Field of Science

Public education in an era of wealth disparity

The whole idea of public higher education, our state-wide systems of community colleges, undergraduate universities, and graduate universities, was to assure a well-educated citizenry and access to educational and professional opportunities for the "working/middle class" and even, via grants and loans, the fiscally disadvantaged, as well as the wealthy.  What made this possible was public assistance that kept tuition costs affordable and opportunities available.  This system has been under duress for some time now as public assistance has been systematically withdrawn (And for what purpose?), and under active attack from legislatures and governors that want to cut costs and perhaps limit opportunities for graduates that have been generally perceived as  hostile voters. Things are bad here in Lincolnland. TPP doubts public institutions will receive any public support at all this fiscal year (no budget since July '15), even though if a budget were to happen, it would still be a 20% cut in support, so tuition increases are being mandated by the state. Opportunities for students in response become more limited at public institutions, while they remain unchanged at private schools affordable to only the wealthy. Take into account that public schools educate at least 10 students for every student at an elite private school. This will accomplish widening the income/wealth disparity that the public schools were instituted to diminish. 
If you want another analysis, consider this comparison of Stanford, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State.  This really is an issue that has no winners except the one percenters. As one of those formerly middle class "blue-collar" people who benefited from access to public education, TPP is extremely annoyed with the people and the political system that wants to dismantle it.  If you have a more just and equal vision for our society and our country, you should be annoyed muchly too. Yes, very GnOPe, but plenty of blame to spread around. Say no to incumbents.

Totally strange flower

As a flower guy TPP is green with envy of anyone who has seen this beauty in the field, and that's funny because the plant is never ever is green itself.  This plant is a completely subterranean parasite that only surfaces to flower.  It superficially resembles a gigantic star flower (Stapelia) because it is fly pollinated.  But so hard to describe. You'll have to go see for yourselves. It's easier than going to Borneo, a place TPP has never been. TPP has wrote about one of its cousins before.

Study guides & student entitlement

This editorial from the U. Minn. Daily student newspaper really shows the state of student entitlement.  Do professors "owe" students a study guide for exams?  This was pretty much a pet peeve when TPP was teaching large lecture, introductory courses. You announce an exam already scheduled on the syllabus, and one of the questions you always got was, "Will you give us a study guide?" Sure.  Then the syllabus' lecture outline was copied, an outline TPP was always followed unless noted otherwise, added in the major topics covered in each heading, and sometimes added reminders of illustrative examples provided. Then one astute fellow notices the similarity to the syllabus, and says, "This study guide just copies the syllabus."  Right!  That's the material that's covered on this exam.  Now any competent student should have been able to do the same with their lecture notes, but the problem is that this was not the "study guide" they wanted. Read the editorial yourself. Maddie actually wants her professors to specifically note the material that will NOT be covered on the exam. Now TPP understands that exams cannot be fully comprehensive, but he tried to make his exams representative of the material covered, in depth and breadth, and never, ever, once has he ever said after covering some topic, "But you won't have to know this." WTF? Why would any teacher ever say that? Out of a universe of material on the subject of biology, your knowledgeable professor has winnowed out a minute amount of material that is both essential and necessary to the content of the course at this level, and now students want that professor to winnow out that subset and provide them with the sub-subset that they don't have to learn!  Amazing. This is what happens when education becomes primarily about about grades & credits, and not about learning. TPP doesn't think very many professors are going to be very sympathetic, but obviously Maddie has gotten study guides from some of us somewhere or she wouldn't be so entitled. Isn't it obvious that if a professor spends 30 mins explaining something it'll be on the exam. If it was 2 mins. maybe not so much. We can only hope life will provide Maddie with a study guide so she can put her valuable time to good use making sure she doesn't learn too much. HT to Angry by Choice.

Nope! Nope! Nope!

