Vicki book arrival 3

When we last left my better half, Dr. Vicki Wedel, she was helping to identify a Jane Doe who had been dead for 37 years by counting growth rings in the woman’s teeth. That case nicely illustrated Vicki’s overriding interest: to advance forensic anthropology by developing new methods and refining existing ones. To that end, for the past few years she has been working with her PhD advisor, Dr. Alison Galloway at UC Santa Cruz, to revise and update Alison’s 1999 book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma. The revised and much expanded (504 pages vs 371) second edition, co-edited by Vicki and Alison, came out Monday (Amazon,

You can read the whole table of contents on Amazon (click to look INSIDE!), but the short short version is that the book has three major sections. The first covers the science and practice of trauma analysis (pp. 5-130), and the second classifies hundreds of common fractures throughout the skeleton, with illustrations (pp. 133-313). The chapters in these sections were all written by Vicki, Alison, and another of Alison’s former students, Dr. Lauren Zephro, solo and in varying combinations. Lauren, whom I always think of as “the Amazon cop”, is a 6-foot blackbelt forensic anthropologist for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. If push came to shove I have no doubt that she could beat me to death with her bare hands and then produce a technical analysis of my corpse.

The final section (pp. 314-410) consists of nine case studies contributed by forensic anthropologists, pathologists, medical examiners, forensic and medical artists, and a DoD casualty analyst, based across the Anglophone world from Hawaii to Scotland. There’s some grim stuff in there: trauma to the homeless and elderly, from intimate partner violence, and from child abuse. It’s gut-churningly awful that the defenseless suffer from bone-breaking violence; it’s always been amazing to me that people like Vicki, Alison, Lauren, and the other contributors have both the courage to face these horrors and the technical chops to make the unspeakable solvable.

Beyond that unavoidable darkness, if you’re interested in the many, varied, and often just plain weird ways in which people die, the book is a treasure trove. There’s an elderly woman lying on her deathbed for six years, slowly turning into a natural mummy… (wait for it) …while her daughter went on living in the same house. There’s a classification of plane crashes with a description of what human remains will be found and over what area. There are people hit by trains; the funniest line in this very serious book is the deadpan and unsurprising, “The typical pedestrian hit by a train is male and often highly intoxicated.”

Fig 7-3 train skull

That’s from the top of page 122. At the bottom of the same page is my one contribution to the book, which also appears as the cover art (yeah, nepotism, whatcha gonna do). There’s a story behind this. This guy–yes, male, dunno if he was intoxicated–was hit by a train and his head was sheared in half, with the somewhat fractured but mostly intact facial skeleton separated by a lot of missing bone from the occipital region. With no way to obtain the deceased guy’s permission to use his mortal remains in the book, Alison and Vicki didn’t feel comfortable including their photos, so I spent a weekend bashing out a technical drawing for them to use instead. That reawakened my interest in pen-and-ink work and led to the dödö pöst.

I should say two things right here: first, that yes, I am hijacking the rest of the post to talk about myself. (Is anyone really surprised? I thought not.) Second, that I have had no training and possibly my stippling violates Art Rules or best practice guidelines of which I am ignorant. But I hope it also illustrates what can be achieved in a couple of days, with about $15 worth of supplies, by a guy whose only rule is “möre döts”.

So anyway, if you’re curious, here’s the method I use for my pen-and-ink illustrations:

