May 4, 2013
My eye was caught by this tweet:
And I found myself wondering how often this scenario plays out around the world every day. How many hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people would look at some research if it were zero-cost to do so? How many thousands of valuable conversations never happen because you can’t idly browse at $15 a pop? How many thousands of potentially game-changing sparks never fly off those conversations because they never happen? What amazing insights are we not seeing, and what brilliant inventions will we never get to use?
This is the opportunity cost of paywalling reseach. It’s impossible to measure, and impossible to put an upper bound on it.
I’m reminded of Techdirt’s brief article What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented The Web?, which paints a horrible picture of a world far behind where we are now, and not certain ever to reach this point. The economic value of the Internet has been estimated at $300-$680 billion per year in the USA alone. What other innovations might we be missing out on?
No, the Web is not the same thing as the whole Internet; no, patents are not at all the same thing as paywalls; no, most research papers don’t have the potential to give rise to anything as big as the Web. This is not an analogy that should be pushed too far. But the core point is obvious: when we prevent free dissemination of research, we don’t know what we’re missing.
“The benefit of published work is that if they have passed the muster of peer review future researchers can have faith in the results”, writes a commenter at The Economist. Such statements are commonplace.
I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing is more fatal to the scientific endeavour than having “faith” in a previously published result — as the string of failed replications in oncology and in social psychology is showing. See also the trivial but crucial spreadsheet error in the economics paper that underlies many austerity policies.
Studies have shown that peer-reviewers on average spend about 2-3 hours in evaluating a paper that’s been sent their way. There is simply no way for even an expert to judge in that time whether a paper is correct: the best they can do is say “this looks legitimate, the authors seem to have gone about things the right way”.
Now that is a useful thing to be able to say, for sure. Peer review is important as a stamp of serious intent. But it’s a long way from a mark of reliability, and enormous damage is done by the widespread assumption that it means more than it does.
Remember: “has passed peer review” only really means “two experts have looked at this for a couple of hours, and didn’t see anything obviously wrong in it”.
Note. I initially wrote this as a comment on a pretty good article about open access at The Economist. That article is not perfect, but it’s essentially correct, and it makes me happy that these issues are now mainstream enough that it’s no longer a surprise when they’re covered by as mainstream an outlet as The Economist.
May 2, 2013
Yesterday I asked whether anyone could identify this specimen:
There was an interesting range of suggestions, but I suppose no-one will be surprised to hear that Darren Naish was the first to make real progress, saying “Hey, that’s a loooong pelvis… I smell macropod.” From there it was a short leap to William Miller asking “Could it be that wallaby from way back in Things to Make & Do part 3?”
Yes it could, William — you win ten shiny new SV-POW! dollars.
It is indeed Logan the wallaby from waaay back in late 2009. Here’s how I butchered him, and some detail on his feet, and how his skull turned out. Back then I prepped out a forelimb and a hindlimb, the skull and first few cervicals, and the tail (which I don’t think we’ve ever featured here — I should fix that.) When I ran out of time to work on the rest of the specimen, I just dumped it in a plastic tub, added water, and left it for nature to do the work for me. The plan was to fish out the goodies a few months later, but it seems that while my back was turned, three and a half years have passed. I should get on that — if the bones haven’t softened to the point where they’re useless now.
BTW., AnJaCo wins a bonus prize of five SV-POW! dollar for guessing that the specimen was “Sub-adult or juvenile. From the aforementioned disarticulated innominate, and from the dissociated epiphyses of the centra”. Logan was eighteen months old at death, which makes him a sub-adult as Bennett’s wallabies mature at 20-24 months.
May 1, 2013
April 29, 2013
But the most recent and troubling predatory-publisher story I’ve read is about a lawsuit. No, not the Edwin Mellen Press libel suit. Three publishers are suing Delhi University for selling course packs to students that use excerpts from their textbooks.
This lawsuit despite the facts that (A) Indian copyright law has an exception for educational exercise; (B) the course packs don’t affect publisher revenue because there is no way Indian students can afford the books; and (C) Thirty-three of the authors specifically named as meriting protection in the publishers’ petition have publicly stated that they want no part in the suit, telling them “it is unfortunate that you would choose to alienate teachers and students who are indeed your main readers”.
You can read the whole article at Firstpost India: Not in our name: Academics oppose publishers, support photocopying. Pretty vile behavior there by the publishers, who apparently consider maintaining total control more important than education in a developing country that desperately needs it.
The truly horrifying part of this is that the case was filed by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis — three publishers who we’ve been used to thinking of as reputable, and who want researchers to think of them as trusted partners.
But they’re not, are they?
This is not an isolated example. It’s just one more example of how academic publishers have made themselves the enemies of science, of education and of progress in general. And yes, I do understand that publishers are unhappy to be characterised in this way, but but but …
Dear publishers: if you don’t want to be called enemies of science, stop being enemies of science.