The GnOPe (the G is silent as in Gneo-con) continues to demonstrate that it has no platform, no ideas, no agenda, except obstruct Obama.  TPP has long known this because of the growing influence of Gneocons. Now they have changed the definition of lame-duck, the period from the election of a successor to the end of the term, to oppose any action the president might make in the 4th year of a 4 year term. Never thought anyone could make Rubitinio look good, but T-rump is doing a good job. 
The dismaying thing is to see how effective the rhetoric of fear has been in influencing a not very sophisticated public. Now Lincolnland's GnOPe senator is running a campaign ad that suggests his opponent, a disabled veteran has no regard for the security of our state or our country because he's scared of refugees. It's not just sad, it's disrespectful of a veteran who put it on the line to protect this country. It's a sorry state of affairs, promoted by the easily scared. 

Green Hamburg

Kudos to Hamburg, Germany's 2nd biggest city.  They decided to curtail the use of Keurig style coffee pods because of the waste they generate.  Over packaging is a serious problem, individually wrapped items within a larger package, and then within still another box or bag. Although TPP proclaimed the Keurig coffee maker the least green new appliance some time ago (couldn't find the link), its popularity has continued to rise probably because of the diversity of easy to make coffee/tea beverages, one cup at a time. What this means of course is that every 5 or 6 g of coffee or tea comes wrapped in 5-6 g of packaging (taking into account the outer packaging as well).  Such little things are almost impossible to recycle, and they quickly pile up as waste. Not many places, and certainly not cities or states in the capitalism worshipping USA would ban such a popular product and appliance. Some expensive alternatives exist; TPP's car dealership has a machine that will make upon demand several different types of coffee drinks starting with whole beans! Surprisingly the latte is quite credible. Probably too expensive for the average consumer. But this is where manufacturers feet are not being held to the fire because we all are subsidizing the Keurig product with our taxes so that some people can have convenient caffeine diversity. All products should be priced to include the cost of decommissioning the product and disposing of its waste, i.e., If the consumer pays up front, and then wasteful appliances and products would reflect their real cost to society.  Flat screen TVs are presently entering a new generation, and the newer, better models are fairly cheap, but what is happening to the old TVs? Well, the Phactors are still watching one of them. But the rest are piling up at recycling centers and no one is paying for their recycling, so your new TV was subsidized by everyone's taxes. These are costly items to recycle, and you should not be able to just throw them out. Same goes with toxic waste products. Their price should reflect the cost of their safe disposal.  You see we really don't have a capitalist system in the USA, we have a subsidized system where people and the environment pay so that products will remain cheap on the purchasing end and manufacturers won't have to deal with the messy business of dealing with the waste created by their own products, and avoid any cost that might lower their profits. So it's good to hear of a city with some guts.

Classy ride!



Hey!  Who's in town? This classy looking car was right outside the coffee shop and it certainly made TPP look around for a couple of guys in pork-pie hats, sunglasses, and skinny black ties. Everybody knows whose car this is. Elwood and Joliet Jake Blues! Wonder what they were doing? Maybe they were on another mission from God.  No need to guess where they were going. To quote Elwood: "It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses." Jake: "Hit it."  

Garden Flowering Log 2016

TPP has been trying to get his garden flowering log database straightened out (data up to date, removal of those what died, names corrected, duplications eliminated, etc.).  So this late February balmy weather (highs in the 60s F) is a bit too much too soon. But not much you can do, but to trot out to the back of the gardens with the camera and record the first blooms of the 2016 gardening season, to make yourself a margarita, and to write a blog about it. From a distanced these rusty red flowers cloaking this witch hazel shrub ('Diane') are not all that gaudy, but up close they are quite nice. A moment after this image was taken a pollinator (actually 2) showed up, a syrphid fly with the yellow & black bee/hornet mimicking abdomen and a regular house fly of some sort. Some other flowering may follow shortly: a green bear paw hellebore, snowdrops, squill, Guess someone should get that danged flowering log done, or drink another margarita. The voting will be brief.

