Field of Science

Help for the digitally impaired?

Is there any help out there for the digitally impaired and out of date?  A commercial on TV had a young relative describe her grandparents' house as hell, no internet, etc.  TPP is sort of feeling a bit like that was modeled after his situation. 

The Phactors have been together for a long time; we’ve already been through a primary, secondary, and in some cases tertiary and quaternary episodes of appliance meltdowns and replacements. They’ve tended to come in waves where several old, reliable appliances all give up the ghost at the same budget-busting time. On the whole things have lasted well for us.  Our luck with dishwashers and microwave ovens being the worst.  One old hot water heater became a collector’s display piece at a local business because of its age and uniqueness after they stopped laughing about "can it be fixed?" At our stage of life it becomes hard to remember how old some items are. 
In the last few days the CD players on two stereos both ceased to function, and "Martha Stewart" demands Christmas music while decorating and making cookies and the like.  Young ones, should any read this blog (doubtful), may not really remember CDs or their advantages over 8-track tapes, 33 1/3 LPs (mostly stereo, but the oldest are mono), 45s (TPP never actually collected them), and 78s.  One stereo was easily fixed by bringing an ancient, but seldom used CD player home from TPP’s office, which is fine for the compact system in the kitchen.  But the main stereo had a 5 disk changer, and a still powerful 150w per channel tuner/amp to push some pretty fine speakers to their limits.  TPP used Tusk (1979)(there's also a version using the USC Trojan marching band) by Fleetwood Mac to signal the F1 that it was time to rise and shine (usually in the vicinity of noon). So as the Phactors contemplate a new TV, it just doesn’t seem right to embrace too much change all at once.  But whether to update or not will be debated, but TPP just doesn’t want to give up his stereo equipment just yet; it'd  be like giving up a Corvette for a Prius. While that's OK for cars; this is sounds! Might have to go find that King Crimson album (front and back cover illustration above) and test the turntable.

Sudden Ginkgo leaf fall

A number of people noticed this year that the leaves of ginkgo trees turned bright yellow, as usual, and then suddenly dropped all their leaves literally overnight leaving a golden carpet of leaves around the trees. This is actually pretty normal too, but usually it happens along with a lot of other trees dropping leaves, so fewer people notice.  2016 has been a long warmish fall with no good hard frosts before there was a very cold overnight freeze.  What happens is this. The shorter, cooler days stops the production of chlorophyll that ordinarily masks the yellow pigments (carotenoids, xanthophylls) and the leaves turn yellow. This is pretty common for lots of trees. At the base of the leaf stalk deciduous trees form a week place called an abscission zone, and in most trees a bit of back and forth bending in the wind causes the leaf to fall.  Gingko makes such a zone, but some of the vascular tissue remains connected and it takes a freeze, forming some ice crystals, to break the residual vascular connection, so after such a freeze, the leaves all fall at once. One day ginkgo trees have yellow leaves, the next day the trees are bare and the ground carpeted with ginkgo leaves. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - An Air Plant

Often called and sold as an air plant, generally meaning an epiphyte that does not need soil, this is a popular and fairly common bromeliad (pineapple family), Tillandsia bulbosa. The leaf bases overlap each other forming a bulbous base. The leaves are quite waxy and the blades are rolled into a cylindrical shape that sort takes on a sinuous arrangement. Such adaptations reduce water loss and perhaps capture and store water in the modified bulbous tank.  At least one author has suggested it might also be an ant plant, but TPP has not verified this elsewhere.  The red inflorescence is the primary attraction and it lasts a long time providing a attractive platform for the handsome but not so gaudy purple flowers. The white stigmas and yellow stamens with purple filaments protrude from the tubular flowers. In the humidity of our glasshouse this plant thrives; in a dry household it would be more of a challenge to grow. Suggestion: hang it in the stall when you shower. 

Vegan Turkey?