  1. Get a decent-sized photo of the object to be drawn. I usually roll with $2 8x10s from MalWart, in this case one for each half of the skull.
  2. Tape the photo down to your work surface. I have a large, incredibly hard, perfectly smooth cutting board that I use for this, but in a pinch you could use just about anything, including just a larger piece of paper. Cardboard off the backs of desk calendars is nice.
  3. Over the photo, tape down a piece of tracing paper.
  4. Lightly trace the outline of the photo and all the major details in pencil.
  5. Once you’ve gone as far as you can with that, peel up one side of the tracing paper, unstick the photo from the work surface, and remove it. Stick the tracing paper back down the work surface.
  6. Using the uncovered photo as a reference, pencil in any other salient details by eye. Also contour lines for shadows. All of the pencil lines are going to be erased later, so don’t be shy.
  7. Whenever you decide you’re done with the pencil, get a good pen and start tracing, directly over the pencil lines. I tend not to be too persnicketty about my tools but decent pens are a real help here. For these recent works, I picked up a three-pack of beige-tubed Micron pens for $7 (this set).
  8. In all of the following pen-related steps, be careful to keep your big stupid hand and arm off the wet ink you just laid down–one careless smear can ruin a few hours’ work. Having a work surface that you can rotate is nice, so your pen hand can approach the drawing from any angle. Anytime I have to lay my hand on the drawing, I put down a piece of clean scrap paper first. Even if the underlying ink is dry, it just feels like a smart precaution.
  9. Once the lines are on, add döts to taste. With a little experimentation, you can get patterns of dots to not only indicate light and dark but also suggest textures. Different pen tips and amounts of pressure will yield dots of different sizes, which can also be useful. Dense, overlapping dots can produce an effect similar to scratchboard. BTW, sometimes I do “gear down” and place each dot with thought and care, but in the dense sections I just rat-a-tat-tat like a Lilliputian jackhammer. Try different speeds and see what you can tolerate.
  10. When you’re done dötting, at least to a first approximation, and you’re dead certain the ink is all dry, get a decent eraser and erase all of the pencil lines. I used one of those clicky mechanical erasers because it was cheap and soft enough to not tear up the paper.
  11. Re-ink any lines lightened by the erasing. I find that the döts are usually unaffected, but lines are often knocked down a bit by the eraser work. I suppose it would be cleaner to just draw natively in pen, with no prior pencilling and therefore no erasing, but the few times I’ve tried it, it hasn’t gone well. YMMV. If you’re drawing a 3D solid, this is a good time to employ an old illustrator’s trick, which is to make the bottom outline heavier and darker than the rest, to subtly convey a sense of weight.
  12. Scan, touch up as needed in GIMP, post to blog, bask in self-admiration.

In this case I had a few more steps, which consisted of making variants of the drawing and test-driving them by Vicki and Alison so they could pick their favorites.

Skull drawing - A

This is just embarrassing: after scanning the two drawings and doing a little touch-up, I just scooted them together until they looked like a skull. The problem is that the occiput is nowhere near anatomical position. See that flange of bone above the ear-hole, pointed down and right at a 45-degree angle? That’s the back end of the zygomatic arch, and it should be aimed at the forward stump of the arch, which is just down and back from the eye socket.

Skull drawing - B

Here’s the B version, where I was working entirely off of the zygomatic arch ends, and trying to get the skull into anatomical position. Scientifically this is probably the best variant I produced (I’m not claiming it’s the best possible), but aesthetically it’s a little crowded.

Skull drawing - F1 - original on white

I’ll spare you versions C-E, all of which just scooted the back end of the skull around in an attempt to find a balance between scientific and aesthetic concerns. Here’s the winning F version, which got used for the figure, and became the seed variant for the cover.

Skull drawing - F3 - yellow no fill

For the cover, we tried a lot of things, including the white skull on a black background, and one that was simply inverted from the figure. By this point the publisher had sent Vicki some test versions of the cover, and I thought it would be cool if the drawing was in the same color as the cover text, so I sampled that color from the publisher’s sample cover image and applied it to all of the drawn bits. They knocked it down a few tones for the printed version, so happily it’s not this garish.

Incidentally, I had never tried to replace a bunch of discontinuous areas of the same color with another color in GIMP, so I had to look it up. The two key steps are Select > By color, with the threshold set to zero (or not, if you want to grab a bunch of related colors at once), and “Fill whole selection” in the Bucket tool. Hat tip to this dude and his commenters.

