My last post (Unhappy thoughts on student projects at SVPCA 2015) was stupid and ill-judged. As a result of very helpful conversations with a senior palaeontologist (who was much more courteous about it that he or she needed to be), I have decided to retract that article rather than editing it further to clarify. I deeply wish I’d never posted it, and I offer my apologies to everyone I insulted.

First, and most importantly, to people presenting projects under the influence of nerves, which I misinterpreted as a lack of interest in their own projects. Nervousness particularly affects people giving their first talks — an effect I should have allowed for. It’s awful to think that what I wrote may have been discouraging to people taking first steps into palaeo.

Second, to supervisors who felt that the “roll four dice” section in the middle of the post was aimed at them. All I can say is that it wasn’t. I had no-one in mind when I wrote that: I was just so seduced by the comical imagery of generating a project by rolling dice that I wrote it down without thinking through how it would be interpreted.

Did I have good intentions? I honestly did. Did I have legitimate concerns about the ubiquitous application of techniques that are not always appropriate, and whose results are not always interpreted with a suitable degree of scepticism? I think so. But clearly I should have discussed those concerns privately with more involved people, rather than spilling my brains all over the blog. I welcome the increasing availability of techniques that allow us to bring numerical rigour to our palaeobiological speculations. (I could discuss in more detail when and how I think those techniques should be used, but that’s for another day. My purpose here is to apologise, not to justify myself.)

In short, I had a very bad day at the office on Friday, and I hate the idea that in my carelessness I could have hurt anyone other than myself. To those in that category, I can only ask your forgiveness; and promise to think more before blogging in future.

THIS POST IS RETRACTED. The reasons are explained in the next post. I wish I had never posted this, but you can’t undo what is done, especially on the Internet, so I am not deleting it but marking it as retracted. I suggest you don’t bother reading on, but it’s here if you want to.



There were some surprises in the the contents of the SVPCA programme this year. Sauropods were woefully under-represented with only two talks (mine on apatosaur neck combat and Daniel Vidal’s on the range of movement of the tail of Spinophorosaurus). In fact non-avian dinosaurs as a whole got short shrift, with two theropod talks, three ornithischian talks and one on dinosaur diversity. This is partly, of course, because so many dinosaur workers among the SVPCA mainstays were absent for one reason or another: Matt Wedel, Paul Upchurch, Paul Barrett, Richard Butler, Roger Benson, Steve Brusatte, David Norman, the list goes on.

But that’s OK. I’ve often found, to my surprise, that the dinosaur talks aren’t always my favourites anyway. (Oddly enough, fish talks can quite often catch my imagination; and pterosaurs are always good for a laugh.)

A more surprising development was the complete absence of any finite element analysis this year — a technique that was crazy trendy a couple of years ago, but seems to have to the end of its fashion cycle.

Instead, I felt that the talks were strongly dominated by one technique: principal component analysis (PCA). As a technique, I have mixed feelings about it: I don’t go as far as John Conway, who as far as I can tell thinks it’s almost literally meaningless. But I have strong reservations about the plug-and-play way it seems to get used for pretty much everything at the moment, and how very tenuous some of the inferences are that people derive from their morphospace plots. It’s difficult to be specific without criticising individuals, which I’d like to avoid doing. But I do think think that when we draw sweeping and heterodox conclusions about an animal’s lifestyle from a PCA of a single facet of a single bone, the validity of that conclusion is, to put it politely, open to question.

