Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dr. Vector, Maker of Worlds


A few weeks ago I found this badass Photoshop tutorial on how to make planets (another similar tutorial is here). Using a shortened version of the programme outlined in the tutorial, I made the icy planet shown above, with its swirling clouds, ocean basins, and ice packs, in about 10 minutes. And I made it from a gory photo of a skinned emu. This post is a step-by-step explanation of how I did it.

Note: this post is NOT intended as a replacement for the tutorials linked above. I took a lot of shortcuts, so this is at best a sort of "planets for dummies". But really I just want to explain how I made this yucky thing (below) into that beautiful planet.

A couple of years ago I got to scrub in and assist on the dissection of an emu. Here is a photo of the skinned right wing (complete with claw) and chest. The neck is out of sight at the bottom of the image, and the sternum forms the contour of the chest on the left side of the picture. This was the 8th planet I attempted, so I had developed a little bit of an eye for interesting textures.

Oh, I did all of this in Photoshop 5.5, which is pretty outdated but still good enough for everything I need to do. You should be able to do the same operations in other programs, and in fact there are several ways to do most of these things even in Photoshop. The first step is to use the circular marquee tool to select the region that is going to become your planet. In this case, I chose the ventrolateral wall of the chest, just forward of and below the wing. Copy that, paste it into a new layer, crop the background, and set it to black.

The step that makes a circular selection into a planet: spherize, and then spherize again (under Filters). Now I've got Planet Carcass. Yuck.

But by inverting the colors, I instantly got the planet. What is that, like 10 steps? Marquee, copy, paste, select background, clear to black, crop, spherize, spherize again, invert. That's it. Nine steps, and I've got a pretty good looking planet. If you want an evenly-lit, no-atmosphere-having rock, you're done.

There are lots of ways to get an atmosphere. My way is fast and easy, but it is admittedly not as sophisticated as the method outlined in the tutorial, nor does it yield the same results. But for my purposes, it's good enough.

The first step is to duplicate the planet layer, and move the new layer, named "Atmosphere", under the planet. I used the Numeric Transform to blow it up to 102%. Then I dropped the contrast and upped the brightness to get a white circle. That's what you see here: the planet sitting on top of a slightly-larger white circle.

Then you fill the white circle with whatever color you want your atmosphere to be (if the atmosphere isn't at least close to the dominant color of the planet, it looks pretty weird). The final step is to apply a Gaussian blur (another filter). You can fiddle with the specifications of the blur to get the atmosphere to stand out farther from the planet or pull it in tighter. I like a tighter atmosphere, because a big atmosphere glow (a) makes the planet look small, and (2) IMHO looks fake.

The final step is the shadow. Again, there are about a zillion ways to do this. Here's how I got mine. I made another layer on top of the planet and atmosphere layers and filled it with black. Then I created a huge-ass brush with very soft edges (low hardness) and just punched a planet-sized hole in the black layer. Then I dragged the shadow layer off center. This is kind of a fun step--you can drag the shadow around and decide which limb of your planet looks best. I liked the blue ocean area at the bottom of my planet, so I dragged the hole in that direction. But we're used to seeing things lit from above, so I flipped the picture over to make the final version shown at the beginning of the post.

That's it. Go make your own!

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Building the Thunderhawk

Rockets have been on my mind because last week I got an announcement about a rocket launch coming up this Saturday at a park here in Berkeley.

Naturally, being the awesome but busy guy that I am, I had a few unbuilt kits in the closet collecting dust. So I pulled them out and started thinking about interesting ways to combine them. I am building a big-ass starfighter, and I'm calling it the Thunderhawk. Estes had a kit back in the day called the Thunderhawk, but I don't care. It was not worthy of the name. If you want to give something a name that is so sweet that makes you a little sick just to think about it, I think Thunderhawk is about as good as it gets. My rocket is definitely going to be worthy.

I haven't built a rocket in maybe 15 years. This is the most complicated model I've ever attempted, not least because I'm making it up as I go along, and most of the parts are made from scratch. The body tubes came from three Estes kits: a Screamin' Mimi, a Baby Bertha, and the Sith Infiltrator that I picked up on clearance for five bucks before we moved from Oklahoma. I cut down the nose cones from the Mimi and the Bertha to make the connectors. The fuselage braces, guns, and fins are almost all made from scratch using dowel rods and basswood stock, although I did chop some of the Mimi's fins into new shapes.

My three best friends in this enterprise have been my Dremel, good for cutting and power-sanding small parts; my Legos, good for building custom fin alignment rigs; and some cardstock, also good for building fin supports.

Here you can see the completed fuselage (the engine mount is sticking out at the bottom) sitting in the alignment rig for the main wings.