Skull drawing - F5 - yellow 17pc fill

One last step: I thought the bare, unfilled yellow version looked too flat, so I tried different levels of fill to make the skull pop out from the background. I didn’t use bucket fill here–too fiddly with so many dots and edges. Instead I created a new layer of solid yellow and dropped the opacity to 17%. Then went to the drawing layer and used the magic wand tool to select the whole non-skull background. Then popped back to the yellow layer and cleared that selection, leaving yellow fill only in the boundaries of the skull outline. I also tried 10% and 25% opacity for the fill layer, but 10% was too subtle and 25% was starting to swamp some of the detail in the drawing. Between goofing around with colors and opacity levels we went through 10 versions at this stage, of which the one above is the ultimate champion.

So, that’s how the cover art came to be. Back to the book. There’s a bibliography with 1237 references (Vicki knows), and an index. The book is hardbound, with a printed cover and no dustjacket, and IMHO reasonably priced at $65, currently a few bucks less on Amazon. You probably already know whether you want a copy. If so, do the right thing–it’s not too late to get it by Christmas.


Wedel, V.L., and Galloway, A. 2013. Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, Second Edition. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, 504 pp.

Wedel, V.L., G. Found, and G.L. Nusse. 2013. A 37 year-old cold case identification using novel and collaborative methods. Journal of Forensic Identification 63(1): 5-21.

Just a quick post to let you know that I will be presenting two different talks at the Berlin 11 open access conference on Monday and Tuesday next week.

The first one is in the satellite conference for early-career-researchers, where I’ll be talking about “Towards universal Open Access: what we can do about it, and who should do it.” There’s an exciting line-up of much more interesting speakers than me, including schoolboy genius Jack Andraka, SPARC director Heather Joseph, and visionary OA advocate Cameron Neylon.

My second talk is in the main conference, and will argue that “Open Access is about sharing, unity and sanity, not about money.” If anything, the line-up for the main conference is even more intimidating, with ministers from three European governments including our own David Willetts. I don’t know whether they’ll be sticking around for the parts of the conference when they’re not speaking, but if they are then I hope I can plant a seed.

I heard just in the last half-hour that the Satellite Conference will be broadcast live on the conference website. Please share this link! For anyone tweeting, the conference hashtag is #berlin11. No word yet on broadcast of the main conference.

I’ll be posting the slides for both talks after the conference, and perhaps turning the main-session one into a paper.

A few bits and pieces about the PLOS Collection on sauropod gigantism that launched yesterday.


First, there’s a nice write-up of one of our papers (Wedel and Taylor 2013b on pneumaticity in sauropod tails) in the Huffington Post today. It’s the work of PLOS blogger Brad Balukjian, a former student of Matt’s from Berkeley days. The introduction added by the PLOS blogs manager is one of those where you keep wanting to interrupt, “Well, actually it’s not quite like that …” but the post itself, once it kicks in, is good. Go read it.

Brad also has a guest-post on Discover magazine’s Crux blog: How Brachiosaurus (and Brethren) Became So Gigantic. He gives an overview of the sauropod gigantism collection as a whole. Well worth a read to get your bearings on the issue of sauropod gigantism in general, and the new collection in particular.

PLOS’s own community blog EveryONE also has its own brief introduction to the collection.

And PLOS and PeerJ editor Andy Farke, recently in these pages because of his sensational juvenile Parasaurolophus paper, contributes his own overview of the collection, How Big? How Tall? And…How Did It Happen?

Finally, if you’re at SVP, go and pick up your free copy of the collection. Matt was somehow under the impression that the PLOS USB drives with the sauropod gigantism collection would be distributed with the conference packet when people registered. In fact, people have to go by the PLOS table in the exhibitor area (booth 4 in the San Diego ballroom) to pick them up. There are plenty of them, but apparently a lot of people don’t know that they can get them.


My hobby:

October 17, 2013

oh crap im part furry

Fear and Loathing dinosaur tail 2

Relic cover

polar dinosaur babies

convincing genetic engineers that everyone would look better if they had sauropod tails.

If you have no idea what I’m on about, go check out XKCD.