In fact an awful lot of the projects presented in this year’s talks seemed to follow the same template. In an idle (and, yes, unnecessarily snide) moment, I sketched an Automatic Masters Project Generator for lazy supervisors. You just throw four dice, then pick your technique name, body-part, period and taxon from these tables:

Table 1: roll 1d6 for a technique

  1. 2d landmark analysis
  2. principal component analysis
  3. geometric morphometrics
  4. morphospace analysis
  5. finite element analysis
  6. ecomorphological diversity analysis

Table 2: roll 1d6 for a body part

  1. quadrate
  2. mandible
  3. sacrum
  4. pelvis
  5. ulna
  6. astragalus

Table 3: roll 1d6 for a period

  1. Permian
  2. Mesozoic
  3. Jurassic
  4. Late Cretaceous
  5. Eocene
  6. Miocene

Table 4: roll 1d6 for a taxon

  1. lamnid sharks
  2. sauropterygians
  3. ornithopods
  4. corvids
  5. mustelids
  6. golden moles

Try it yourself! Morphospace analysis of the ulna in Miocene mustelids! Ready, steady, go! Your Masters degree will be ready as soon as you can talk reasonably coherently about this combination for fifteen minutes and leap to an obvious but weakly supported conclusion based on vague shapes drawn on a PC1-vs.-PC2 plot that captures only 32.6% of the variation!

(To be clear: I am not saying that PCA is intrinsically worthless. As I found myself repeatedly arguing in pubs with John and others, it’s evidently a very powerful tool for discovering correlations. For me, it goes wrong when very weak results pop out, but are given a veneer of respectability and objectivity because a computer was involved in the process.)

As the week went on, I found myself worrying increasingly about these projects. It’s not just that they are (with a few creditable exceptions) samey to listen to and uninteresting in their results. I worry more that these projects kill the interest of the people who take them on. I may be reading my own biases back into my observations here, but it seemed to me that I detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm in several of the speakers, and my hunch is that for a lot of them this will be their first and last SVPCA. They presumably went into palaeo because they loved some specific extinct taxon; instead, they found themselves spending a year staring at a hundred almost identical photographs of moodily lit tubes of toothpaste. And really, if anything is going to kill the passion of a pterosaur lover stone dead, it’s taking measurements of the distal articular facets of the ulnae of a 154 Miocene mustelids.

So I found myself longing for more talks about taxa, and about ideas, rather than techniques. Most obviously, there was very little pure descriptive palaeontology to be seen this year. But also, our own talk aside, very little of what I would think of as exploratory work — thinking about structures, chewing through their implications, considering alternatives. In short: the fun stuff. I would hate palaeontology to be reduced to a process of harvesting data from specimens (looking only at the aspects needed to fill in the matrix), pouring that data into a sausage machine, and turning the handle until something statistically significant comes out.

We have to be able to offer grad-students more than that. We are, and I say this with all due objectivity, in the most exciting science in the world. People go into palaeo because they love it. I wouldn’t like to think they go straight back out of it, as soon as they have their higher degree, hating it. We need to get students looking at and thinking about and discussing actual specimens — proposing ideas, arguing about them, running into reasons why they might be wrong, figuring out why they might be right after all, putting together an argument. Not sitting in front of computers full time running T-tests.

Of course there is a role, and an important one, for numerical methods. But they have to be the means, not the end. We have to have a more interesting goal than finding a statistically significant correlation. Otherwise we’re going to lose people.


Now that, faithful readers, is a monument to evolution and its endless forms most beautiful. I’m talking about the wall of ceratopsian skulls at NHMU, of course, not the back of Brian Engh’s head (bottom center).


If you don’t know them all on sight (yet!), here’s a cheat sheet. I goofed on a couple myself: before I looked at the sheet I figured Coahuilaceratops as Pentaceratops and mistook Kosmoceratops for Vagaceratops. Still, 12 out of 14 isn’t bad for a minor-league ceratopsian scholar such as yours truly.


Here’s the chasmosaurine-centric view from lower right.


And the centrosaurine-centric view from distant left.

The world needs more things like this. Good on ya, NHMU.

For other NHMU posts, see:

Natural History Museum of Utah: Barosaurus

I wanted to get my initial report on the Joni Mitchell conference out quickly. But since posting it, more thoughts have bubbled up through my mind. I’m thinking here mostly about how a humanities conference varies from a science one. Now of course this is only anecdote, nothing like a scientific survey: my sample size is one conference (for humanities) and only one field for science (vert palaeo, natch), so we should beware of generalising from these observations.