And here are the wings in place while the glue dries. The main wings are made from 3/16" basswood stock from the local hobby store and laminated for strength.

At the end of the main wings there will be vertical fins with smaller fins canted in at the top and bottom, sorta like a TIE Interceptor or a Gunstar. This is another Lego rig I built to hold those fins in place while they set up.

Lots going on here. The fuselage is laying on its side in the new Lego drydock. You can see that I've added additional pods on the top and bottom and small canard wings in front of the fuselage transition. The completed wing/gun combos are laying in front, waiting to be glued on.


Here's a closeup of the back end with one of the wing/gun combos in place. The white pillars are cardstock supports.

I still have a lot to do. I have to finish the other wing, cut down a breath mint container to make a cockpit canopy (no kidding), cut up some small dowels to make pipes for detailing, seal the fins, spray paint the thing, detail paint it, and put on decals, which I'll have to kitbash from something else.

Still, I'm having a hell of a lot of fun, and it should be a kickass rocket when I'm through. Stay tuned.

Incidentally, if you're still in the dark about why model rocketry is cool, go to this site and watch some the videos.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Rockets

When I was a kid, I was in 4-H. 4-H was definitely not as cool as Boy Scouts, but there were no Boy Scout troops around and there was a 4-H club. When you hear 4-H, you probably think of farm kids showing their prize pigs at the county fair. I did show a lot of stuff at the county fair, but mostly drawings, photos, and models (I did show some chickens once). 4-H had programs for all of these things and more. But mainly I was in 4-H for one thing: rockets.

I discovered model rockets through 4-H. The appeal is pretty straightforward. You build a rocket and then you fly it. The kits are cardboard and balsa, you get commercially-produced solid fuel motors at hobby stores, and the ignition system is electrical. It's all very safe and sanitary, assuming you follow the safety code, which is full of no-brainers like "don't try to build your own rocket motors" and "make sure everyone is standing at least 10 feet back from the launch pad before you push the ignition button." And this fragile thing that you built yourself roars off the pad and flies up to 1000 feet. It is very, very cool.

I used to build and launch rockets with my brothers and my cousins, and of course we started violating the code left and right. Just the little ones, things like "make sure your rocket has a recovery system" (most come down on parachutes or streamers, or glide down) and "do not launch your rocket at a target." There's really one one rule in the safety code that is best not broken, and that's the one about making your own motors. There aren't many horror stories associated with rocketry (unless you count rockets eaten by trees, or parachutes that failed to open), and those that exist mainly describe how Billy Bob Butthead blew off his thumbs or blinded himself experimenting with homemake rocket fuel.

I have a zillion rocket anecdotes, and maybe someday I'll share some. But the purpose of this post is to provide myself with an annotated list of cool rocketry sites. If you find it useful or entertaining, that's gravy.

The best site I've found for cheap rockets and supplies is HobbyLinc.com. They cover all the major manufacturers, and they usually have some screaming deals.

The granddaddy of the commercial rocket manufacturers: Estes. No one else makes so many rockets, but...it seems like the older Estes kits had a lot more character. Too many of the ones they offer these days are simple 3FNCs (that's "three fins and a nose cone"). One exception is the new F-15-like Screaming Eagle. Fortunately, if you have a yen for old Estes kits, you can get them vintage at suppliers like Modelrockets.co.uk, or get clone kits from Thrustline Aerospace, or build them from scratch using the damn-near-exhaustive blueprints at JimZ Rocket Plans.

Most of those companies offer kits, clones, or blueprints from other rocket manufacturers. Notable ones include:

Quest Aerospace makes some very cool kits reminiscent of old Estes offerings, including the thoroughly badass Space Shuttle Intrepid, a glider that is carried up by a mothership.

Custom Rockets also makes kits with a lot of character, like the old Estes stuff.

Semroc has a lot of cool kits. Their Retro-Repro line consists of clones of old Estes and Centauri kits, including two of the sweetest model rockets ever sold, the Estes Mars Lander and the Centauri SST Shuttle-1, another shuttle/mothership combo.

QModeling has staked out a nice little niche: they only make upscale clones of old Estes kits, including the Starship Vega and Mars Snooper.

Squirrel Works
has some rockets with a lot of pad presence, not least their Flash Gordonesque Ajax and especially the Fokker-inspired Mega Baron glider.

FlisKits specializes in wacked-out stuff like a giant rocket made out of coffee cups, and some badass sci-fi models.

Edmonds Aerospace specializes in gliders, from teeny ones with 6-inch wingspans up to monsters 3 or 4 feet long.

Art Applewhite Rockets makes the guys at FlisKits look downright sane, with rockets made from disposable plastic plates and Bic pens and even more unlikely shapes.