Comparison of mammalian dental patterns showing the differences in regionalization of tooth morphology. (A) Mus musculus (B) Sus scrofa (picture is of an immature pig with an unerupted M3) and (C) Stenella attenuata. Figure 1 from Armfield et al. 2013.

Comparison of mammalian dental patterns showing the differences in regionalization of tooth morphology. (A) Mus musculus (B) Sus scrofa (picture is of an immature pig with an unerupted M3) and (C) Stenella attenuata. Figure 1 from Armfield et al. 2013.

Hi folks, Matt here. This is a ridiculously busy week for me, for reasons that will become clear by the end of the post, so I’m bundling some news items.

First, my dissertation–which has been freely available online since 2007 anyway–is now on arXiv (link). Just in case the meteor takes out both me and WordPress but leaves arXiv unscathed, or possibly some outlet will let you cite arXived works but not “unpublished” ones. It was fast, easy, and free, and you should do the same with your (completed!) thesis or dissertation. Matt Cobley just posted his MS thesis, “The flexibility and musculature of the ostrich neck: Implications for the feeding ecology and reconstruction of the Sauropoda (Dinosauria:Saurischia)“, which is very timely and important work, and which you should go read right now. Mike and I cited both Matt’s thesis and my own diss. in our recent PeerJ paper, and the bibliographic entry for my diss. includes a link to the copy posted on my CV page, but arXiv links would have been simpler, faster, and probably more stable over the long run. Oddly enough, in the first proof the citation of my dissertation was removed, presumably by an automated process, since (a) PeerJ does allow citations of theses and dissertations–we checked, and (b) we suspected that already, because our citation of Matt Cobley’s work survived unscathed. Anyway, we just wrote back and asked them to add it back in, and they did–which has consistently been our experience as PeerJ members, and indeed as human beings: it’s often a pleasant surprise how much you can get just by asking nicely.

Speaking of PeerJ, the second batch of articles arrived today, 10 this time, including one on the evolution of whale teeth (see image at top). And, as I threatened to do last week, I used PeerJ in the classroom today, in talking with the MS students about how peer review works. Not only did it feel fantastic to be able to point the students to a whole bunch of published examples of peer review “in the wild”, but I got some good questions and comments after class. I don’t pretend to be nonpartisan about PeerJ. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. But frankly it didn’t take much selling. The interface is so intuitive and puts so much info at your fingertips that it feels very un-journal-like. What it feels like, in fact, is the first outlet (I almost said “journal”–how 2012 of me!) designed from the ground up to take full advantage of the web (feel free to quibble, PLOS fans, but I’m standing by that), and the students get that right away.

Finally, I’m giving a couple of talks here on campus later this week, and if you’re in the area and not already bored to tears by my yammering on about inflated dinosaurs, you should come by. First up, Thursday at 5:30 at WesternU’s Pumerantz Library is my family-friendly, “Flip-top heads, air-filled bones, and teenage pregnancy: how the largest dinosaurs got so big”. Then on Friday in Compatriots’ Hall in the Health Sciences Center (HSC–southwest corner of Palomares and 2nd St. in Pomona) is my more-technical-but-hopefully-not-forbiddingly-so college seminar talk, “Pneumatic bones and giant dinosaurs: an update on 5 more years of research”, or as I call it, “Thanks for giving me a job in 2008, here’s how I’ve been earning my keep”.

That’s all for now–gotta go polish those talks!

UPDATE a few hours later:

How to get to my talks, if you’re not familiar with the WU campus. Red arrows show you on what sides of these giant square buildings to find the entrances. For the library  talk, walk through the front doors and BAM! you’re there. For Friday’s talk, go left around the staircase and into the nice conference room just past the atrium. Be warned, almost all the lots you can see in the satellite view require university permits during business hours, and street parking may be hard to scare up on Friday.