With that understood …

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Joni conference had mostly parallel sessions: a pair of panels early in the morning, then a pair in the later morning, then three simultaneous panels in the after-lunch session before dropping down to a single plenary session for the later afternoon. (My talk was in one of the three parallel panels, so less well attended than it might otherwise have been.) I don’t know how common this is in humanities conferences, but it’s never done at SVPCA or ProgPal. SVP, of course, does run parallel sessions — but then that is a very big meeting, with thousands of delegates.

I used the word “panel” in that description, which I’ve not come across in science conferences. It refers to one of a set of parallel sessions. The idea is that all the talks in a panel are on a somewhat related subject, and the panel ends with all the speakers coming back to the front together, for a discussion with the audience and among themselves. This is actually a really nice way to run things — much better than the very nominal Q&As at the end of SVPCA talks. It helps you to develop a sense of who people are, as well as digging deeper into the topics. My sense is that this is pretty typical of humanities conferences.

One less positive difference is that it seems far more acceptable in the humanities to read papers out loud from manuscripts. By no means everyone did this, but quite a few did, and it seemed to be thought normal. This did work out well for me in one respect, though. Because of the parallel panels, I missed a talk I would have liked to have heard, on using Joni’s music in therapeutic contexts. But when I later spoke to the author of that paper, she was able to give me a hardcopy of the talk. (I read it today.)

Did I say “Joni”? One aspect of this conference that corresponded pretty well with my prejudices was a sort of liberal guilt that popped up its head from time to time. Most of the speakers referred to our subject as “Joni” rather than “Mitchell”. In the round-table discussion at the end, someone suggesting this implied an unwarranted level of intimacy, and indicated an unconscious sexism on the part of the participants. There was quite a bit of agreement with this, but I don’t buy it. I think we refer to Joni Mitchell as “Joni”, when we don’t refer to Paul Simon as “Paul” for two reasons: one practical, one fundamental. First, because Joni is a rare and distinctive name, whereas Paul could be Paul McCartney; and second because the high level of self-disclosure in Joni’s music creates the impression of intimacy. I don’t think it’s anything to do with her being female and Simon being male.

Similarly, there was some angst about cultural appropriation regarding Joni’s use of jazz idioms, and particularly about her appearance as a black man on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977):


I can certainly see how that cover makes people uncomfortable in 2015, and I can easily imagine that it would have done even in the very different climate of 1977. On the other hand, it felt a bit strange to be part of a 100% white audience debating this. I’m not sure what conclusion would be appropriate, so I won’t attempt one.

Finally, the demographics of the conference were maybe the biggest surprise. I’m not good at noticing race, so I may have missed someone; but as far as I’m aware there was not a single non-caucasian face at the conference. And perhaps even more surprising, in a conference about a feminist icon[*], although the attendance was about 50-50 men and women, the programme was dominated by male speakers. From a quick scan of the programme, I make it 15 men to 7 women, so more than twice as many.

As with most of what I’ve said here, I have no idea what to make of this. I just offer it up as an observation, and I’ll be glad to know what others make of it all.

[*] Joni Mitchell has explicitly disowned the description “feminist” on more than one occasion; but as a woman who not only held her own in man’s world but by most judgements dominated it, she is certainly an admirable example of practical, if not dogmatic, feminism.


I got back this lunchtime from something a bit different in my academic career. I attended Court and Spark: an International Symposium on Joni Mitchell, hosted by the university of Lincoln and organised by Ruth Charnock.


I went mostly because I love Joni Mitchell’s music. But also partly because, as a scientist, I have a necessarily skewed perspective on scholarship as a whole, and I want to see whether I could go some way to correcting that by immersing myself in the world of the humanities for a day.