Friday fabulous flower - star anise

Star anise doesn't just have fabulous flowers, but they are the flowers that are basal to all other flowering plants.  As explained in blog this links to "basal" means that this lineage has a very ancient common ancestry with all other flowering plants, the so-called ANITA grade of ancient lineages where the I stands for Illicium the genus and family name-sake of star anise.  The fruitlets and seeds used as the spice are part of a whorl of pistils that look a bit like a crown in the center of these flowers. TPP almost decided to study this genus many, many years ago, and has a certain fondness for it ever since. This genus has what botanists call a disjunct distribution with species in SE Asia and SE North America and adjacent Mexico and Caribbean.  Prior continental positions account for such distributions, so yes, very old. 

City Bike-ecar hybrid looks like a winner!

As many of you know TPP loves innovative bicycle technology, but it's been awhile since finding anything this exciting.  Here is the Veemo by Velometro, a fully-enclosed electric-assisted bicycle. On a week to week basis TPP operates within a 2 mile radius of our residence, it may sound amazingly dull, but it is a central location. Now by and large TPP is a pedestrian most of the time and a biker summertime.  Some of the drawbacks of the present situation are solved right here. It is a bicycle, so no car registration and you can use bike lanes and trails (It's actually pretty narrow.  Wind chill is the biggest factor for the Phactor during the winter, and of course, every biker is certain to have gotten wet at some time, but this enclosed 3-wheeler really solves the weather problem.  The second problem with walking or biking is cargo; a gallon of milk is about 8.5 pounds a signifcant amount to carry any distance either walking or on a bike.  Our local "people" grocery store is about 20 mins walk.  The Veemo has cargo space in the rear that can hold a bag or groceries.  It has a top speed of around 20 mph and with a range of 62 miles per charge, TPP would be fixed for running errands for a week or two between charges.  Due out next year, the Veemo is really the kind of vehicle that could get more people pedaling, at a much lower price than an electric run-about car. But let's get the green one.  HT to the Treehugger.

Are fruits and vegetables better tasting in Europe?

After TPP retired, the Phactors rented a villa outside of Florence and just soaked up Italian culture, food, and wine for a month, and yes, this was much better than traveling around like a pinball, bing, bing, bing, from place to place. It was hard not to notice how much better the produce was even in large grocery stores.  And of course speculation about why this was the case was a topic of our conversation. Some of it was certainly seasonality.  This was something TPP grew up with; you only ate peas during pea season, and sweet corn during sweet corn season, which for my Father was as extended as the climate made possible (His late clambake corn for October would get frosted every other year or so, a gamble he felt was worth while.), and so on. Yes, some produce would get frozen or canned for winter, but it just wasn't the same, and you knew it.  In Italy a particular type of melon season arrived while the Phactors were in residence, and a mob of little old ladies just about beat TPP with their umbrellas for having his effrontery of getting between them and the first boxes of melons to be put on display. The melons were uniformly ripe and delicious, and in the USA buying a melon in a store is a bad bet with many under ripe and tasteless friuts. And it was obvious Italian shoppers demanded high quality produce.  So here's another analysis that includes our conclusions.  Produce is better in Europe because: 1. American farmers put an emphasis on yield and durability, not flavor. 2. American shoppers favour access over seasonality. 3. The US government regulates for safety — but not quality. 4. Finding flavourful food is a matter of priorities.
Sometimes things get better. OK, so having an Italian menu for our dinner club (members for 38 years) in January 2016 was not the smartest idea, but it was for that reason strawberries were needed for the zabaglione (hint: out of circumstance an anejo rum was used instead of marsala, but it's a good sub.), and the berries were smaller, more columnar, and the best tasting out-of-season strawberries TPP has ever had!  Don't know the variety, but think they were raised in Mexico. Picked under ripe for long travel is the reason they usually are tasteless, that and the varieties were bred to be big and robust so as not to bruise easily in travel, such varieties usually leave out the flavor.  This is how the Delicious apple (really was delicious) became the Red Delicious (not so much), prettier, more durable, but something important was lost.  At any rate no question in our minds that these are the main factors in the lower quality of our produce.  Farmer's markets and local produce are trends that are improving the situation.  

Raw bagels - really?

