Monday, June 25, 2007


George Orwell:

"Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water. Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again."

I was raised on sun tea that was almost always sweetened to within an inch of its life before serving. In my mid-teens I started taking my tea unsweetened, and now sweetened tea tastes positively gross.

Today I made sun tea for the first time in probably a decade. I had two iced glasses whilst sitting on the back porch and admiring the lawn.

My favorite time of day is the moment just after sunset, when there is still plenty of light but not one photon of it is direct. For about five minutes everything just seems to glow. Colors are richer and shapes are better defined. It's like putting on new glasses. Is there a word for this?

If finishing the dissertation was the trek to Mount Doom (and it was), and moving was the Scouring of the Shire (and it was), sitting on the back porch drinking a cold glass of sun tea and marinading in that glow just might be passing into the West.

If I ever come back, I'll let you know.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It came from my hard drive

A couple of things I've had laying around forever, and am now posting in lieu of coming up with anything new.

That's a golden eagle. In 2002 I was in Utah to do some work at BYU and I was crashing with my friend and frequent coauthor, Kent Sanders. One day I was driving back to the ranch after a long day in collections and as I zoomed around a bend on the highway I realized that just off on the shoulder was a dead dear being eaten by a golden eagle. I passed them too fast to get a good look, and the eagle didn't take off, so I drove on about a quarter of mile, turned around, and started creeping back, this time with my camera out. I guess the eagle thought a car sneaking up slowly was more suspicious than one that whipped by in an instant. When I was about 50 yards away it took off and started leisurely flapping away. I gunned it, held the camera out at arm's length toward my open passenger side window, and snapped the above. This was the dark ages before I got my first digital camera, so I had to wait a couple of weeks for the prints to know if I had gotten anything at all. It's not the world's best eagle picture, but it's my best, and considering the kinetic and technological circumstances, I'm pretty happy with it.

When I was at the University of Oklahoma, the zoo grad students decided to sell t-shirts. We had a contest to come up with the best design. My winning design is above. Frustratingly, after all of us had voted as a group to put the design on gray shirts, the tool who took the design to the apparel company had them put it on some godawful yellowish-cream-colored shirts. Did I mention that the aforementioned tool was the only one of us to have voted against the gray? Anyway, the shirts did not sell well, and my design languished in obscurity. Until now.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 11, 2007

Oh, yeah, don't forget to actually DESCRIBE your critters, too

In the previous post I went off on people who perpetuate taxonomic chaos by naming new taxa in unpublished theses. Now we're going on to the next step: actually describing the beasts. A lot of new critters are described in very brief notes, especially if they are sexy enough to get into Nature or Science.* As Jerry Harris pointed out in a comment:

there's a sad tendency for authors to perceive these "preliminary" publications as "definitive," even though they provide virtually no useful details, so nothing longer and more detailed gets published for years and years, if ever


Here's a plea, from a paleobiologist who needs things like measurements and detailed morphological descriptions to do his work (say it with me: a list of character codings is NOT a description): if you are sitting on one of these named-but-not-really-described taxa**, and you don't have the time or inclination to write and publish a proper description, please, please farm out the project to someone else. The fact is that rapid-fire papers and phylogenetic analyses rarely have legs, whereas monographic descriptions get cited for decades. Osborn 1899 (Diplodocus), Hatcher 1901 (Diplodocus), Hatcher 1903 (Haplocanthosaurus), and Riggs 1904a and b (Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus) are all into their second century of healthy citation and they are not likely to expire any time soon. I'm sure that Osborn & Mook 1921 (Camarasaurus) and Gilmore 1925 and 1936 (Camarasaurus and Apatosaurus) will last just as long. Not to mention the monographs of Werner Janensch, which are so badass and so important that they are actually used by English-speakers! (Some translations available here.) So it shouldn't be hard to convince someone to take on the project: "Hey, how would you like to write a paper that people will still be reading, citing, and actually benefiting from long after you're dead?" Of course you'll want the person who actually does the work to put you on as an author, but that seems like a small price to pay to getting handed a project that will make them well-nigh immortal in the published literature.

This sort of thing would make a wonderful Master's thesis for someone, as long as they actually publish it when they're done. Of course I am coming from the position that all masters students who are actually generating knowledge (and if you're in the sciences, you'd better be) should be expected to publish their results, and coerced if necessary, but that's a rant for another day.

Incidentally, Jerry holds the highest moral ground when it comes to this problem: after publishing a short description of his new sauropod, Suuwassea, in 2004 (I say short, but it was still about 20 times meatier than anything you can get away with in Nature and Science), he published follow-up papers on the skull, the axial skeleton, the appendicular skeleton, and the phylogenetic relationships of the beast. And that wasn't a matter of padding his CV by generating LPUs (Least Publishable Units): the original paper and the four follow-ups are all between 14 and 31 pages long. Except for Camarasaurus, which has received thorough treatments from Osborn (twice), Gilmore, and McIntosh (twice, plus a monograph on the skull), I don't know of a more thoroughly described sauropod in the world. And Cam has an unfair lead in time (130 years, compared to 3 for Suuwassea) and number of finds (dozens of skeletons, hundreds of specimens, compared to 1).

So if you're tempted to bitch about having to read five papers on one animal, ask yourself: is anyone bitching because they have too much information available about your own critters? Or is it more likely the opposite?

Remember, kids, Dr. Vector says: aspire to Harrisian completeness,, Copeian (safe because he's dead, although more recent examples rush to mind *cough*) rush jobs.