My own talk was on “Musical progress and emotional stasis from Blue (1971) to Hejira (1976)”. I’ve posted the abstract and the slides on my publications list, and you can get a broad sense of what was in from this blog-post about Hejira which talks a lot about Blue. (The talk was inspired by that blog-post, but it had a lot of new material as well.) I plan to write it up as a paper when I get a moment.

I was up in session 3, after lunch, so I’d had a couple of session to get used to how things were done. As far as I can tell, it seemed to go over pretty well, and there was some good discussion afterwards.

So how does a humanities conference stack up against a science one?

They were much less different than I’d imagined they would be. The main difference is that talks are called “papers”. As in “Did you hear the paper about X?”, or “I gave a paper on Y”. There was perhaps a little more time dedicated to discussion than at SVP or SVPCA.

Because I didn’t know how to dress, I erred on the side of conservative. As a result, I was the only man in the building wearing a tie, and was consequently the most overdressed person present — something that has never happened to me before, and likely never will again. (I typically wear a tie two or three times a year.)

All in all I had a great time. I’m currently in the process of trying to get my eldest son to appreciate Joni (he’s more of a prog-metal fan, which I can respect); against that backdrop, it was great to be surrounded be people who get it, who know all the repertoire, and who recognise allusions dropped into conversation. Also: beers with fellow-travellers between the main conference and the Maka Maron interview event in the evening; wine reception afterwards; Chinese food after that; after-party when we couldn’t eat any more food. (It was nice being invited along to that, given that I’d never met any of the people before yesterday, and only even exchanged email with one of them.)

I’d had to get up 4:45 in the morning to drive up to Lincoln in time for the conference, so all in all it was a long day. But well worth doing.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


Brian Engh (bottom left, enthusing about the Ceratosaurus just off-screen) and I are recently returned to civilization after a stint of fieldwork in Utah. On the way home, we made a detour to Salt Lake to visit the new Natural History Museum of Utah.


The NHMU is one of the nicest museums I’ve ever had the pleasure of roaming through. They have a ton of stuff on display, including lots of real fossils and quite a few touchable specimens, with an understandably heavy emphasis on Utah’s extensive paleontological record.


The museum is also beautifully laid out – you can walk around almost all of the mounts and see most of them from multiple levels of elevation. The signage hits a new high for being both discreet and informative. Almost everything on display is clearly identified either as a cast or by specimen number (or maybe both), and the real specimens typically list both the discoverer and the preparator. I’ve never seen that before, and I like it a lot.


I suppose I should say a few words about the Barosaurus mount. It’s pretty cool – you can get very close to it, walk all the way around the body, and – crucially for a true sauropod lover – count vertebrae. They gave it 16 cervicals and 9 dorsals, just as hypothesized by McIntosh (2005), and unlike the AMNH Barosaurus, which has the neck cheated out by one extra cervical.

On the left in the photo above is the famous wall of ceratopsian skulls. More about that next time.


McIntosh, J.S. 2005. The genus Barosaurus Marsh (Sauropoda, Diplodocidae); pp. 38-77 in Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 495 pp.

I just read this on The Scholarly Kitchen and nearly fell out of my seat:

In an era with more access given to less qualified people (laypeople and an increasingly unqualified blogging corps presenting themselves as experts or journalists), not to mention to text-miners and others scouring the literature for connections, the obligation to better manage these materials seems to be growing. We can no longer depend on the scarcity of print or the difficulties of distance or barriers of professional expertise to narrow access down to experts with a true need.

I think this may be the most revealing thing ever written on The Scholarly Kitchen. It’s hard to see a way of reading it that isn’t contemptuous of everyone outside the Magic Circle. Ideally, the great unwashed should be excluded altogether; but if we can’t do that, then at least we must tell when what to read and how to use it. Heaven forfend that we let Ordinary People make such decisions for themselves. That is for the priestly caste to do.


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