Just for completeness, LOC Precision makes high-power rockets...that are mostly 4FNCs (yawn).

Not quite finally, I have a serious jones for the Refit U.S.S. Atlantis from Sirius Rocketry. The old Estes U.S.S. Atlantis was styled after the starship Enterprise from old Star Trek. The Sirius "refit" is a near-clone updated to match the stylings of the movie Enterprise.

Finally (for now), the guy at Excelsior Rocketry sells decals and plans. My favorite among his products are the Goony sets, which use an Estes Baby Bertha to kitbash stubby versions of classic Estes kits. Hmm...I wonder if you could make a Goony Strike Fighter...

UPDATES: Put your local hobby store out of business by picking up cheap kits from Belleville Hobby and their even cheaper outlet, Estes Rockets Wholesale.

Get your DIY on with Jimmy Yawn's awesome pages on rolling your own rockets.

Video rocketry. Self-explanatory. Wicked cool.

Finally (again, for now), Ralph Currell's card models are not designed to fly, but they're not designed not to fly, and some of them do.

MORE UPDATES: Essence Model Rocket Reviews has a simply unbelievable amount of information on the construction and performance of damn near everything.

Attack of the clones: resources for cloning classic kits.

Apogee Components has all kinds of cool stuff, including an article on making rocket components out of paper.

The Rocketry Blog is another good site with lots of resources, including garbage rockets (i.e., scratchbuilt from household items) and probably the largest list of paper rockets anywhere.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Dr. Vector's second Web Sausage

Another random collection of cool stuff from the net.


First up, Hakan's Space Balls. Marvel at your insignificance. Hell, marvel at the sun's insignificance.


Next, for everyone who ever melted a GI Joe with a stolen cigarette lighter, here is Solardeathray.com, leading the world in melting babies and incinerating diverse objects with a homemade Archimedean convergent mirror death ray. Includes this hilarious warning:

"The sun is bright. Don't look at the sun or you will damage your eyes. Anything that focuses the sun will only make it more dangerous. The Solar Death Ray is dangerous. Don't build one. I'm surprised I haven't burnt or blinded myself yet. The fumes from molten plastic can't be good either. Don't play with fire."


Also on the same site is a tribute to the least-heralded of all forms of facial hair, the Neck Beard. Not much else to say here. But if you find your mullet fascination tapering off, this could be the next big disgusting thing.


Not quite finally, the very au currant (i.e., referenced in Entertainment Weekly) Cats That Look Like Hitler. 'Kitlers', they call 'em. I didn't find it through EW, but rather on the blog When Ducks Attack, which also had a post on funny icons that riff on Star Wars, such as these, with which I will tie off this post, this beautiful and delicous Web Sausage.


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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Re: having it together

Sarah Werning, who does cool things with Tenontosaurus, is joining the Padian lab this fall. We have a couple of strong connections. First, she is just plain awesome, much like yours truly. Also, she did her Master's thesis work with Rich Cifelli at OU, who advised me on my Master's. And now we share the same Ph.D. advisor.

Sarah wrote this in response to the previous post, and gave me permission to post it. My response is below.

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SAYS SARAH:

I tried to post a comment to your blog but couldn't, as both the visual verifier and the handicap audio verifier wouldn't work. So here you go, my response to your most recent post:

Yes Matt, you do give off the air of someone who's got it together. It was a teensy bit imposing as I toured Berkeley, because all of Kevin's students (and all the other IB'ers I met) seemed to have their shit together on a higher plane than I've ever experienced. The whole time I was there, I was thinking "What the hell am I doing here, this guy is a student, but he has like a dozen pubs and knows his shit backwards and forwards, and I have second- and third-tier degrees from public schools and no pubs and I still get things like when to use fewer or less confused, and am socially awkward to boot". It's even worse if you compare yourself to people like Kevin or Rich or Neil Shubin or anyone else that basically reinvented the wheel at 25 and went on to be the King of Science by 30. I mean, I'm 27, I'm just starting my PhD, I watch cartoons and read comic books, and I asked my mom to make me a pirate coat for my last birthday. How can I possibly compete with these other applicants to get into a school like this?

But then I remembered that you were five years into your PhD, had several pubs from your MS, had been meeting and collaborating and talking wih people in the field for five more years than me, and if there was any time in one's life that one SHOULD act like they know what's going on, right before you start hunting for jobs is a good time to do it. The thing to remember in grad school (as in life) is that comparing oneself to others is a neurotic exercise in pointlessness, because it's all relative. People who spend all their time ranking themselves against others make bad scientists and bad advisers, and ironically come off as insecure and unknowlegdible, in person and in publication.

