the labs.  Faculty are working on projects (a presentation on unusual ornamental gymnosperms) and trying to stay ahead of their classes for another week (specimens for laboratory study). Darwin Day (Feb 12) is coming up, but we won't be cancelling classes for that.  It would be good if every one's classes did a bit on Darwin, if for no other reason, to get a rise out of that segment of the student body that doesn't do, or like, or understand science.  Even among our biology majors there are some creationists, sort of stealthy they are, having been primed to stay quiet and get those teaching certificates so then they can get teaching jobs and present the real truth, devoid of all evidence.  At any rate, it'll be time to decide what kind of cake to get for Charles, and how to decorate it. Last year it was the route of the HMS Beagle. The lesson is easy, if you want students to pay attention to MLK, and what he did, get them cake.  

Governor is a misunderstood environmentalist not a political trickster

The governor of Joysey, Crisp Crusty, or something like that, has been in the news a lot lately for political dirty tricks.  However, the governor's actions were clearly misunderstood.  Closing lanes on the GW Bridge to create traffic jams had the primary purpose of convincing people to abandon commuting by car and as a consequence, encouraging people to use mass transportation. Yes, nothing like a daily traffic jam of an hour or so to make public transport an attractive alternative.  Crisp Crusty should be thanked and praised for his selfless, bully efforts to promote public transportation.  Negative reinforcement is like using onerous taxation to curb cigarette smoking, but modesty prevented the governor from making this environmental claim, and now people have leaped to an unfortunate conclusion that it was somehow about politics. Boy, how cynical people have become.

Gifts that send a message

Our post-Christmas travels provided limited opportunities for blogging.  Here's a couple of gifts lovingly presented to TPP and he wonders what the gifters were suggesting?  Clearly there is a connection between TPP and botany; he is a botanist. But then there's the insinuation that he enjoys a nip from time to time, and TPP represents that. For a moment TPP considered telling you that this was Amy Stewart's gold edition of the Drunken Botanist, where each book comes not only signed, but with a bottle of Botanist gin hand delivered to your door with a couple of martini glasses.  Yes, yes, you are welcome, and please, steal this idea; TPP is mildly surprised Amy didn't think of this herself. Presently TPP cannot tell you much about the book because he isn't quite done with the introduction yet, but it has a handsome jacket, and surely it will be as interesting as was Wicked Plants. The gin however has been sampled, and while not a gin connoisseur, this is a very silky and smooth product with a complex herbal nose, clearly the product of many "plants that create the world's great drinks" rather than the sharp, biting notes of juniper you usually associate with gin.  It may prove to be the case that non-gin drinkers may like this gin better than gin drinkers who love a very different product.  Do tell us what you think in this regard.

Back in the saddle again

The "spring" semester has started, last Monday to be precise.  Let's be honest for a moment; this is actually the "winter" semester.  Eight of the 15 weeks are before mid-March when the first hints of spring begin to appear.  It's tough to teach plant based courses, especially those that use native plants, on this academic calendar.  No one seems to care if they make life hard for us. Fortunately the glasshouse will provide quite a few specimens, and at least at the beginning, students take quite awhile to figure out what they have. In advanced botany classes, your students are dedicated and interested, so that's a big plus. It's plant taxonomy and plant ID, so TPP will try to impress upon them all the positive things about Latin and scientific names, and how familiar they actually are (Petunia, Asparagus, etc.).  Of course getting them to approximate a correct pronunciation is difficult after all what do you think when you read Julius Caesar?  YOO-lee-us CHAY-sar, or YOO-lee-us KAY-sar, or JOO-lee-us SEE-zer?  If you get that one, try Clematis. Everyone needs a challenge.  What a coincidence!  Just as this was typed, the young fellow in the next office just stopped in to borrow a Latin dictionary, but TPP only has one for botanical Latin, and my colleague is an entomologist.  Close enough. My colleague is quite an active taxonomist although he retired at least 25 years ago. Such an inspiration.