Here's a turkey TPP had never seen the likes of before.  The image that came to mind was the Far Side cartoon showing lions that had brought down a tofudabeast and discovering it wasn't quite the same as other prey.  This turkey may well be vegan, but it wasn't actually intended to substitute for the real thing, probably, although some of the younger dinner guests would have preferred it.  This turkey did have a certain eye appear for some.  Mostly TPP's teeth started to hurt just thinking about eating it.  For many readers this is probably a familiar confection although not usually so fowlly molded.  For those of you from other cultures the primary material is a breakfast cereal called Rice Crispies (Rice Bubbles down under) glued together largely with sugar, and of course the stuffing consisted of M&Ms (chocolate in a sugar shell that melts in your mouth not in your hand), and peanut butter cups in the foil wrappers because they will melt in your hand (chocolate covered peanut butter is a strangely appealing combination).  At any rate it was quite a creative visual spectacle if not a culinary treat. Oh, those vegans, so healthy.

Holidays with Martha

TPP is staying out of the way.  Cooking is his thing, but our dinner is delayed until Saturday.  So with little to do today, Mrs. Phactor is decorating for the holidays and our impending guests.  Understand, the house will look quite handsome and festive, and she has plenty of black cat help; for them many decorations have the look of toys, and so some shall become. As a small contribution, TPP has made a batch of smoked salmon dip. It's pretty easy and highly addictive.  
SWMBO (she who must be obeyed) has explained that today is the official start of the holiday and that someone must get with the program.  In due time, in due time. 
Otto is still churning slowly toward NE Costa Rica, so my colleagues must be getting quite wet.  Another old friend and colleague from the upstate NY snowbelt reports they got 22 inches of snow that isn't good for x-country skiing, truly annoying.  
Mrs. Phactor and a helper have come upstairs to gather more decorative items, or maybe take a nap, no, just getting in the way right now. However this particular helper usually likes to get in TPP's lap while typing, a huge help.  This is one very cute, very friendly annoyance of a cat.  Not the one featured in the black cat day a few blogs back. As part of the decor, two biggish Schlumbergera cacti, but quite red, are in full bloom and looking quite festive.  They were kept outside well into October this year, and that seems to really prime them to flower for Thanksgiving.  They are really quite easy  houseplants that enjoy being outside hanging in a partially shady area for the summer/early fall. 
TPP is quite thankful for all you readers who allow this mental health program to continue at least until the next administration does something terrible to the internet.  Sorry, for that small vent.  TPP will now go for a walk, bring in some firewood for the weekend, and thus appear to be doing something useful that isn't blogging.  If you are reading this from outside the USA, you may celebrate thanks for whatever by feeding yourself and others a nice dinner. Generally a turkey, our native and very misnamed bird, is served with all the trimmings. 

A very wet Thanksgiving

Right now two of my colleagues and a bunch of our advanced undergraduates and graduate students are on a rainforest ecology field trip in NE Costa Rica at the La Selva biological station.  Usually the station provides a quite magnificent dinner for all the gringo visitors, but unfortunately they are all about to get very wet, and when you say that for this place, that's saying a lot. Hurricane Otto is bearing down on them, and while it is not a major storm in the sense of wind, the amount of rain they could get in the next 48 hours could be amazing, and this really can put the field research on hold.  TPP wishes them well.  Our previous course record was 444 mm of rainfall in 8 days, and with 18-24" predicted for their area, they may set a new record.  Yea! Go team go! It's happened before as the image shows; the flooded area is usually high and dry several meters above the river.  Fortunately the labs and cabinas are much higher still.  

Nocturnal pollination

Most people don't realize that many plants flower and interact with pollinators at night, particularly in the tropics.  An article in the latest American Journal of Botany provided a nice image of a hawkmoth, an insect version of a hummingbird, visiting a night-blooming plant (Oenothera harringtonii). Notice that the flowers are white and don't actually open very much except at the top of the corolla, but the stigma is exposed. The long proboscis of the hawkmoth is inserted to get a reward delivering and withdrawing pollen in the process. This is a terrific image for teaching, and a very interesting study (open access): Land-use change has no detectable effect on reproduction of a disturbance-adapted, hawkmoth-pollinated plant species, a study by my very talented Chi-town colleague Krissa Skogen and her collaborators (November 2016 vol. 103 no. 11 1950-1963). 