You should ask me to give you the full version of my Broken Genius Theory of Averaged Humanity sometime (note: better with beer). The Reader's Digest version goes like this: At UIC, I had a Physics professor, an endowed chair who had some sort of genius grant and who knew how to make the quarks dance or something along those lines. But he had a personal assistant who, in addition to her other duties, had to go to his home and lay out clothes for him to prevent him from coming to school in his PJs. Now, I'm nowhere near that smart, but on the other hand, I can dress myself, so it all averages out. How many brilliant scientists do you know who are on their third or fourth failed marriage? Or who have serious alcohol or drug addictions? Or who have all the social skills of a depressed mule on crack?

So, yeah, it'll be ok.

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SAYS MATT:

You're dead right about the pointlessness of comparing yourself to others. First, I think we rarely make the appropriate comparisons. It always freaks me out how much work Larry Witmer has done, but he got his Ph.D. the year before I graduated from high school. Jeff Wilson is closer to my age and has done a hell of a lot of work, but he go his Ph.D. when I was halfway through my Master's work. So it's pretty ridiculous to compare track records with either one of them.

Hell, Randy Irmis is about to start his third year of grad school and he has more publications that I do after eight years of grad school.

And measuring yourself by comparison to others is a losing proposition anyway. Have you read The Dechronization of Sam MacGruder? It's a time travel novel written by George Gaylord Simpson. I don't think it was ever published in his lifetime. Stephen Jay Gould wrote the forward, which includes a capsule biography of Simpson. It's not a flattering picture. Simpson basically died alone. He'd alienated most of his friends by being an asshole, and he spent the last few years of his life almost crippled by insecurity. He was worried that he hadn't done enough, that he hadn't sufficiently left his mark on the field. That was a very good thing for me to read. If G.G. Simpson felt like he wasn't enough of a badass, strongly enough that it helped ruin the last years of a long, productive life, then there is no point in playing that game. Life is too short, too unpredictable, and the limit is one per customer.

I'm not great at delaying gratification. Or, maybe I am. Who knows? I haven't really checked. That may sound like a funny thing for a graduate student to say. The normal take is that we're all sacrificing our current happiness so that we can be safe and tenured someday. But it's never seemed that way to me. I've been really enjoying myself all along. Doing research is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, writing is not always fun but the results are gratifying, and publishing is a rush. That was true when I was doing my undergrad research, true when I was working on my MS, and it's still true. If I ever reach some stratospheric level of academia where it stops being true--or where I have to stop doing those things--then I will have gone too far. The fact that someone may pay me a decent salary and give me tenure to keep doing the things I love is pretty amazing.

Before she graduated this summer, Vicki lamented that we'd been in college for 13 years. And I was like, "Yeah, so what? You say that like it's a bad thing." The meaning of "school" changes completely between high school and grad school. For the first part of your life, "school" is that place that you have to go to do things that you hate. Once you start doing research, "school" becomes that place that you get to go to do things that you love. So the whole meaning of "I'm in school" changes utterly.

Since we've both brought up publication records a couple of times, I'll say a few words about that. First, it ain't quantity that counts, it's quality. Nobody is going to think of you fondly just because you publish a lot (I could name some names here, but I won't). On the contrary, one good paper is enough to fix someone's place in the field. One of the cool things about Berkeley is that the job search process is so transparent to students. It makes it really clear how much various factors contribute to someone getting a job. A good research track record is important, but it can be totally undermined if the person doesn't know how to communicate articulately about what they do, or if he or she is an asshole. And if you look at various faculty members, their publication records, and when they were hired, you can usually point to one or two papers and say, "Okay, those were the ones that helped them get the job."

Now that I am getting closer to being on the job market, it affects the way I think about every paper. Even before I start writing, I'm thinking about where I'm going to send it, and wondering if it will be out by the time I'm going for job interviews. This is inevitable, but I'm not entirely happy about it. When I wrote my first few papers, my academic career was still far enough off that I was not thinking about the papers as job-getting devices, but just as ways to communicate cool stuff that I'd learned. I think those papers were probably better for it, and I certainly had more fun writing them. The only pressure was to do good work, not to appear tenurable.

And this is probably self-evident, but when you just try to do good work, you're probably more likely to produce one of those career-making papers than if you set out to produce one by artifice.

I have more to say, but I'll save it for another message/post.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The herd


I'm a wreck. Everywhere I look, I see people who have their shit together to a higher degree than I do.

I don't have any data. No database, no big collection of specimens, no organized framework, no clear sense of where I'm going in the medium-to-long term--no program, in other words. Just a dubious stew of weird specimens, half-baked ideas, and curiosity. And, well, okay, I do have a little data. Little enough that just about everyone else has more.