Rare plant theft at Kew

Now this really pisses TPP off.  Plant theft in general is annoying, but when the plant is rare to the point of being extinct in the wild, and it's hard to grow to boot, and it may occupy a critical place in flowering plant evolution, then it's worth drinking a few pints while deciding if any imaginable punishment is sufficient.  And then to add insult to injury, you have the "so what" attitude of a member of Parliment who could intellectually qualify as a member of our GnOPe.  It happens everywhere whether it's cycads (Fairchild Gardens) or Wollemia pines that must be grown "jailed" in cages to prevent theft (Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney) or just coffee trees in a university glasshouse (stolen in frigid weather and just as quickly frozen to death). In this case the plant is a waterlily that only grows at the margins of hot springs.  This demonstrates one of the critical roles of botanical gardens around the world.  And this waterlily is so cute, at least to plant people!  But as we all know fuzzy, furry, feathery cute animals get all the conservation attention.  HT to AoB Blog. 

Flat Earthers & debating creationists

Here's a link to a nice little historical video about flat-earthers of the 1800s and attempts to rationally, scientifically demonstrate that the Earth was a globe.  Part of this episode involved Alfred Russel Wallace, he of natural selection fame (or not, if you've never heard of him), and an simple, but elegant demonstration of the Earth's curvature.  Using a straight, "flat" canal, Wallace put poles on bridges each measured to a precise height above the water.  Then backing off to the next bridge, he set up a telescope at the same height, leveled it, and observed the poles. Although all were the same height above the water, the top of each successively more distant pole was below the top of the previous pole, as predicted, and the only conclusion that could be reached is that the "flat" canal was on a curved surface.  Of course it's the only conclusion a rational person could reach, and Wallace's demonstration settled nothing and led to Wallace's severe harrassment by his adversary.  The video concludes that there is nothing to be gained by debating or trying to reason or demonstrate science to people dedicated to creationism either.  It's a nice video.
HT to Aron Ra.

The Heartland Institute - helping teachers get climate change "right"!

A nice booklet was mailed to TPP; it's titled Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science.  As a member of a number of conservation and scientific groups with major outreach functions, the booklet did not seem out of place until a careful look revealed that this was a publication from the Heartland Institute, a bought-and-paid-for science denial factory.  Teachers are urged to read this document and use it's facts and conclusions in their teaching.  The report was conducted by the “Nongovernmental International Panel of Climate Change” (NIPCC). Both the appearance of the report, it's title, and it's source acronym are intended to look and sound just like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and it's report on climate change Climate Change 2013: The physical science basis. This is a typical Heartland ruse to fool the unwary. Spoiler alert: the NIPCC doesn't find any evidence to suggest human activities have anything to do with climate change. And there's no evidence that smoking harms you or negatively affects your health either.  Yes, it's that Heartland Institute.  And the NIPCC report is replete with sciency citations and references, and authors with impressive sounding titles, foremost this and that.  A few years ago TPP let a graduate seminar dissect one of these type of reports, and they are all done the same way.  Data, facts, and conclusions are taken out of context, or cited selectively, i.e., only counting the ones that support their position, and ignoring those that don't agree with your position. Some of the original reports actually reached diametrically opposite conclusions to what they were cited to support.  The authors, rather than being real academics, were hired guns.  In other words, it was scientifically dishonest, from front to back. It's hard to argue policy; it's easier to pretend the science supporting climate change is uncertain, iffy, or politically motivated and this is the Heartland Institutes stock and trade.  And here's the biggest laugh; the NIPCC report starts by stating it was conducted under no political pressure.  That's actually true because the report was paid for by corporations that think science, real science, might result in policies that they won't like, like cleaning up their CO2 pollution. A recent study found that the majority of all the CO2 of human origins could be traced to just 90 corporations, and if they really were people they might have a conscience or a worry about what they are doing to all of us. And you can bet the money that paid for the NIPCC report came from among those 90. If you want to read more here's a link to the National Center for Science Education and their article on this report.  So maybe TPP will use their report for teaching, but he bets his students will figure out the ruse, again.

E-assist city bicycle

TPP continues to be impressed by the continual innovation being shown by bicycle builders to make bicycling in urban situations accessible to more people.  Here's the aptly named Faraday (look him up if you don't know the name) electrical assisting city bicycle.  The way this works is that pedaling or coasting charges batteries housed in the frame, and when you get to an upgrade the bicycle senses the additional resistance and the motor generates an assist.  It's also built sturdy and with a nice front carry rack.  Well, for some reason images don't want to load into Blogger so you'll have to look at the images via the link. It's also interesting to see that the traditional bicycle chain has been replaced by a drive belt.  And on the whole, the Faraday looks so much like a traditional bicycle that most people would never notice the difference.

Pepper sex? You must be kidding.