TPP dearly loves his coffee shop. It's both a good thing and a bad thing that they really don't do food. Now they do have some pastries, and now they have bagels, and a bagel slicer, even cream cheese, but they just don't get it.  They don't have a toaster!  This means the bagels are served raw.  Now even really, really good bagels are no good raw; they're only good toasted. If you want a bagel with a smear, it automatically means the bagel is toasted. A woman ordered a bagel and cream cheese this AM and she looked at it in amazement when she got it, because it was raw.  What's the deal?, she asked.  This isn't NYC, they just don't know about bagels, and they certainly don't know about good bagels. Yeah, she says, I used to live in NY, so I know.  Good thing this shop doesn't decide to serve eggs! It's like in India knowing that you have to ask for your eggs to be fried on both sides if you don't want a runny top, and then finding out they don't cook the eggs at all. But here even if you order a toasted bagel you're out of luck at this shop.  Personally, this is a crime against nature; raw bagels are just wrong.  Right?

How not to run a university - like a business

The very latest example of trying to improve a college by running it more like a business is playing out at Mt. St. Mary's college, a nice enough Catholic school, but with many of the same troubles as many small liberal arts colleges. At the very beginning of TPP's academic career he was offered a job at one such college. The Dean made a single low-ball salary offer, which TPP turned down without ever being asked what salary would be acceptable. Then the Dean explained away the failure to hire TPP, the person the other faculty wanted, by telling them the salary negotiations failed, negotiations which never took place. No regrets about that job at all. At Mt. St. Mary's the new president wanted to game the system of counting enrollment by getting at risk students to quit before an official count took place so that the retention rate would look better. That such an action is educationally unethical is obvious, but the new president has a business background so it might not occur to him that their college is obligated to try to educate any student that they accept. Colleges get presidents like this because trustees or their equivalent are appointed with a directive to run the college more like a business. A couple of tenured faculty who either directly or indirectly criticized the president's approach got fired.  Now this tells TPP several things. A business-type president doesn't give a damn about tenure, and when it comes to faculty, they are employees, nothing more, so their disloyalty must be dealt with, no matter that the primary reason for tenure is so that faculty can speak up to power. It further demonstrates that there is no shared governance at this institution, which always undermines the academic enterprise, the all important student-faculty interaction that leads to education. The fired faculty members have been offered reinstatement as an act of mercy! So like a business to try to improve retention without trying to improve the actual education of the students. Hey, Mt. St. Mary's trustees, check your priorities.  Stories like this will not help your college's reputation or your bottom line.

Valentine's day advice for garden lovers

Words of love, so soft and tender
Won't win a girls heart anymore
If you love her then you must send her
Some plant that she's never seen before.


These are the song's lyrics as best TPP can remember them. Mrs. Phactor is just so darned hard to buy for, the result of decades of having been spoiled by yours truly. Fortunately the Italian garden seed catalog showed up, something Mrs. Phactor,  requested, so clearly a hint, right? Sounds like a packet of zucchini striato pugliese seeds might be just the thing.  Wonder if they come chocolate coated?  Actually she has seen this plant, at least in the markets, and she loves them (at the flower bud stage they make the best soufflĂ© ever). At any rate, take a tip, listen to your Mama (and Papa), and get your sweetie some nice Italian garden seeds, or the free catalog, how can you go wrong? Remember low expectations are everything in gifting (a Red Green proverb for certain).



Friday Fabulous Flower - Jungle Geranium

The winter bleakness of February needs some color, so TPP trotted into the glasshouse to see if there was anything to cheer us up.  Yes!  The "jungle geranium" (Ixora coccinea) was in full bloom, a very prolific flowering shrub.  And it's bright red!  Those of you who know your plant families will surely recognize a member of the Rubiaceae, the coffee family, right away.  4 corolla lobes on a long narrow floral tube and 4 little stamens alternating with them; it suggests Lepidopteran pollinators. But what's this jungle geranium stuff?  Never liked calling tropical forest "jungle".  And geranium? What's that about?  Sometimes it's hard to get common names in the sense of why would anyone call it that?  Oh, and flame of the forest, scheesh, TPP can only think of a dozen or so tropical plants called that.  So, enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Charles