* It totally, totally sucks that ISI ratings, job search committees, tenure review committees, and departmental review committees all view these glorified abstracts as more important and worthwhile than big monographic descriptions that actually have lasting value. (Yeah, that's it! I haven't published in Nature or Science yet because I'm too good.)

** Here's a little worksheet you can go through to see if this description fits you:

1. Was the animal described in Nature or Science or a JVP Rapid Communication?

2. Did you ever publish anything else on it?

3. If I wanted to know, say, the lengths of each of its vertebrae, or its height at the hip, could I get that information out of what you've published?

4. Are you still asking other people who have seen the specimen not to publish on it almost a decade after the initial "description" came out?

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 08, 2007

Putting my money where my open access mouth is

Oh, geez, now that I see it on the page that doesn't look wholesome at all.

No, no, this isn't a post about a new profession as a man-whore (I refuse to blog about that). It's about my theses--BS, MS, and PhD--and the fact that they are now freely available to all. Even the unpublished parts of my diss. I guess if we see a New Mexico Museum bulletin on dinosaur air sacs my naivete will be revealed.

Many thanks to my webmaster, Mike Taylor, whom I owe an improbable amount of good sushi for keeping up my other web presence.

Dr. Vector Sets 'Em Straight: Naming New Taxa Edition

I have to get something off my chest. It is just flat stupid when people name new taxa in theses and dissertations. Let me immediately qualify that: it is just fine to describe new taxa in theses and dissertations. Encouraged, actually. It's a wonderful learning experience. Just don't stick the actual name in. Always in motion is the future, and frankly you don't know for certain whether you are going to get around to publishing the new taxon, or perhaps get creamed by a Mac truck while you cross the road to rescue a kitten. And if you choose the kitten / gruesome death route, or simply get sidetracked by family responsibilities, a job, or whatever, then we'll be stuck with another one of these crappy situations in which a taxon named in a thesis is not properly established in the literature. Maybe never, maybe just not for a long time (Neuquensaurus, anyone?).

Look, I don't mean to beat my chest about how completely awesome I am, but sometimes it just can't be avoided. Here's the Systematic Paleontology section from my undergraduate thesis:

Order SAURISCHIA Seeley 1888
Suborder SAUROPODOMORPHA Huene 1932
Infraorder SAUROPODA Marsh 1878
Gen. et sp. nov.
[name to be added in formal publication]

See what I did there? The whole thesis is as close to submission-ready as I could make it*, with this one little difference. Oh, and in the text of the thesis I referred to the animal by the holotype specimen number instead of by the name. That's it.

* The reason it looked so different when it finally came out is that it had been chopped down, reformatted, reviewed three times, and rejected twice before it saw the light of day. Also, I had gotten access to a CT scanner, and that changed things a bit too. Tell you all about it later.

Okay, I can't really take credit for that, Rich Cifelli told me to do it that way. But now I've told you, and you can tell others, and pretty soon this whole problem will be cleared up forever.

Next post: how to fix global warming and prevent dust-bunnies from forming under the couch.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 04, 2007


Things to do, things to do. Been meaning forever to blog about my best recent discoveries in science fiction: Sean McMullen's Souls in the Great Machine and sequels, Alistair Reynolds's Revelation Space and sequels, and probably the best of them all, Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies, which started great and get better with each book.

But I haven't, and I don't have time right now, so I'll just post a little snippet from Reynolds's Redemption Ark:

The flashes were mostly dying ships. Now and then one would be the triggering pulse of a Demarchist railgun--cumbersome, thousand-kilometer-long linear accelerator barrels. They had to be energised by detonating a string of cobalt-fusion bombs. The blast would rip the railgun to atoms, but not before it had accelerated a tank-sized slug of stabilised metallic hydrogen up to seventy percent of light-speed, surfing just ahead of the annihilation wave.

Woo-haa! Eat that, Vader.

Labels: , ,

Movie hell

There is a lot that I will not miss about living on the overpopulated coast. A lot. I could go on at length, but a good chunk of my readership still lives there and it would be impolite.

But one thing I will miss is getting to see pretty much whatever movie I wanted. In Santa Cruz the Cinema 9 and the Riverfront Twin carried mainstream stuff, and the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar carried indies, Sundance fare, and other artsy stuff. Between them the Nick and the Del Mar have eight screens, I think, so I had access to 19 movie screens that were almost always showing 19 different movies.

And all 19 screens were within a ten-minute walk from my front door. It was heaven, I tells ya.

I didn't see as many movies in Berkeley, and I had to travel farther to see them, but still, if it was in release here in the U.S., I at least had the option.

Alas, I am now back in the Real World. This has certain perks--I can get around town without swearing immoderately at all the morons walking, biking, and driving (if you can call it that) in my way, and a pound of bacon can be had for less than four bucks, and there's an immense patch of real grass out the back door that is mine all mine with a fence and a shaded porch and everything--BUT a wide selection of cinematic adventures is not one of them.

To wit. The movie theater on Main Street has 12 screens. Currently they are showing Pirates of the Caribbean 3 on FIVE screens and Spiderman 3 on FOUR screens, and some b.s. on the other three.

Which is AWESOME if you want to go to the movie theater without checking showtimes and be guaranteed to have a show starting within ten minutes of your arrival.

As long as you want to see Pirates 3 or Spidey 3.

If you'd like to see Oscar bait, or documentaries, or stuff like Mirrormask or Pan's Labyrinth (their current equivalents, I mean), you're hosed.

Also, I notice that I am out of napkins.

Labels: , ,