TPP just got this image by email, and if this is the way 2014 is going to go, it'll be a long year. 
Flip the bell peppers over to check their gender. The ones with four bumps are female and those with three bumps are male. The female peppers are full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw and the males are better for cooking.
OK, there's the message that accompanied this image.  What a crock!  Fundamentally peppers, like most members of the nightshade family have 2 carpels (modified leaves) composing their pistil; those shown have 3 and 4 carpels because we've selected for bigger peppers so there are more units composing the fruits.  They can even have 5 sometimes.  Most of your smaller peppers have the standard two carpels.  The 4-lobed fruit will have one more placental ridge bearing seeds, but on average for the variety, in every other way they will be the same.  This is where a sample size of two, combined with someone who doesn't know any botany, led to a completely ridiculous assertion.  Fruits are part of the asexual phase of the plant life cycle so there are no sexes among fruit, and while the fruit are what develops from the floral "gynoecium", from the "ovary", there are no sexes here either, just popular, traditional, and very wrong names for flower parts.  Plant sex actually occurs at a different level, although people commonly refer to flower sex.  Pollen grains are dwarf males and way down inside the pistil, inside the "ovules" (actually megasporangia), the megaspore will develop into a very dwarf female.  So fruit sex is just pure bull.  No idea of the source, and it really doesn't matter.  A lot of crap floats around on the web, and at least this is harmless bogus information.  Surprised they could count that high. 

How's your weather? Or, don't move that snow drift; it may be my car.

Well, today was another day of terrible weather here in Switzerland.  It was sunny, about 10 C, and we toured a botanical garden to see what spring flowers might be open (bear paw hellebores, hardy cyclamens, snowdrops, forsythia, Iris japonica).  You do understand that TPP is being sympathetic about the severe winter weather gripping the eastern half of the USA (Yes, the Great White North has this weather too, but then this weather is their number one export!).  Why here in Zurich the weather is so severe that only cafes with outside tables on their south side were full of people.  However, the Phactors expect payback.  If all goes well, and that's asking a lot for international air travel these days, especially when the itinerary includes a flight change in Heathrow, we shall be back to Chi-town tomorrow afternoon, and somewhere out in remote parking lot WX, near location pole QQV489, sits a not very large snow drift, and inside is our white Subaru. So if anyone is around those parking coordinates, stop by and help us dig it out! There's some cheese in it for you.

A very Swiss day

Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the accompanying image could possibly exist in Lincolnland.  Yes, there's a big lake, a great lake in fact, but it isn't this cute, nor is the city next to it in any way, shape, or form cute.  Ah, Luzern (Lucerne, if your prefer) is definitely cute, and old, hugging the shore of it's picturesque lake with all kinds of neat architecture and covered bridges and the like, and then there's the back drop of the snow-covered Alps.  Although it is a ways off, the most prominent peak to the left looks like the Eiger. This is of course what us great plains people travel for: mountains, lakes, and beaches (and for TPP - rainforest), just they don't all come altogether, but anytime you get two out of four, well, that's special.  So this was just great, in fact it was just so damned inspiring the Phactors bought a bunch of Swiss alpine cheeses in addition to the ones eaten for a
lunch and washed down with Swiss wine and beer. Luzern is about 1400 feet above sea level and some of those peaks are 12000 or more feet tall so no wonder they look so big. No trips are planned for way up in the mountains, and climbing to the city wall was quite strenuous enough for any intrepid flat-land hiker who needed some sustenance. This was as good as a day of tourist travel can get and the F1 who had to leave for home on Saturday is still stuck in a motel near the Dallas airport.  How lucky is that?  Some people just know how to travel; some don't.

Coffee & wine bars - too cultured for the USA?

Zurich is littered with coffee and wine bars.  Most of them are pretty small, quite intimate, with little tables and a couple of lithe young women in tight black jeans and white blouses waiting tables.  When your feet get tired of the coble stones, or going through one of the best collections of European art, you find an inviting looking place, and sit for a spell while sipping a coffee, wine, or beer.  You don't pay when you are served.  The wait staff doesn't bug you about paying or ordering more until you are more or less ready, and sometimes not even then.  Of course, anything this civilized
is quite rare in the USA where somehow such an activity is still considered a sinful waste of time, especially on a Sunday. Yesterday was rainy, and today, a Sunday, was mostly sunny and everyone was out walking because most retail places, other than afore mentioned social bars, were closed. How nice. People came and went; groups, old couples (the Phactors were not out of place), young couples, people with strollers, guys with mostly shaved heads and tattoos, fashionable ladies, a real cross section of the humanity strolling by.  Now why are such places not more common in the USA?  Primarily, it's because such places only exist where urban centers are vibrant and where a significant part of the population walks from place to place. Cities and towns in the USA have to develop active, people places for places like this to be successful. The closest things in smaller cities are campus town areas adjacent to university campuses. Now don't get TPP started on the mass transit system in a place like Zurich. 