Today is Charles Darwin's 207th birthday. TPP gave a lecture on evolutionary thinking last Sunday to a bunch of Unitarians who seemed to have liked it. It's also Abe Lincoln's birthday, a significant fact here in Lincolnland, but now lot's of people forget because Abe has been homogenized into President's Day, and it's also TPP's kid sister's birthday.  Happy Birthday, Sis; she's 39 if remembered correctly. Here's a really good essay about Darwin and his life if you don't know much about him and his life. TPP's Darwin lecture focuses on how biologists thought about things and how different this is from most people, and so evolution is greatly misunderstood. Darwin would be astonished to learn that he is remembered and commemorated still. Most of us don't expect our work to last very long because it gets supplanted by newer studies, by newer techniques, but Darwin provided a new way of thinking about biology, something with the potential to last a long time.

In defense of short people - especially pedestrians

A truck hits a pedestrian crossing a street in a designated crossing and no charges are pressed against the driver because the pedestrian was -wait for it - too short! That's right.  Well, this did happen in NYC, but still.  Apparently the DA determined that the truck's design made short pedestrians too hard to see.  What? That's not the pedestrian's fault.  The driver has a poorly designed truck for city driving.  Even on the open highway you get the idea that truckers seldom act like they see any other vehicle smaller than an Army tank.  So with all these motion sensors and camera systems get the damned trucks fixed to make pedestrians safe. And guess what all people start out short, so are kids at some special risk? For too long trucks have been too poorly designed especially for city driving. Pedestrians and bicyclists abound in cities, so the market for good safe trucks should be decent. But with Randy Newman's song playing in the back ground NYC is going about safety all wrong, by putting short people at risk.  Is 5'6" safe?  5' 7"? What is the minimum safe height for pedestrians? Do short people have to carry balloons, flags, or signs over their heads while walking?  Are cross walks going to have a post labeled "you must be at least this tall to safely walk across here"?   

Budget, budget? Our state doesn't need no stinkin' budget

Lincolnland is a very poorly run state, and it has been for a long time. Presently there is no state budget, since last July, and not having a budget for the whole year is a real possibility.  Governor Rauner-round and the war lords of Madiganistan are at loggerheads. Rauner-round decided that he would hold the state budget hostage to force the war lords to pass anti-labor legislation that supposedly is pro-business, but they decided they could play chicken and have made no concessions, so the state is at an impasse. Both parties think the other party will get the blame, but there is plenty to pass around. Lots of organizations, lots of schools, lots of people are in dire straits, and it doesn't seem our politicians care, particularly the guy giving us the big Rauner-round. Turns out hostage taking is not a very good legislative strategy. This hasn't had a direct impact on yours truly, but you hate to see a poorly run state literally grind to a halt; at least the F1 was spared a layoff or cut in salary. Now add to this mixture, a lame-duck president, a native son, is visiting today to help matters out, not that he has done very well in terms of legislative action because of an inflexible majority in Congress. Perhaps the entire state should be put up for sale, scratched, dented, and bruised as it is, it still has good agricultural land. Can we let the free market forces decide?  Heck, everything else has been privatized, a solution to poor public management of everything from prisons to schools to traffic lights and other forms of gambling. So why not the state itself? Make an offer, please! Maybe you can figure out how to make things work. 

Botany within your reach - 4. bean seeds

Once again those wonderful people over at the Botanist in the Kitchen blog have beaten TPP to the punch, to the pulse. So here you go Botany within your reach - 4. Bean seeds.  As my colleagues note this is International year of pulses.  Hmm, thought it was the Year of the Monkey?  Ah, that's the ticket, time for a plant astrological calendar.  2016 -year of the pulse (old name for a bean or legume).  TPP will have to think about this for a time. And believe it or else this is exactly what TPP was working on for his next offering.  Maybe we should coordinate our efforts.  In his defense TPP has been way too busy giving presentations on tree ID in the winter and evolutionary thinking. Guess when you're giving it away the price seems right.  So, soak up some beans, peas, and lentils and have a go at this month's botany lab.  And you can also compare parts with whole roasted peanuts.  So now we ask the un-crucial question, are split peas split? 