Friday Fabulous Flower - late fall color

Yesterday Nov. 17th probably set a high temperature record for the date - the mid 70s (F). After doing leaves in garden beds, some lawn cleanup, anti-rabbit cages around trees & shrubs, and other odds ends, the Phactors treated ourselves to a margarita on the patio. A walk around the estate let us check on undone jobs and see what late fall color was left. The smoke trees, a Kousa dogwood, a couple of Japanese maples, a European Euonymus, fothergilla, and witch hazels were looking rather nice. One of the witch hazels was also in flower, a not uncommon happening, so it's sort of like early spring and late fall all together.

Black is purrfect

Today is National Black Cat Day.  Who knew?  Our kitty-girls didn't seem to know or notice anything different. Typical enough morning; wake up the lazy people so we can getz our breakfasts. Then find a nice place for a couple of hour nap.  It's tough being a house cat.  So much responsibility. Unfortunately some people are still scared or worried about black cats and as a result they are the least likely to be adopted, and the most likely to be abandoned.  Ours have been displaying their mouser abilities of late, but since killing prey is a learned behavior, our cats mostly serve as a warning system because after they exhaust their toys (or mice have learned to play dead), their toys catch their breath,  zip away and escape (and we set a conventional mouse trap in a paw free zone). At any rate nothing sinister about these cats especially the dynamo shown above (who hides a bit of white on her how-dare-you-touch-my-belly); previously it was a succession of gray tigers.  So maybe you'll get lucky today and a black cat will cross your path.

How do you handle rejection?

A manuscript based primarily on several smaller student studies has been rejected for publication(although perhaps resubmission is possible).  This isn't TPP's first rodeo when it comes to rejection of a manuscript, but this one was rather annoying because nothing all that negative, nothing that called into question the results, or our interpretation of them, no, rather it was the old I-would-have-liked-a- similar-study-that-wasn't-done-better rejection.  Gee, when our time machine gets fixed this study will be redone along the recommended lines.  Research projects with undergrad students often have to fit within a number of constraints: the confines of a semester, the time they have available, the materials on hand, and even the speed at which plants will grow. So you do the best study that can be done given these constraints, and with different people involved, things never quite match up or come out the same.  As a result you end up wondering about what some reviewers were thinking?  What good does it do to say, oh, my, you only did this and that, and this, that, and those would have been better.  Why only 2 species? Well, that's what was on hand ready to go, and even with reasonable replicates, there were a lot of pots in the glasshouse. Ideally you would like lots of things, but it never seems to work out: a collection of seeds doesn't germinate, or something else limits your degrees of freedom.  And of course critiques based on such things are not terrible helpful because you can't change them barring time-travel. So you discuss the reasons and then fix up any real problems, you wave your arms about limitations, and resubmit.  Still it was a learning experience for the students, but a small publication would have been nice and it still may happen.   

Lawn care - Don't rake your leaves?

This article or another just like it provoked quite a bit of comment in the gardening blogging community recently. The idea is ecologically sound; leaves represent biomass and resources trees removed from the soil, so don't remove them, mulch them to retrieve the nutrients.  So far so good, but if TPP followed this advice for just two years he would have a young forest. If you only have one or two trees and a whole big lawn, well OK, mulch away. Do remember that if too much organic material accumulates grasses get shallow rooted and become easily damaged. Your lawn will be more easily damaged. The organic material may attract more root feeding grubs. Our 1.3 acres has about a dozen very large trees and the leaf accumulation is significant and heavy enough to quite bury lawn even if the leaves are mulched with a lawn mower.  In places leaf accumulation can reach 12", and when TPP tried mulching and bagging them he had to stop every few feet to empty the bag. Our city does pick up leaves and mulch them enmass allowing people to pick up organic mulch to return to  gardens for free so they are not going to a landfill (one argument used by don't rakers). Some local farmers also take the leaves for their soil improvement.  Our personal leaves are moved to more heavily wooded areas or mulched and used in garden beds.  Even here the battle with woody weeds is unrelenting, and if the seedlings are not removed annually, well, a dense thicket of saplings will quickly appear.  In particular the do-not-rake-leaves advice is suspect especially if you have sugar maples. Because they make both sun and shade leaves, their crowns are dense (they can intersect up to 95% of the incoming light that hits their crown).  Growing grass under these trees is nearly impossible, although ferns and low-light ground covers work fine, and they can often handle a considerable mulch of leaves. But again the point is, you don't have lawn by the ordinary definition. Such a mass of leaves landing in our pond would begin turning it into a bog, and netting the pond and leaf removal is a bit of a problem that must be dealt with to have a big water feature. So do give this advice some thought before yelling yahoo and selling your rake. It doesn't work everywhere or for everybody.