WU campus satellite

Wire skull

Big news yesterday. Identical bills were introduced into the US House of Representatives and Senate that, if passed, will make federally-funded research freely available within six months of publication. Here’s the exact wording, from the press release on Mike Doyle’s (D-PA) website:

The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) would require federal agencies with annual extramural research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to research manuscripts stemming from funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

As Peter Suber explains here and here, FASTR is a stronger version of FRPAA, the Federal Research Public Access Act, which has been introduced in Congress three times before (2006, 2009, and 2012) but never come up for a vote. However, momentum for open access is gathering, both on the supply side with progressive new outlets like eLife and PeerJ, and on the demand side of, well, citizens demanding access to the research they’ve already paid for, and legislators increasingly agreeing with them. So FASTR  has a real shot at getting to a vote, and if voted on, could well pass. Which would be awesome, because we all need access.

Raptor skull in cardboard

I am especially happy that FASTR has bipartisan sponsorship in both houses of Congress. The sponsoring representatives in the House are Mike Doyle (D-PA), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). The identical Senate bill was introduced by John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). So we’ve got Democrats from deeply blue states and Republicans from deeply red states, which is awesome and totally appropriate, because this issue really does cut across party lines. And, hell, last year Elsevier managed to hire bipartisan sponsorship for their toxic–in more ways than one–and rapidly-killed Research Works Act, so it’s nicely symmetrical that politicians from both sides of the aisle have come together to sponsor that bill’s near-opposite.

What can you do? If you live in the US, contact your legislators and tell them to support FASTR! It takes almost no time at all and it makes a big difference. This afternoon I called all five of the sponsoring legislators to thank them, and I called my representative and both California senators to encourage them to support the bill, and all told it took just a little over half an hour. If you skipped the thank yous and just got in touch with the legislators who represent you, it could be done in 15 minutes, and you’ve probably wasted more time than that today daydreaming about dinosaurs. Here’s what you’ll need.

Encourage your legislators:

Thank the bills’ sponsors:

This is big. This matters. Send an email, pick up the phone, make a difference.

Rexy skeleton

I didn’t have any really motivational “contact your legislators!” artwork so the photos in this post are of papier mache dinosaurs–all stinkin’ theropods, I’m afraid–that I’m building with my son. More to come on that soon, but in the meantime, check this out and give it a whirl–after you contact your legislators!

The Three Machesketeers

PeerJ: sorted

August 30, 2012

Gah, so much interesting stuff going on and I simply have No. Time. To. Blog.

But I’m making an exception for PeerJ, a new OA journal that is coming online later this year. Like PLoS ONE, it will be an all-subject journal that will publish stuff based on scientific solidity rather than perceived sexiness, but so openly and so cheaply that it might make PLoS ONE look like an Elsevier product (I jest–put away your pitchforks, PLoS fans. [Elsevier fans, you can keep yours--gotta accessorize those forked tails somehow!]). They’ve got a special on right now: discounted lifetime memberships. The rates go up Sept. 1, which you’ll notice is not far off. You can read about the different membership plans here. I just purchased what they refer to as the Investigator Plan, and which I call the max bling membership.

Is this overkill? Quite likely. The Enhanced Plan would give me two pubs per year, which is, so far, as much as I would need at ALL scholarly outlets, let alone just one. And I don’t plan on only sending work to PeerJ once it’s up and running, although I will probably send them stuff often.

I went for the max bling membership mainly so I never have to think about it again. I don’t know if PeerJ will succeed like PLoS ONE or go extinct like you-know-who. I don’t know if I’ll ever publish more than two papers a year, period, let alone whether I’ll want to send more than two a year to PeerJ. And now I don’t have to worry about those things, or about upgrading my membership down the line, or about anything, really. I’m all in. Ninety bucks* to never have to make any PeerJ-related membership decisions for the rest of my life is a freakin’ steal. I wish I could pay off university committees the same way.

* The difference between the Enhanced and Investigator plans.

I’m sure we’ll have more to say about PeerJ, about how we think its genuinely post-scarcity and radically open approach to scientific publishing are, in fact, the wave of the future, but that will have to wait for other posts. In the meantime, I have shedloads of things to do, like interview prospective students and revise my human anatomy lectures and write my SVPCA talk. Happily, worrying about my PeerJ membership is not one of those things. Nor will it be. Ever.


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