A couple of clarifications here. First, I'm not complaining. My strategy of working on whatever's most interesting has gotten me this far and kept me happy in the meantime. Most of the people who do seem to have their shit together expend all that organizational energy on problems that seem deadly dull to me. I'm just worried that someday I'm going to be called to account--for example, by a job search committee--and when they ask, "Wedel, what the crap are you doing?" I won't have a satisfactory answer.

Second, I'm not kidding. I've tried to express this before, but no one believes me. Evidently I give off the air of someone who knows what he's doing. I'm just trying to give you the Wedel-internal view. Who knows, maybe everyone feels this way and I don't know that because no one ever talks about it.

Unless you're part of a search committee and you're checking up on me, in which case I am stone-cold badass researcher, and I'm just writing all this baloney to keep the proles from feeling too bad about how much their lives suck.

Anyway, that's not what I sat down to blog about. I also have a collection of toy sauropods. I'm sure it's nowhere near the world's biggest, and I'm not bragging, I'm just telling. I tend to pick up a new one whenever I take a trip somewhere. I can tell you that the NHM Cetiosaurus came from my first trip to London and the NHM Mamenchisaurus came from the second, and that the Brachiosaurus skeleton came from the gift shop at Dinosaur National Monument (the one at the Wall, not the one on the road in with the ride-able Diplodocus from the previous post). I'm not sure if it would be inspiring or pathetic if I could remember where I'd gotten every one. In any case, I can't.

There's only one that is really worth blogging about at all, and that's the plush Sauroposeidon. I found it in a Discovery Channel store in Dallas, Texas, late in 2000. They must have made them in a hurry, since we only announced the beast's existence in the late fall of 1999. And they made them without our knowledge or input, since I first learned that the toy existed when I saw it in the store. I'm not complaining, mind you. As far as I'm concerned, once the thing is out there, it's out there, and people can do with it what they want. I'm just saying that as the primary namer of the dinosaur, I was shocked to see it incarnated as a toy. Pleasantly shocked and flattered as hell, but shocked nonetheless.

Oh, and they're not available anymore. I wish I'd bought a dozen. As it is, I only have the one. I bought one each for my mom and my grandma, too. Mom ties a red ribbon around the neck of hers at Christmas, which is kinda touching.

About the only other thing to tell about it is something my brother Todd said. When I was all stressed out about my oral qualifying exams, he told me that I should just walk into the exam room, set the plush Sauroposeidon on the table, and ask, "Any questions?" I thought that was pretty funny, but I'm pretty sure my committee wouldn't have.

Anyway, here's a photo of the thing with the NHM Brachiosaurus for scale--and, conveniently, to scale.


P.S. If you're burning with curiosity about who's who in the photo at the top, here's the best I can do, from left to right by head position, with genus, maker, and purchase location where available.

Apatosaurus, Wild Safari
Brachiosaurus, Wild Safari
Brachiosaurus skeleton, maker unknown, DNM gift shop
Brachiosaurus (little rubber guy in front row)
Apatosaurus (plush)
Amargasaurus, Carnegie collection
Brachiosaurus (LRG in front row), tube 'o dinos from the Smithsonian
Cetiosaurus, NHM collection, NHM gift shop
Mamenchisaurus (head down near LRG), Carnegie collection
Brachiosaurus, Schleich collection, Stuttgart museum gift shop
Sauroposeidon, Discovery Channel store, Dallas
mystery sauropod skeleton, Arby's kids meal, San Jose
Brachiosaurus, NHM collection, gift from Tony Campagna
Apatosaurus, Schleich collection, hardware store in Enid, OK
Brachiosaurus, Carnegie collection
Brachiosaurus (LRG in front row), Cal Acad gift shop
Brachiosaurus (plush), Field Museum gift shop
mystery sauropod Mexican bobble-head, gift from Alan and Sophie Shabel
Mamenchisaurus, NHM collection, NHM gift shop
Corythosaurus (not a sauropod), found on beach in Santa Cruz
mystery caveman, ditto
baby Apatosaurus, Carnegie collection
LEGO Brachiosaurus, Wal-Mart
Brachiosaurus, Burger King kids meal, gift from Terry Cooper
Apatosaurus (pewter)
Brontosaurus, Mold-a-Rama machine, Field Museum

The last one is one of my favorites, and noteworthy because you can still get one if you can get your ass to Chicago. In the basement of the Field Museum, right outside the McDonalds, are four huge Mold-a-Rama machines from the 50s that will form a Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Apatosaurus out of hot stinking carcinogenic plastic right before your eyes. I really wanted to complete my set (of 1) when I was there last summer, but slave-driver Mike insisted that seeing the Brachiosaurus holotype was more important. Whatever!

