Thursday, December 28, 2006

Oh, HAY-YULL yes!

If you watched Sin City and thought, "Hmm, that was extremely bitchin, but it would have rocked even harder if it had been based on a true story about a small band of elite warriors saving the world from an immense barbarian horde," then 2007 will be your lucky year. Frank Miller's 300 is coming to the big screen in March.

For some reason, the trailer at the official site locks up about 2/3 of the way through. But the one at IMDB goes all the way through. Or if you have a few tens of megs to spare, you can download the whole beautiful thing here. WARNING: unless you have an extremely robust constitution, there is a high chance that watching this trailer will blow your retinas out your rectum. Caveat voyeur.

P.S. If after watching the trailer you are dying for more Thermopyloric action, check out Steven Pressfield's excellent historical novel, Gates of Fire. Few events in history require no embellishment. This is one of them, and Pressfield's book is both scrupulously accurate and hellaciously awesome.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006


Back in action: Ashley Lipps, Ryan Carney, and Jackie Moustakas. Oh, and a Greater Rhea (Rhea americana) that had the good grace to expire in a convenient time and place. Thanks, dude.

By the way, Darren Naish blogs on just about everything interesting in the world, and that includes ratites from time to time. Right now he has weird Mesozoic mammals and Baikal seals. Head on over and give him a look.

Drew Lee gets brutal. We tore this animal all the way down. By the end of the day we had three or four biohazard bags full of feathers, fat, muscles, and viscera, and several large plastic bags full of bones and extremities. Ryan Carney took a wing, I got the neck, Drew and Sarah took the long bones, and the feet, dorsal vertebrae and ribs, and synsacrum are in the freezer waiting for us to make some kind of science out of them. I'm sure we'll think of something.

Here's a wing. Oddly large--compare to the emu in the previous post, which weighed more than twice as much as this animal--but emaciated-looking (not actually emaciated, that is, just very lightly muscled). Check out those wacky feather tracts on the forearm.

Ryan Carney does cool stuff determining the ranges of motion of bird and dromaeosaur forelimbs. We put this wing through its paces, about 90 different ways.

As usual, I've got gobs more to say about this. But that will have to be a story for another day.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Rhealize, foo'!

Today we started dissecting a rhea. As you can see, the appearance of a big dead bird brings anticipation and joy to all. Left to right: Sarah Werning, Ashley Lipps, Drew Lee, and Jackie Moustakas.

One of the great things about dissecting a ratite is that there are lots of jobs. It's a good group activity.

From left to right by cranium position: Simon Sponberg, in from the Full lab to observe; Ryan Carney, Mastema frontman, anarchist, and agent of the state, who provided the bird; Padianites Katie Brakora, Drew, Sarah, Jackie, and yours truly.

Present but not pictured are Padianite Brian Swartz and interested undergrad Sally Pine, who were photographing the event (many thanks to Sally for taking these photos, in fact).

The bird came to us with no head. I squeezed the neck like a toothpaste tube to try to get out any gross fluid before I skinned it. I was thinking blood. I had forgotten about the esophagus, and what actually came out was a thin unpleasant light tan gruel that smelled like slightly rotten stomach contents, which I'm sure it was. It continued to plague us throughout the afternoon.

TONS more to say about this bird and the fun we had tearing it down, already, and we've got a whole 'nuther afternoon of dissecting lined up for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Emu dissection

Not much time to chat now, just posting pictures of an emu dissection for the edification of colleagues. Full description to follow.

This is what you start with: 100 pounds of dead bird.

Should mention that I did this in the anthro anatomy lab at UC Santa Cruz a couple of years ago. Richard (above left) runs the lab and was kind enough to let me scrub in.

First step: pluck the bird. Here I'm stuck with the butt end.

Here's what a peeled ratite looks like. The amount of fat and gore is impressive. The birds carry big fat pads on their backs.

We saved all the fat and weighed it. Eighteen pounds of adipose. On a bird that weighed just over 100 lbs. Suddenly I don't feel so bad.

Rewind a sec. Here's the inflatable throat pounch from the outside...

...and again from the inside. Here we've cut along the dorsal side of the trachea and I'm holding it open. That gap is the opening of throat pouch. Several of the cartilage rings that support the trachea are incomplete. I'd seen drawings of this in books, but the real thing was much cooler (as is usually the case).

Yep, that's a hand claw on a living theropod. Pretty darn cool.

Same thing sans skin. I had thought that only male ratites have claws, but this bird was a female. Seasoned Vectorites will recognize this as the starting point of my planet-making tutorial.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stick around for the whole show. These were the totals when I left.

More to come on big dead birds very soon.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Conceptual artifacts from my inbox

I am now almost incapable of blogging without putting in some pictures. Since this post is a roundup of random sweetness, here's a B-58 Hustler, an airplane that says, "Scuze me, I'll try not to slap you right in the face with my megaton-yield supersonic penis."


After a long dry spell, today the e-mail heavens parted and unleashed a torrent of awesome.