Contribution from a fun-guy

My old friend Dr. Chips lives in a place with only two seasons, cold wet and cool wet, so he sees a lot  of different things than we do here in the upper midwest.  Time to share an image that he sent along.  Shaggy mane or inky cap are common names of this Coprinus mushroom.  It's pure white inside when fresh, and edible, but it doesn't stay that way long. These are dissolving from the bottom up, a process called autodeliquescence, turning into a black spore-laden liquid.  These mushrooms tend to pop up in groups after a rain. Thanks Dr. C.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tea

It's November 11th and TPP still sat on his patio yesterday for a cocktail after moving a few hundred pounds of leaves.  Some bibb lettuce, mustard greens, bok choi, dill are still in our gardens, but it may well frost tonight. This won't hurt the above mentioned items (if covered), but it's time to turn to the glasshouse for flowers to post about each Friday. 
At any rate here's a nice picture of a smallish tea shrub in flower just after it got misted. It used to be called Thea sinensis, but that species has now been submerged into the genus Camellia, so C. sinensis. Admittedly this flower is not as gaudy as its cultivated cousins.  It falls into the TPP category of large flowers because it is more than 1" in diameter.  The leaves of this evergreen shrub are the source of the caffeine beverage tea. 

Hello America, hello world

Dear reasonable people, sorry, our country has done something that didn't seem possible in electing such a person as T-rump president.  More than anything what this shows is that there is and always been an ugly side of the USA, and by ignoring most of the usual GOP talking points, and playing to a largely rural nationalism and giving them voice, it generated a very different voting demographic than past elections; thus the surprise.  Due to our crazy election system, even without winning the popular vote, T-rump won the election. Who knows what will happen as a result?  Having no political experience and no obvious political skills or aptitudes, everyone is left guessing about what actions he will take. If it is any comfort our government has not been good at, or even capable, of making major decisions in a hurry, or at all. So don't panic. Sorry that our politics will have an impact on so many other people in other countries.  Sorry that a person who has not earned any respect will have to be treated with some deference for diplomatic reasons. Personally there isn't much that could happen that will have much of an impact personally, but a number of likely happenings could have a considerable impact on young people and immigrants, and it is doubtful most of his supporters will get what they want or desire. Otherwise it's beautiful fall day, sunny, cool, colored with falling leaves.

Fall color to relax by

TPP can feel the tension in the air this election day especially after the previous post. You wonder if the woman in the red sweater is making a political statement or just wearing school colors?  OK that's the sort of thing that can really bring people down, my bad.  So vote, then take a deep breath and relax; plenty of time to get nervous later. To help you here's the leaning back, upward view from our patio (image from yesterday); now just sip your mint julep (mint variety is Kentucky Colonel).  Better? You get ugly when stressed. 

German news paper headline on USA election day

Hmm, wonder if the Germans have had some experience with this type of candidate?  Clearly there is enough concern in Germany that the USA election is headline news, (and this was always a very cool movie poster).  When TPP saw it this AM, the sound of helicopter blades could be heard (really! A medical heli-pad is on the next block) and it seemed like there was a whiff of napalm in the fall air (or some leaves burning).  The Phactors voted last week and it was rather heartening to learn that early voting in the USA accounted for more votes than the entire election in 2012, so a lot more people are voting (except in places like North Carolina that still brags about actively suppressing minority voting). Hopefully there is enough concern in the USA too that a bigoted demagogue will not become president.  Unfortunately this compaign was such that the many good reason for supporting HRC were seldom mentioned (so who investigates the FBI?).  It still puzzles TPP  how so many southerners can convince themselves they would be well served by voting for a rich, NY yankee?