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Dr. Vector, interior decorator

I'm not going to lie to you: I like toys. Legos, Star Wars, Transformers, dinosaurs--all of that. Is it unseemly for a 31-year-old married father of one to want to acquire and play with toys? Not at all.

First, toys are cool. That's a tough one to argue with.

Second, there's Jarrod's infamous defense of adults playing with toys: someday our kids are going to be buying toys. We don't want them to be stuck with the pathetic offerings of a dried-up toy industry. Therefore it's our responsibility to support those toymakers now by buying and using their products.

Finally, it is reassuring to know that I am not alone.

Toys are on my mind right now because the move afforded me the opportunity to get a couple of things out of the box and put them up. One of them is the Lego Ultimate Collectors' Series Y-Wing, which is 26 inches long and a foot wide and contains 1473 pieces. But I'm going to wait and blog about that after I've gotten Vicki to take some good pictures of me holding it.

An equally large box contains the Lego Millennium Falcon that Mike Taylor sent me, apparently just for being a good person. I haven't gotten around to building that one, but it's coming. In the meantime, and to continue the run of photos of me in compromising positions, here's a photo showing how much I love my as-yet-unbuilt Millennium Falcon.

The other thing that I was able to get out of the box is my King Kong V-rex bust. This thing has a complicated history. I am often stumped when someone wants to buy me a big gift, because my day-to-day yearnings are for small, cheap things like paperbacks and comic books. I rarely want things that are both expensive and practical. If someone says they're looking to spend 50 bucks on me, I usually ask for something at least a little outlandish.

Last Christmas, Vicki asked me what I wanted and I told her that I was quite taken with the King Kong V-rex skull.

This is a nice little 8-inch model skull of the new movie's tyrannosaur, the fictional Vastatosaurus rex. It's comparable in size to a human skull, and I thought it would look cool next to the cast human skull I got Vicki for Christmas several years ago.

Vicki was game and ordered the thing well in advance of Christmas, which was good, because they were going to be shipping it from New Zealand. But it didn't arrive. When they missed the delivery window, Vicki got online and zapped a few e-mails around to try to find out what the hell was going on with her order.

At this point I have to express some serious admiration for the people at Weta. They had lost her order, but they were apologetic, and they promised to get it in the mail straightaway. And they did.
Shortly thereafter, an improbably large box arrived on our doorstep. Much too large and too heavy to contain a little 8-inch skull and stand, unless the skull was made out of collapsed matter. I tore open the shipping box and received one of the most pleasant surprises of my life. I don't know if it was just a mistake, or if the folks at Weta felt bad about depriving me of a Christmas present. Don't know, and don't care.

Because they didn't send me the V-rex skull, which retails for about $40 and which Vicki had paid for a month prior. They sent the V-rex bust, which retails over $200. And they sent it from New Zealand. So I could hardly send it back; the postage would be more than the cost of the item.

More to the point, I didn't want to send it back.

This is no small, tasteful knickknack like a model dinosaur skull on a stand. This imposing sumbitch is 10 inches wide, 18 inches tall, and stands out from the wall 18 inches. It is hideous...hideously AWESOME!!!!!

I really can't say enough good things about it. The modeling, casting, and painting are all first-rate. It looks like a damn tyrannosaur just busted through the wall looking for someone's ass to kick. And it looks pissed.

Purists will have noted that the movie tyrannosaur has three fingers per hand, when real-life tyrannosaurids only had two. But whoever sculpted this beauty was pretty savvy. Each hand does have three fingers, but they are cleverly arranged so that it's almost impossible to see more than two of them at once. So on casual inspection the V-rex looks like a T-rex. Which is nice, and may help Weta move a little more product. More power to 'em, sez me.

So of course I wanted to put it up in the living room, right over the entertainment center. You know, really make it the centerpiece of Casa Wedel. Well, Vicki was having none of that. She wouldn't let me put it up in our old place at all. She said I'd have to wait until we moved.

Well, as any decent negotiator can tell you, that was Mistake #1. We were only going to be in the other place for a handful of months. She should have let me put it up wherever I wanted in exchange for a reduced sentence after the move.

Our new front door opens onto a short hallway that takes you into the rest of the apartment. I really wanted to put the thing up at the front of the hallway, so that the first thing you'd see when you came in was a pissed-off tyrannosaur about your bite your head off. But Vicki wasn't having any of that, either. She said I could put it up over the aquarium, and only over the aquarium.

That was Mistake Numero Dos. If I'd gotten my way, Rex would be in the hallway and we'd only see it when we passed through. The kitchen/dining room/living room here is all one big, long space, and even though Rex is hanging in the far corner, it is amazing and gratifying to see how much it visually dominates the room. It's large enough to be visible from anywhere in the living area, and it draws the eye. It couldn't be more noticeable if pirates were riding around it on flying sharks and throwing bears at people.