For all of you currently on the job market, here's a dynamite rejection rejection letter you may want to crib from. Thanks to Mike for the tip.

Prepare to bow your naked monkey ass down before the slimy ichthyological overlords. Moray eels have been spotted hunting together with groupers (story here, paper here). Can global takeover be far behind? Can you afford not to FREAK OUT RIGHT NOW?

Is PLoS going to hell in a handbasket? I thought so after reading the msnbc version, which states (ahem):
This is the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish, and the first known instance of cooperative hunting between species seen outside humans, researchers said.

Which is horseshit, at least the second part, because coyotes and badgers sometimes hunt together and papers on this were published as early as 1884 (short summary and list of refs here).

But then I actually read the paper, which starts with the words:
"Cooperative hunting, i.e., the increase in successful prey capture observed when two or more individuals engage in a hunt, has been demonstrated in a wide variety of species."

The authors then go on to parse out exactly how much cooperation there is in the different systems. The fish score very high, and that's the news. So the "this is the FIRST cooperative hunting we've EVER SEEN!!! OMG! w00t! LOL!" b.s. can be chalked up to some dumbass writer simplifying things to the point that they are, er, completely wrong.

Which is, unfortunately, not all that rare.

Thanks to Mike for that one, too.

Not quite finally, Katie put me on to The Big Switch Off, which calls for all of us that love the Earth to not use any energy this weekend. My immediate thought: why is this scheduled for December? Here in the Northern Hemisphere we'ze freezin' our giblets off, whilst in Australia people are beset by raging wildfires and rampant swamp-ass. Wouldn't the spring equinox have been a better target? People all around the world could get nekkid and go run around in the woods and smoke the flora.

AAAAANYWAY, the funny really starts at this blog, where--I'm just guessing here--non-greenie Tim Blair encouraged his readers to "Please offer in comments your own plans for this weekend’s environmental footprintism." A top pick is comment #75, a veritable turducken of Gaia rape:

I’m going to club a baby seal to death with a spotted owl. Then I’m going to freeze the baby seal corpse and launch it from a harpoon gun at a humpback whale. Then I’ll stuff the dead whale full of burning tires and catapult it at the Rainbow Warrior. [link added]

Really finally, just because I haven't been to this site in about a year but remember really digging it, here is Steve, Don't Eat It! The writing here is freakin' great, so you can be grossed out, amazed, informed, and thoroughly entertained all at once.

Everything in the world should be this cool (see, e.g., the photo above).


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Curse you, Ken Jennings!

Ken Jennings's blog is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the internet.

It started because we were talking this week in Evolution about the average brain size of various hominid species. The point came up that within Homo sapiens, brain size not correlate with intelligence. True story. A great example is Anatole France, who had one of the smallest "normal" brains ever measured, but still won the Nobel Prize in literature. I knew this already from the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records (long may its memory survive in the firmament of encyclopedic awesomeness). But I didn't bring it up with my students because, er, I wasn't sure how to pronounce his name (lame, I know). Anna-toll? A-nat-oh-lee? So I did some web searching (turns out it is Anna-toll).

I also wanted to know something about the man, so I checked out his Wikipedia entry. That led to the entry on Project Gutenburg. From there I went to the entry on Google Book Search because I wanted to know how their copyright infringement lawsuits are going (I'm on Google's side here). That led to the entry on A.I., which led to the entry on the Turing test, which led to the previous post, and also to Ken Jennings's (yes, the Jeopardy guy) blog. Because he had a funny piece about how his three-year-old son failed the Turing test.

So far, so good. Or so bad, actually, but we'll get to that in a minute. Jennings's blog is actually pretty cool. He writes entries that are smart, funny, and brief. I blew the better part of an hour snapping them up.

And that's the problem. Jennings's blog is bad because it's just interesting enough to keep me hooked. I can read stuff like that all day without really learning anything and without getting anything done. It's not just that surfing the net eats up my work time. It also eats up my play time. Surfing the net is fun, but it's less rewarding than actually reading books, even if they're blatantly escapist, and it's certainly less rewarding than building rockets (to be fair, almost everything is). It's like eating a double handful of Tootsie Rolls when I could have had a big slice of chocolate cake.

And I not only blow the time doing it, I blow some more blogging about it. Sheesh! know, this could be the answer to the Fermi Paradox.

And just putting in the link to that quip led me to this. "You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

It's such a good discovery, I can almost accept all this as time well spent.


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Can a Twinkie pass the Turing test?

Ruminations on The Fountain (spoilerific)

If you haven't seen the movie, don't read this post. I'm serious. Go see the movie first. Love it or hate it, you owe it to yourself to go into the theater uncontaminated.


I don't think that it is impossible for an intelligent, reasonable person to dislike this movie. That's not some kind of lame "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion" bullshit either. I've never liked that expression, or agreed with it. If it means everyone can think what they want to, sure, that's obvious. Until we have mind control (beyond TV and Nike ads, I mean), everyone will anyway. If it means everyone is free to voice their indefensible views in public without being upbraded for being a moron, then no, I strenuously disagree. But anyway, I don't expect everyone to like this movie. Not everyone likes chocolate or pizza, either.