Weird news - a real stopcock

This is sort of weird medical news, but it also sort of makes sense. Some one has invented a device, a real stopcock of sorts, actually a flow switch, and when the device is surgically inserted into the vas deferens it can be opened permitting the normal release of sperm or turned off preventing the release of sperm, thus allowing the implanted, or who ever has their hand on the switch, a choice in terms of the ability to impregnate or not. This also gives new meaning to the concept of getting "turned on". All to keep interested readers informed.

Garden photography - winners

Here you go.  Something to wake you up after surviving the stupor bowl. Something to cheer you in the February depths of winter. Award winning garden photography. The lupines are super nice because of all the shades of lavender, but the garden harvest still life just has a great quality to the whole thing, and here is where the photographer matters.  All these new digital cameras can indeed adjust to low light, but TPP finds that they make everything too bright, and that's the problem with auto pilot photography.

Iowa Crocuses

TPP tries to stay abreast of current events, but often still feels out of it.  So he must admit his confusion with all the talk of and commotion about Crocuses in Iowa. There is nothing of note to say about the Crocuses of Iowa.  They are all native to the old world, and all this talk about winning crocus and losing their crocus makes you think Iowa has a gardening problem, one that only pops up every 4 years or so because otherwise you never hear about Iowa or their crocus. It seems too early in the season for the Iowa crocuses to be of any value especially elsewhere. And you would think everyone would be more upbeat as crocus bring such cheer to the spring.  But one thing is painfully clear, our country would be in better shape if more of our potential leaders had such an interest in native perennial gardening, and less interested in cultivating, what is it again, all American selections?  Something like that. As the season progresses, TPP will endeavor to keep you informed of the blooming process.

Fun with Fungus

The F1 and her Boy gave TPP a "Mushroom Farm" for Christmas, a pretty nifty little kit for growing oyster mushrooms. The first harvest provided a fairly decadent pasta for Sunday night dinner. This is not a cheap economical way to get fresh mushrooms, but you can't buy oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) in the market either, although more varieties of mushrooms are currently, regularly available than ever before here in the USA, where there is way more mycophobia than in Europe or Asia. What you get is a block of sawdust inhabited by a oyster mushroom mycelium (the fungal "plant"). Usually you find Oyster mushrooms growing on the sides of trees in great numbers in the fall. After soaking the dead wood block in water for a few hours, fruiting bodies, mushrooms, begin forming within a few days, and they grow quite quickly. Here's some images showing the initial appearance of the mushrooms, and then 2 days and 4 days later. Shortly after this last image they stop growing and it's harvest time. The mycelium should yield another crop or two. This would be a fun thing for curious kids or adults. If you decide to try this, shop around a bit for the best price. Thanks kids! Now about that other "grow your own" kit?  Are you sure that's legal?


This is February?

OK TPP checked his calendar app and it is the oneth of February. In the upper Midwest this is the heart, the dead center of winter. It's 45 F outside and it was 51 F yesterday, which was good because TPP had to restack a firewood rack that had fallen over. A bit of a thaw is not that unusual, but this warm in the middle of winter has not been common place. This won't hurt plants unless they break their dormancy and begin growing when it is a virtual certainty that more cold weather will come before it is really spring. Having a good mulch layer around trees and shrubs keeps the soil cold and frozen even when the air warms up for a few days. This helps plants stay dormant. So far a few very early spring bulbs are being stupid, but they'll survive no matter what, but in particular gardeners worry about fruit trees being fooled and flowering too early. It looks like the X-country skis will stay in the garage attic for the whole winter at this rate, and Mrs. Phactor says its because she got super toasty warm mittens for winter walking.  So far this area has had exactly one snow event that required shoveling, and the nasty ice storm. This is pretty minimal, the rest of the winter precip has come down liquid.  If things keep going this way, it's going to be one super mild winter.