Remember at the start of the year, Matt and I had a contest to design a cover for a random book in half an hour? I came up with this:


Well, today I saw that my wife is reading Abraham Vergese’s novel Cutting for Stone (which, for what it’s worth, she says is very good). Here’s the cover:


You can’t tell me that‘s a coincidence.


Plateosaurus is comical

September 5, 2013

Back in 2008, Matt and I were at the Museum Für Naturkunde Berlin. We spent some time down in the collections, where we were particularly pleased to see the much-admir’d C8 of Giraffatitan‘s paralectotype, MB.R.2181 (previously known as HMN SII).

While we were down there, we found a C8 from Plateosaurus, too, so we put that next to the Giraffatitan vertebra and shot them together:


I’m just sayin’, is all.

Note: after having written this post, I now see that I wrote an essentially identical one, with an essentially identical image, earlier this year. My memory is definitely going. Oh well: since I’ve written this, I may as well post it anyway.

What is an ad-hominem attack?

September 4, 2013

I recently handled the revisions on a paper that hopefully will be in press very soon. One of the review comments was “Be very careful not to make ad hominem attacks”.

I was a bit surprised to see that — I wasn’t aware that I’d made any — so I went back over the manuscript, and sure enough, there were no ad homs in there.

There was criticism, though, and I think that’s what the reviewer meant.

Folks, “ad hominem” has a specific meaning. An “ad hominem attack” doesn’t just mean criticising something strongly, it means criticising the author rather than the work. The phrase is Latin for “to the man”. Here’s a pair of examples:

  • “This paper by Wedel is terrible, because the data don’t support the conclusion” — not ad hominem.
  • “Wedel is a terrible scientist, so this paper can’t be trusted” — ad hominem.

What’s wrong with ad hominem criticism? Simply, it’s irrelevant to evaluation of the paper being reviewed. It doesn’t matter (to me as a scientist) whether Wedel strangles small defenceless animals for pleasure in his spare time; what matters is the quality of his work.

Note that ad hominems can also be positive — and they are just as useless there. Here’s another pair of examples:

  • “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because his work is explained carefully and in detail” — not ad hominem.
  • “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because he is a careful and detailed worker” — ad hominem.

It makes no difference whether Naish is a careful and detailed worker, or if he always buys his wife flowers on their anniversary, or even if he has a track-record of careful and detailed work. What matters is whether this paper, the one I’m reviewing, is good. That’s all.

As it happens the very first peer-review I ever received — for the paper that eventually became Taylor and Naish (2005) on diplodocoid phylogenetic nomenclature — contained a classic ad hominem, which I’ll go ahead and quote:

It seems to me perfectly reasonable to expect revisers of a major clade to have some prior experience/expertise in the group or in phylogenetic taxonomy before presenting what is intended to be the definitive phylogenetic taxonomy of that group. I do not wish to demean the capabilities of either author – certainly Naish’s “Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight” is a praiseworthy and useful publication in my opinion – but I question whether he and Taylor can meet their own desiderata of presenting a revised nomenclature that balances elegance, consistency, and stability.

You see what’s happening here? The reviewer was not reviewing the paper, but the authors. There was no need for him or her to question whether we could meet our desiderata: he or she could just have read the manuscript and found out.

(Happy ending: that paper was rejected at the journal we first sent it to, but published at PaleoBios in revised form, and bizarrely is my equal third most-cited paper. I never saw that coming.)

I was recently bemoaning the lack of published diplodocid cervical illustrations in dorsal view. Subsequently I mentioned that Upchurch et al. (2005) had illustrated five cervicals of an Apatosaurus specimen.

I was overlooking one other paper that contains such an illustration. Which is a bit embarrassing, as it’s one of ours. In fact, it’s our most recent paper, Wedel and Taylor (2013) on sauropod neural spine bifurcation. The very first figure in that paper (the first of 25!) is relevant to my interests. So here it is:

Figure 1. A cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus ajax YPM 1860 showing complete bifurcation of the neural spine into paired metapophyses. In dorsal (top), anterior (left), left lateral (middle), and posterior (right) views.

Figure 1. A cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus ajax YPM 1860 showing complete bifurcation of the neural spine into paired metapophyses. In dorsal (top), anterior (left), left lateral (middle), and posterior (right) views.

Click through for glorious high-resolution goodness!


Upchurch, Paul, Yukimitsu Tomida, and Paul M. Barrett. 2005. A new specimen of Apatosaurus ajax (Sauropoda: Diplodocidae) from the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) of Wyoming, USA. National Science Museum Monographs No. 26. Tokyo. ISSN 1342-9574.

Wedel, M.J., and Taylor, M.P. 2013. Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology 10(1): 1-34. ISSN 1567-2158.

Every year I invest many days’ effort into preparing a 20-minute talk for SVPCA. Then I deliver it to maybe 80 people, and that’s the end — it’s over. It seems like a terrible waste of effort, and it occurred to me that I should make a video of this year’s talk, Barosaurus revisited: the concept of Barosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) is based on erroneously referred specimens (which at the last minute I retitled Barosaurus revisited: the concept of Barosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) is not based on erroneously referred specimens).

But I don’t know how to do that. What I want is a simple program, for either Ubuntu GNU/Linux or MacOS, which will record both the video of my screen (as I step through PowerPoint slides) and the audio of the microphone (as I give the talk), resulting in a single video file that I can upload to YouTube.

Can anyone recommend such a program?

Update 1

I got an almost immediate suggestion from @Stephen_Curry that I use ProfCast. I downloaded the trial version, but it insists on running official Microsoft PowerPoint, which I don’t have. (I prepare my talks using OpenOffice’s low-rent PowerPoint-alike.) Rats.

Update 2

@emckiernan13 cleverly suggested that I do a Google hangout (on air, recording to YouTube) with me as the only participant. So far I’ve not been able to get this to work. It won’t start a video hangout unless I have at least one other live person on the call; and although I can make it go in and out of capture mode, I can’t find a way to get hold of the captured stream.

Has anyone done this successfully?

Update 3

Seven years later, I finally figured out that QuickTime Player, which comes as one of the core apps on a Mac, can do this.

Last time, I asked if anyone has dorsal-view photos of the cervical vertebrae of Diplodocus. No responses yet, and I do urge you to chip in if you have any ideas. But here’s something to keep us positive: Apatosaurus cervicals!


This is Plate 1 from Upchurch et al.’s (2005) excellent descriptive monograph of a specimen of Apatosaurus ajax, NSMT-PV 20375. It shows cervicals 3, 6, 7, 12 and 14, each in left lateral, dorsal and right lateral view; and C14 in ventral view. Click through for the glorious full-resolution version (5183 × 2876).

Here is a close-up of C12 in dorsal view.