Seriously. This isn’t complicated. For decades you’ve been able to get away with whatever crapulent manoeuvres you’ve wanted to pull, and we’ve not been connected enough to do anything about it — or even know about it, most of the time. But those days are over. The world is connected. When you act like jerks, we will call you on it.
So just stop acting like jerks. Number one on the agenda: stop suing your customers.
April 27, 2013
A few weeks ago I threw this picture into the “Night at the Museum” post and promised to say more later. Later is now.
I started sculpting dinosaur claws because of the coincidental arrival of two things in my life. One was a cast of OMNH 780, the horrifically awesome thumb claw of Jurassic megapredator Saurophaganax maximus, which I blogged about here. (If you’re curious, I’m using it to amaze people at public talks, so it is serving a semi-legit educational purpose.)
The other is this video of Adam Savage’s TED talk on how he got into sculpting two very different birds. I’ve watched it about a zillion times and shown it to loads of friends, because Savage so nicely captures what it’s like to be obsessed by interesting things. We have different objects of desire, and, okay, I don’t have 20 gigs of photos of anything, but when I’m having a lousy day, watching that video reminds me why I do what I do. You should blow off the rest of this post and go watch it right now.
Back so soon? So, I am a little obsessed with theropod claws right now (aesthetically and fanboyishly, not scientifically), and I thought it would be cool to try my hand at making them. Also, I’ve been wanting to do some molding and casting, and I wanted to be able to practice on cool stuff without having any ethical concerns about trading in fossils or replicating someone else’s specimen. More on the molding and casting in a future post.
A final boring note before the actual instructions: I have no idea what I’m doing. Those two claws in the photo above? The little one on the right is the first thing I’ve sculpted out of anything more serious than Play-Doh, and the big one on the left–the subject of this post–is the second. If I can do this, you can do this.
On to the how.
Sculpey isn’t really clay in the traditional sense. It’s slightly oily plastic that polymerizes when baked. When it first comes out of the package, it’s surprisingly brittle and crumbly. You have to knead it for a while before you can do anything useful with it.
Here’s a lump after some kneading. My work surface here is a dinner plate covered with aluminum foil.
At the local hobby store you can buy a set of clay sculpting tools, in plastic for about five bucks or in wood for up to thirty. But unless you’re a professional sculptor you can skip all that folderol and just use your fingers and crap you find around the house.
The main thing I learned during this stage? You can achieve just about any shape you want, depending on how much time you’re willing to invest. I worked iteratively, smoothing and resmoothing and smoothing some more.
Cheap tools in action: using popsicle sticks to smooth the edges of the claw. You can get a bag of 100 of these suckers at the dollar store. If you don’t already have a decent pair of wire cutters, you can get them at the dollar store, too, and you can use the wire cutters to cut all kinds of edges into the popsicle sticks. So that’s like 100 clay tools for a buck or two.
If it seems like I’m hating on fancy clay tools, it’s because IME real artists just get on with making art and don’t get too precious about it. Here’s Zak Smith on painting (warning–nothing bad in that post, but there is some NSFW stuff elsewhere on that site):
the process is as follows: I take a very small paint brush with wet paint on it, put it on the paper, and move my hand around. There is no magic or machinery involved and it is done freehand. Sometimes I look at a real thing or person and paint it, sometimes its a picture i took, and sometimes i just make it up. How to tell? If its a picture with a title like “Lisa” then probably that’s from real life, if it’s, say, a zebra-man with two samurai next to it, then that’s made up.
“What kind of paint?” The cheapest kind they have at whatever store I am at.
So it drives me crazy when I see wannabe artists shelling out thirty bucks for tools they could make or emulate for less than a tenth of that. (If you’re serious enough to have actual fancy tools, holster the angry comments, I don’t think you’re keeping the local Hobby Lobby in business buying the faux-fancy tools.)
Need a clay knife? Floss picks work pretty well. I used this one a LOT. Here I’m angling the articular facet for the next phalanx.
Blood vessel grooves. I think I used the blunt end of a bamboo kabob skewer to install these, with some follow-up shaping with popsicle sticks. I also straightened and shortened the claw tip a bit from the previous photo.
Funny story: a few years ago I was going through the public exhibits at a certain nameless museum and at the “touch a fossil” table an excited young docent started to explain how the “blood groove” was there to let the blood flow out of the wound so the claw wouldn’t get trapped by suction. I tried to explain that it was really there to hold the vessels that nourished the keratin sheath that covered the bony claw in life, but he was unpersuaded. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had a cast Tenontosaurus claw with me so he could explain why herbivores needed “blood grooves” on their claws, too…
Now: detailing. I didn’t want to sculpt the claw as it was in life, I wanted a fossil claw, something that looked like it might have been left out in the rain for 145 million years. The bone I picked up on the beach, and the exposed spongiosa is just perfect for putting a realistic bone texture on stuff. The rock is a rock. I used it for nicks and gouges.