Friday Fabulous Flower - white snakeroot - Last of the season, sort of

It's November, and it's been a long season, early spring to late fall.  This is absolutely the last plant to flower in our gardens, white snakeroot, Actea (formerly Cimicifuga) simplex, the first flower opened on October 25th, although it has flowered as early September 21st.  Black snakeroot, A. racemosa, flowered in mid-June. Beware because other plants share this common name, so if buying this, check the name carefully.  The plant grows quite well in shade, as does the almost as late flowering monk's hood.  Actually another plant might flower still, but it's a witchhazel and they almost prefer winter; November flowering is not unusual for witchhazels.  Right now the white snakeroot has a dozen or so bright white inflorescences set off by a bed of sugar maple leaves. This is one of those flowers whose showy parts are largely stamen filaments, not uncommon in the buttercup family.

Holiday here in Cubsland

According to Bill Murray today, actually yesterday because the game did end before midnight, is officially a holiday, the day the Chitown Cubs won the world series after 108 years of frustration!  Now please do not get snippy about the "world" thingy, if your country has a baseball team then send them over and we'll see how it goes.  Actually with normalized relations with Cuba becoming likely, there may be another country that could be a contender.  It was an amazing game the 7th game of a series tied 3 to 3, and this only after the Cubs were down 3 games to 1.  Baseball can be a bore, a snooze, but in games like this when a lot is on the line, they become very tense affairs where every little action can affect the outcome.  This game was tied at the end of the regulation 9 innings, so they continue playing because baseball has no time limit. But some rain delayed play for only about 20 mins., but at 11 pm TPP didn't know that. In the 1st extra inning the Cubs scored 2 more runs and the Indians answered only with 1 run, so the game ended. The Indians did win a consolation prize: they inherited the title of team with the longest streak without a world series title (68 years). TPP brings you this information in case you have been living in a cave somewhere. So fans celebrated into the wee hours (bars generally close at 2 am).  Thank you Bill the day off will be appreciated.

Does everyone have their own facts?

TPP is not a great fan of Hillary, but the FBI's non-gate email non-revelation has actually made me feel considerable sympathy for the woman.  The right wing has hounded this woman for decades, bored us to death with endless hearings about emails, Benghazi, and everything but the real ingredients in Cheese-whiz. And it sounds as though Congress will keep obstructing her should she win the presidency, as they did with Obama, but worse.  Basically a witch-hunt that has kept coming up empty-handed; and now allowing for one more Trumped-up accusation, an investigation of emails that she didn't send and didn't receive, all derived from a who-cares investigation of a known pervert, former congress critter who used to be married to a decent woman who works for HRC (see the logical thread?).  Of course the revelation was timed to do the most harm to HRC electorally especially when facts that will be presented come from an alternative reality.  It has taken awhile to understand that when T-rump says he always tells the truth, it's from the perspective of his own reality where what he wants to happen happens even if only in his own mind.  Worst it allows him to campaign negatively with nary a word about policy or how he will accomplish our greatness.  But trust him. The word delusional comes to mind, and it does not seem to be a quality that is becoming in a presidential wannabe.  TPP shivers to contemplate such a thing as T-rump creating his own reality with the power of the presidency, and even with all his baggage T-rump is coming way too close as it is, and to date none of his supporters has uttered a single good reason for their support. Some woman on talk radio said she wouldn't feel safe if HRC were to become president?  OK this is ruining a very nice day.  If you are reading this from outside the USA lucky you. 

A rare November oneth

Today is a warm (mid-70s) breezy fall day with lots of fall color around.  It may be warm enough to set a new high temp record. TPP was feeling so good he voted, early, but not often, and not certain that the electronic ballot disappearing into the electoral void was altogether satisfying. However it was one of those nice days to be on a university campus. The diversity of wardrobe being sported around campus was impressive, some leftovers from the night before (Halloween), many clearly aseasonal cosumes (very summery), many over dressed expecting a cooler day.  People were handing out battle of the bands fliers (no thank you; I outgrew them.), a fund-raising booth where you could push a whipped cream pie into the face of the candidate of your choice (all the lines looked pretty busy), a booth providing health/contraception advice, and an ancient hippy holding a sign saying "Cannabis cures cancer".  Strangely no religion or politics being offered, but otherwise a totally normal day.