That lamp in front of the aquarium has to go, obviously. I offered to set up my herd of sauropods somewhere else, but Vicki said she'd gotten used to them being on top of the bookcase. And they do make a nice visual segue to Rex.

More toy-related blogging soon.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dr. Vector with friends

I don't blog enough about sauropods. I mean, nobody does, but c'mon. It's time for some sauroponderous action featuring yours truly. In rough chronological order, then...


About 20 miles outside of Vernal, Utah, is the turnoff for Dinosaur National Monument. Once you start on the road in, the only potential stop before you get to the Wall is an improbably large private gift shop. They have the best dino junk in the world, and outside they have this kickass lifesize Diplodocus you can get your picture taken on. I've actually ridden the dino twice, once in the summer of 1997 when I was hitting museums out west with Vicki and Tyson Davis, and once the next summer when Rich's field crew was passing through Vernal on our way home from the Cloverly. I assume that this photo is from 1997 since I'm (A) wearing pants--that is, as opposed to shorts, you perverts, (2) not visibly bearded, and (D) waving a ball cap instead of my big-ass Tilley T2.


Jump forward to June 2004, when I went back to the OMNH with Andrew Lee, who snapped this cool shot of me with an immense dorsal vertebra of Apatosaurus. This is probably D5 or D6, based on the incipient cleft in the neural spine (the thing on the left that would be the neck and headboard if this was a guitar). It's an even 140 cm tall, compared to 105 cm for the same bone in the mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus in the Carnegie Museum. The Carnegie animal is about 70 feet long, so . . . you do the math.



Last summer I went to Chicago and spend a couple of days rocking the Field Museum with Mike Taylor. The highlight of the trip was getting to have our way with the holotype of Brachiosaurus for an afternoon. It came out of the ground about the same time the Wright brothers were taking off. This is the beast's humerus (upper arm bone). The top end is up by my head, and the elbow end is, well, missing. At least 8 inches, maybe a foot. So it should be even longer than it is. How much does that rock? I'll tell you: a lot.


Time to break chronology. Back in 1999 or 2000 Matt Bonnan came to Norman and spent a few days crashing with Vicki and me and ransacking the OMNH collection. We eventually got a paper out of it, which is the second-best thing to come out of that visit. This is not the first-best thing, but it's close: me with an Apatosaurus femur. Just a normal-sized one; the femur from the monster whose backbone is shown above would be an even third larger.


Now this is the best thing from that visit.

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Wanted: A Tough Sumbitch With a Razor

When I lived in Norman, I used to get my hair cut at Dale's Barbershop. Dale was one of a dying breed: an honest-to-God barber. Not a stylist. He never went to no fancy beautician's school. He never said, but I assume he learned to cut hair as Blackbeard's cabin boy, or more likely on a Marine transport bound for Guadalcanal. He was a tough salty old sumbitch, but he could cut hair like nobody's business. A haircut was eight bucks, and a shave was five more.

The shave was done with a straight razor, one of the kind that you can fold up to put in your pocket and then whip out to trim some offending stubble or sever someone's Achilles tendons. The first thing he'd do is get some hot shaving cream out of what looked and sounded like the love child of a Hoover and an espresso machine. He'd lean the chair way back so you were looking at the ceiling, slather hot shaving cream all of your face, and then pile hot wet towels on you so only your nose was showing. Then he'd leave you to cook for about 5 minutes. Afterwards, your facial hair was transmuted from something akin to copper wire into a soft fuzz like the down of unborn geese. I don't know what happened to the first round of shaving cream. Possibly it was absorbed by the hair or the towels or simply sublimated into molecules of warmth and satisfaction. Anyway, after 5 minutes the towels came off, another round of shaving cream went on, and then he would shave your face with a 5-inch piece of deadly sharp steel. After that, he'd slather your face again, with various arcane balms and salves, and then put on more hot towels. By the time you came out the other side, your face felt like it was carved out of butter.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I'm hoping against hope that somewhere around here (Berkeley, that is) one of Dale's old war buddies (preferably WWII) has set up shop and is providing real manly haircuts and straight-razor shaves to the public. I'm in the market. If you know anything, let me know.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Bristol Stool Scale

Critics of science always point to the A-bomb, weaponized anthrax, and silicone boobies as evidence that science is a blight on mankind. But they forget to count the counterexamples, the things that science has given us that immeasurably enrich our lives.

For example, the Bristol Stool Scale, which I reproduce here for convenient reference (stolen from Wikipedia).