(Of course, you like or dislike foods based on taste, not reason. I've never met anyone who had a well-reasoned dislike of chocolate; you like it or not on the basis of incrutable preferences that are not produced by or subject to logic. I think most people's taste in music and movies works the same way, most of the time. It's probably possible to have a well-reasoned dislike of polka or Meg Ryan movies, but I think that most people dislike them simply because they're yucky.)

All that said, I do think the movie functions as an IQ test for critics. I have read one or two negative reviews by people who paid attention and understood what was going on and still found that the movie was not to their tastes. That's cool. That's expected. But I've read many more reviews that betray a breathtaking amount of intellectual laziness or basic stupidity. If you're a professional movie critic and your whole case for not liking the movie is that it doesn't fit neatly into a recognized genre, you need to hang up your spurs and go shovel out calf sheds for a while. Thomas says, "Death is a disease" and Izzi says, "Death is the road to awe." On that basis, one critic complained that the movie is inconsistent. Evidently this lackwit has been weaned on so much cinematic pap that he can't deal with a movie in which characters express contradictory points of view. And anyway, isn't the point of the movie that Thomas--"My conquistador. Always conquering."--has to come to terms with death as a necessary, even beautiful, part of life? I'm not saying that's an easy message to hear, or that you have to agree with it right away. But I don't see how you can fail to at least understand it as a meaningful proposition. And if you are never able to agree with it, you will end up like Tom Creo, alone in his spaceship after 500 years of denial.

Oh, holy shit. The spaceship. One common thread among almost all of the negative reviews is that people can't figure out that the bubble is a spaceship. It's a work of artifice, moving purposefully through space. What's not clear about that? So it's got a forcefield for a hull and no obvious controls. It's weird, but its identity is not murky at all. The future story arc would be severely compromised if the tree was growing in the cargo hold of the Millennium Falcon.

"...instead of going and doing the same old thing of putting trucks in space--which is what people have done … Every rocket ship is just a really souped up, pimped up car in space. You know, hey, let’s get a spherical ship. Why not?"


I just saw the movie for the second time, and I'm glad I did. I was a little worried about whether I would still be blown away, or if it would seem obvious or draggy the second time around. It didn't. In fact, it was even more moving the second time because I wasn't trying to solve the movie so I could concentrate on the emotional storylines and the connections between stories. I missed a lot the first time.

I am very, very glad that the stories in all three times are presented on screen as being equally real. A lesser director might have presented one or more of the stories as being obviously metafictional, a fictional story within the story, and that would have ruined the movie. Is Tomas just a character in Izzi's book? Is he an aspect of Tom's soul? Is he a real person fighting real battles? The genius of the movie is that it doesn't force you to choose one interpretation and eliminate the others; the best you get from the movie are hints. The same applies to Tom in his spaceship.

This brings up something odd about suspension of disbelief.

When we were walking out of the theater after seeing The Usual Suspects for the first time, one of my friends complained that the whole story was made up by Keyser Soze. He felt cheated because the story he'd seen on screen wasn't real. At first, this struck me as an odd complaint. Evidently it is okay to go watch a movie and know that what you are seeing on screen is an elaborate fiction, because you are able to suspend disbelief and treat the fiction as real. But if at the end of the movie you find out that the the story is fictional even to the characters in the movie, that's somehow bad. Why? You knew the story was fiction in the first place. Who cares what layer of fiction it is, as long as you enjoyed the story?

But now I think, it is bad to have a story revealed to be a metafiction. Well, not bad necessarily, but I can see why people don't like it. Because it brings your suspension of disbelief to a grinding halt. It's like being slapped in the face with your gullibility. And it's a kind of theft. You go to the theater, you invest in a storyline, and then you find out that the story you invested in isn't even a real fake story, it's a fake fake story. The filmmaker may be doing that to you intentionally, to get you to confront the illogic of your own attitudes toward stories. But I still think it's kind of a punk move. Irreverent, at least. Because it seems to imply that we should be suspicious of stories, that we should be careful not to invest in them. And I think that's a lousy message.

At this point Richard Dawkins appeared to me in a fiery vision and accused me of not wanting to unravel the rainbow. I said, "I don't believe in you. I don't believe in you," and *POOF* he disappeared.

Anyway, I thought it was an odd complaint about The Usual Suspects coming from this (ex)friend in particular, because he could not go see a movie without spending half an hour afterwards pointing out all the ways that it was unrealistic. He even did this for movies he purported to like. What an insufferable buttmunch!

Getting back to The Fountain, the reason that not presenting any of the storylines as fake fake is genius is because it allows you to invest in all of them, and be affected by them. If you were told up front that Tomas is just a metafictional character, why would you care what happens to him? You don't even find out that he might be a character until about a third of the way through the movie. By that point, you're already hooked. And even when the framing of the story makes it seem that he probably is a metafictional character, it's easy to forget. Genius.

Well, there are tons more things to write about, but for now my time is up. See you again soon.

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