On the move again - the Alps

Flat landers like ourselves always try to head for either beaches or mountains, things that just don't exist in Lincolnland.  So today's travels were great, mostly.  Starting from Munich, our route took us by train to Innsbruck, Austria through Liechtenstein to Zurich, Switzerland, and that means a route through and over a portion of the Alps.  At any given moment today more relief was visible than exists in the whole state of Lincolnland, which by the way is over three times bigger than Switzerland.  How nice!  And of course the mountains were nicely covered with snow, and snowboarders had noticed and kept trying to swack people in the head with their ungainly luggage to call attention to themselves.  If the train had actually had as many 1st class seats as tickets they had sold, then they would not have had to close the dining car to handle the excess.  TPP would recommend comping us some drinks too because you didn't offer a refund.  Fortunately that was only for the Munich to Innsbruck leg and after that travel was via a real train.  Someday perhaps the Phactors will do the Glacier express across the Alps, but not this time. Which brings up another thing. Is your bloody dog, no matter how well behaved, enjoying a train trip?  Did you buy them a ticket?  What is this deal with everyone and their dogs? OK, that was a bit cranky, but your dog may not join us at our table, sorry.  Elsewhere the F1 was having travel woes due to the nasty winter weather in North America that caused a flight from Madrid to Chicago to disappear, fortunately that happened before bordering (saw that movie once).  Now this really complicates the rest of the travel.  It will be a few more days before the Phactors head home, so will all you North American readers please get out there and shovel?  Also, warm up a welcome home for us. The predicted low temps could bring some sad garden news come spring because -19F is rock bottom for zone 5 and anything not quite that hardy will be damaged or killed.  Sure hope that Magnolia virginiana is really, really hardy. 

Strangest thing you can see in Ulm

Many things you expect to see in small southern German cities: cathedrals (check), the rathaus (check), city squares (check), clocks and sundials on the sides of buildings (check), quaint old architecture (check), cobblestones (check), but then you come around a corner and into a small courtyard and there is the weirdest thing you ever could imagine seeing.  Yes, TPP will let you guess all day, and bet that you won't guess even if you knew it was about a famous person who was born in Ulm.  As it turns out
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, and Ulm is quite proud of that even though it is not certain if Albert ever visited his birth place as an adult or felt much attachment to the city.  Now there are lots of ways to honor people, and Ulm does have a street named after Einstein, but this sculpture does make you wonder a bit about what kind of honor this represents?  Einstein made one famous rude gesture, sticking his tongue out at a photographer, and that moment was captured in this sculpture showing his head emerging from a snail shell.  The meaning of this piece of art is perplexing and obscure (any interpretations out there?), and while interesting, it's not all that likable or attractive, yet vaguely compelling.  But definitely not what you were expecting to find! 

New Year's fireworks spectacular

One of the reasons to travel is that you learn new things.  And so far the most surprising thing TPP has learned is that at midnight on New Years, you basic steady, rational German becomes a pyrotechnical maniac!  Yes, everyone rushed outside and after a toast, and maybe a kiss or two, the world erupted into a massive public display of fireworks that puts USA's 4th of July to shame.  It was truly something to behold as the sulfurous smoke began to take on dimensions more like Ulm's famous fog.  Who knew?  Surely such a display will keep the dragon from eating the sun, or something?  These were not professional displays; this was not a town's or neighborhood's display, this was everybody, and based upon size and number of the skyrockets, some very heavy ordinance was available to every Tom, Dick, and Franz.  The street in this nice residential area became totally littered with the debris of dozens of diverse fireworks and choked with smoke. Now should you be a bit drowsy and tired, nothing like fireworks to reawaken you, and judging by the next reaction, setting off pyrotechnical mayhem is hungry work.  BOOM!  Happy New Year everyone from Germany!