I carve cracks with a straight pin. I carve them fairly deep, a couple of mm, so if I accidentally smudge some clay over a crack I can cut or sand it off, post-baking, and get the crack back. I don’t worry about raised edges along the edges of the cracks–these sand off in a heartbeat after baking. Just carve away.
Right after the above photo was taken, I popped the whole plate in the oven for about 45 minutes at 295 F to bake the Sculpey. There are lots of different kinds of Sculpey and other polymer clays on the market, so read the instructions on the box before you bake. Also, the baking drives off the oils that made the stuff kneadable, so save your baking for a nice day when you can have the windows open. If you’re going to bake a lot of Sculpey, you might want a separate oven for it. The vapors from the baking Sculpey do make me feel a little ill, so I get some good airflow through the house and limit my exposure. Caveat sculptor.
Here’s the claw right after baking. Some areas are smooth and shiny from being in more intimate contact with the foil. If you’re not going to sculpt the other side of something and you want a perfectly flat, smooth surface, watch out for this.
The only point of this photo is to show that the baked Sculpey is not rock-hard. The tip of the claw is drooping under its own weight here. For my first, smaller claw, I carved a groove in the flat side with a Dremel and put in a section of bent hanger wire to help it maintain its shape. For this second one, I figured the other half of the claw would give it sufficient thickness to hold its shape after baking, and I was right.
Here’s the reverse side, sculpted using the same techniques as I used for the first side, but not baked yet. I suppose there might be some kind of Sculpey Einstein out there who can do a whole claw in one go, but I couldn’t figure out how to do both sides without leaving fingerprints everywhere, or how to support the thing while it baked, so I did the two sides sequentially. If you think of a better solution, let me know, although really this is not much extra work–about an hour, max, while I was watching Mythbusters.
Now we gotta talk about asbestos for a while (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a photomicrograph of a macrophage (a kind of white blood cell) self-impaled on some asbestos fibers, in what started out as attempted consumption of foreign material by the macrophage, and ended up closer to a crucifixion.
Here’s the deal: you have macrophages roaming around in your lungs, and when they find stuff that isn’t supposed to be there–which is pretty much everything other than your own living cells–they eat the offending material. And by “eat” I mean “engulf and try to chemically destroy”, using all kinds of profoundly noxious stuff–hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine gas. And if the offending material is extremely resistant to such treatment, as is the case with asbestos, the macrophages just keep unleashing hell. Forever. Which doesn’t dissolve the asbestos, but does eventually dissolve your lungs. Asbestos by itself doesn’t hurt you much–it’s what you do to yourself trying to get rid of it that kills you.
Why am I bringing up this depressing stuff? Partly because you are in command of a human body and you should know something about how it works. And partly because, if you have been following this little how-to, very soon you are going to be sanding your Sculpey dinosaur claw. Which is made out of plastic. Which is going to shed tiny particles of plastic into the air while you sand it. Which you are going to inhale unless you are wearing a mask. Now, I don’t know the actual resilience of baked Sculpey particles under the chemical assault your macrophages are prepared to light them up with, and I don’t recommend that you perform the experiment on yourself. I got a pack of five of these:
for two bucks at the hardware store. If you can afford ten bucks for a block of Sculpey, you can afford to spend two more to save your lungs.
This goes for sanding just about everything, by the way. It’s like germs or radiation, just because you can’t see or feel the damage doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Also like germs and radiation, some simple precautions are all you need to avoid the vast majority of the problems. Or you can skip them, and someday someone like me may be using your corpse to teach people about how not to care for a human body. Your pick!
Sanding. I only do one pass, with 220 grit. If you start with 60 grit, you can say goodbye to all the details you put in, because they are going to be gone very quickly. Basically I’m just trying to knock off the most egregious of the rough edges. I’m not trying to get a very smooth surface–that comes next.
I didn’t take any pictures of this, but after the sandpaper I scrubbed the whole claw with 000 steel wool. I had never used this stuff before–I only learned about it from that Adam Savage TED talk–and it is pretty amazing. For one thing, it will give whatever you are sanding a shockingly smooth finish. For another, it actually goes away as you use it. You’ll start out with a full-sized bundle and after sanding for 10 minutes you’ll be down to a half-size bundle. If you’re slouching in front of the TV, it will look like a metal cat shed all over your t-shirt. The chances of actually inhaling a tiny sliver of steel and having it get all the way down into your lungs are probably pretty slim, but I masked up anyway (there are still microscopic Sculpey shards coming off at this stage). Anyway, the steel wool gives a very even appearance to the surface, so you can’t tell what areas got really hit by the sandpaper, and for me it was one of the most satisfying parts of the whole process.