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The Bristol Stool Scale or Bristol Stool Chart is a medical aid designed to classify the faeces form into seven groups. It was developed by Heaton and Lewis at the University of Bristol and was first published in the journal Scand J Gastroenterol in 1997. Because the form of the stool depends on the time it spends in the colon, there is a correlation between the colonic transit time and the stool type.

The seven types of stool are:

* Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts (hard to pass)
* Type 2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy
* Type 3: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface
* Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft
* Type 5: Soft blobs with clear cut edges (passed easily)
* Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool
* Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces (entirely liquid)

Types 1 and 2 indicate constipation, with 3 and 4 being the "ideal stools" especially the latter, as they are the easiest to pass. 5-7 being further tending towards diarrhoea.


Thanks to Mike Taylor for the tip.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Old Navy Helo Pilot Strikes Back

Kent Lidke used to fly helicopters for the Navy in Antarctica, and he writes about it very well. This is one of the best things I've ever read. Even though he's writing about something very different from what I do, it's still a dream job, and it reminds me of how lucky I am to get to be a paleontologist.

This was originally an e-mail post in an online discussion about the future of space exploration. The previous poster had written something about real space travel being much less exciting than Star Wars and Star Trek. This was Kent's reply. Many thanks to him for giving me permission to post it.

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In all seriousness, this is true. Because of the flight times involved, flying between planets is not going to be exciting in our lifetimes. However, once you get there, the stuff you do CAN be exciting.

Like J-Rod and no doubt a lot of others, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, fly around the moon and all that. Even in college, I was studying aeronautical engineering and propulsion systems, and checking out payload integration companies like Orbital Sciences. I graduated 5 months after the Challenger explosion and space was drying up, so I joined the Navy thinking I could go the test pilot route, and maybe things would be hot again by the time I got through that. Then I ended up in helicopters, which turned out to be a good thing, and then I got insanely lucky and got a slot with the Antarctic program.

I can tell you what it's going to be like 25 or 50 or a hundred years down the road when they're exploring the moon and Mars, because that's what Antarctica was like. It was exactly like what everyone wants space exploration to be like. No giant mission control room, no eight years of training and waiting for your ride. You go down to the hangar in the morning, get your list of science missions, preflight your ship, and off you go.

You spend the day landing your ship in places no human being has ever been, you see things too big to capture in a picture, you wear lots of cool gear and a helmet with a visor, you get to camp out on an alien surface every once in a while. The scientists tell you about what they're doing, and what it means, and why they love it. You visit other stations, trade patches, try their food, and drink their wine. You climb mountains in 80 knot winds and get so cold you can't talk so you have to use hand signals, you get scared shitless by warning lights, wind shears and low fuel warnings. You break down and have to lash your busted ship together with duct tape and bailing wire, and nurse it back to the base.

You don't get TV or phone calls, you make do with an occasional HF radio patch, if the solar activity isn't frying the ionosphere, and sometimes you can pick up a relay of the super bowl on the navigation radio. You wait for the next supply run from home with fresh vegetables and mail, and you have big parties for everyone at the station for Halloween, Christmas and New Years. Anyone who can play an instrument gets together for a concert and barbecue in the spring.

You work hard and you play hard, because every day really can be your last. Risk really is your business, and it's cool and exciting and scary and 100% totally kickass. You have never been so alive before and you never will be again, and you know it. When you leave for the last time, it breaks your heart, and you spend the next ten years wishing things could have stayed that way forever.

That's what it's supposed be like, and that's what it IS like, once you get there. It'll be that way on the moon, it'll be that way on Mars. It'll be full environment suits instead of cold weather gear, it'll be lumbering interplanetary transports instead of C-130s, and I don't know what they'll use for Hueys but there'll be something. There will be pilots and mechanics and cargo handlers and radio operators, scientists and lab techs and administrators, and survival specialists and firemen and kitchen workers and construction workers and shuttle bus drivers.

Ordinary people who aren't rocket scientists will live and work there because they got an itch to do something extraordinary. Every once in a while they'll get a chance to take a ride out of town and see something, and they'll show up at the hanger all wound up like little kids, and they'll take their cameras and video recorders and get on the ship and for a few hours they'll get to see and do things most of the human race only dreams about, and they will live lifetimes in those hours, and they will treasure every single minute of it.

I got incredibly lucky. I stumbled into a real life frontier right here on Earth, an exploration program that was all about the science and the learning and the knowing, and it turned out to be everything I was looking for in a place I never would have thought of. National Science Foundation, civilians, Navy, Army, American, Kiwi, Aussie and every other kind... It was real life Star Trek, all people working together for the benefit of all mankind.

So go ahead and say it's not real. For most of the world it never will be. But for those with the dream, and the drive and the luck, it's going to happen. I've seen it, and it fucking rocks.

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