And here’s the final result. On the right the tip is a little blackened from over-baking, since the right side went through the oven twice, but it’s not bad. At this point you can paint or do whatever. I haven’t experimented with painting Sculpey yet, and online sources are mixed about what works best. You don’t want to use anything thick for a primer or you’ll lose the fine details. When I do finally get around to painting, I’m going to start with flat black auto primer, just like Adam Savage used on his Maltese Falcon (which I know was resin, not Sculpey, but still), and see if that doesn’t do the trick. If you know of something better, please tell us in a comment.
Next up in this series: molding and casting.
April 26, 2013
Earlier this spring London and I got on a building dinosaurs kick, inspired by this post at Tumblehome Learning. I used a few of these photos as filler in this post, but I haven’t talked much about what we did and what we learned.
Above is my first attempt at a wire skeleton for a papier mache dinosaur. Yes, despite being a dino-geek from the age of three on, I had never made a papier mache dinosaur before this spring. The thicker white wires are from a hanger, and the thin ones are from a reel of wire I found in the hardware section at Wal-Mart. It’s held together with masking tape, and the thick wires running down the legs of the dino are going into holes I drilled in that piece of scrap wood.
Here’s part of the wireframe for my first skull. At this point I was still thinking of Alioramus. Notice the sections of drinking straw, split and popped onto the wires to bulk out the wireframe and give the papier mache more than a 2D plane to bite on.
Here’s that lower jaw with the rest, a skull of some kind of predatory coelurosaur. Fairly early on I abandoned the strict Alioramus plan and followed in the footsteps in Barnas Monteith at Tumblehome Learning (who posted the instructions linked above) in going for a sort of generic critter instead of any particular real-life taxon. Therefore, I was free to freewheel without having to worry too much about accuracy (Robert Frost would have said I was playing tennis with the net down). As you can see here, this is another wire job held together with duck tape, and the lower jaw already has the first layer of papier mache on.
Papier mache is pretty hard to screw up: put some water in a bowl, add flour until it gets thick, stick pieces of torn-up newspaper in the mix and put them on whatever you’re making. Anything more than that, you should learn on your own by experimentation.
Progress on “Rexy” and my skull was going too slow for London, so I knocked out a crude Velociraptor skull in cardboard for him to work on at his own pace. This became “Rapty”.
An early family portrait: “Rapty”, “Rexy”, and my “Uglioramus” skull. You can see the Wedel method for not messing up the dining room table: first, put down a layer of plastic trash bags taped together, then a layer of newspapers taped together. For Rexy, we put down a layer of cling wrap to keep the papier mache drips off the wood base, which was a huge win in the long run. Rapty and Ulgioramus are sitting on foil-covered pizza-baking sheets. Those turned out to be useful for…
…baking skulls. Papier mache dries s l o w l y in cool, wet weather. But if it will fit, you can pop your thing in the oven on low heat for 15-20 minutes and get’er done quickly. This worked for both skulls, but it worked better for Rapty. On Uglioramus, the metal expanded enough to keep poking its way out of the papier mache, so I did a lot of patching. Still probably faster than waiting for the whole thing to air-dry.
Teeth. I went a little nuts with these in terms of size (I know, those teeth won’t fit into that maxilla, but it looks rad if you switch your brain off, kind of like Jurassic Park). They’re made up of flat cardboard from a cheap box (not corrugated) layered together with wood glue to give them some thickness, and coated with more wood glue and papier mache goo to soften the contour lines.
Before painting I sealed the whole thing with a thin layer of Titebond wood glue. That probably wasn’t 100% necessary, given what went on next, but I knew it would get the job done and strengthen the structure.
Back to “Rapty”: he got a set of teeth–one layer of thin cardboard this time–entirely speculative nasal and parietal horns courtesy of London, and a couple of coats of Kilz2 white latex primer left over from a telescope-making project. Then he was off to school for show-and-tell. Since then he’s gotten one thin coat of brown watercolor paint. Some of the holes in the skull just about closed up during papier-macheing, but since the impetus for the project was to have fun, it doesn’t trouble me.
Here’s Uglioramus, also dressed in Kilz, awaiting his first coat of paint in my expensive, professional paint box. Leaving a freshly-painted object without overhead protection in this neighborhood is just asking for it to be hit by falling vegetation.
And here we are after the first coat. I use Krylon because it’s cheap, tough, and dries fast, but with the Kilz on I could probably use just about anything.
And that brings us up to the present. I have some ideas on how to finish Uglioramus to make it look more like a fossil skull and less like some cast-off from a flea market, but those will have to wait for another post.
The upshot of all of this is that I am not an expert on either theropod skulls or papier mache, and if a doofus like me can do this well the first time out, you can probably do as well or better yourself. And it’s cheap, messy fun. Highly recommended.