The afternoon of Day 1 at TetZooCon 2018 was split into two parallel streams: downstairs, some talks that I would have loved to see; and upstairs, a palaeoart workshop that I was even keener not to miss out on.

There were talks by Luis Rey (on how palaeoart has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting feathers and bright colours) and by Mark Witton (on the future of palaeoart — sadly, bereft of slides). Both fascinating.

But better still was the wide-ranging informal discussion between Luis, Mark, John Conway, Bob Nicholls and others on what palaeoart is actually all about. For Luis, it’s basically fun; for Mark, it’s primarily science communication; for John, it’s art first, and palaeontology only because that’s what he happens to be depicting; and for Bob, as well as all those things, it’s crucially important as a job of work, satisfying the requirements of those who commission that work. Obviously that’s a huge over-simplification: all of them have all these aspects going on in varying proportions. But that’s how I read it.

At the same time that all this was going on, we — maybe 60 or 70 of us? — were encouraged to create our own art, either attempting styles that are different to what we usually do, are using materials we’re not so familiar with. For the many excellent artists in the group, this challenge must have been interestingly novel. For non-artists like myself, it was just a chance to play.

I took the opportunity to try my hand with charcoal, in the hope of getting some suggestive or even impressionistic textures. Here’s my first work — an indeterminate brachiosaur with an inexplicably big head.

Aside from the head — I can’t do heads! — I’m reasonably happy with that. I got a decent sense of bulk in the torso, anyway.

Encouraged, I made a start on a second piece: a BRONTOSMASH!ing apatosaur that didn’t come out so well.

I’m happy with the forelimbs here, but something is dreadfully wrong with the torso and I can’t put a finger on what it is. If I’d had more time, I’d have put in the second hindlimb, which might have helped me figure out what was going wrong. The other thing I fluffed here was that I should have made the neck even fatter and more robust. Oh, and of course the head. I might return to this and see if I can sort out, if I can find some charcoal.

Anyway, it was a fascinating experience. And it’s left me with a new favourite art medium.

 

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Last night, Fiona and I got back from an exhausting but very satisfying weekend spent at TetZooCon 2018, the conference of the famous Tetrapod Zoology blog run by Darren Naish — the sleeping third partner here at SV-POW!.

What made this particularly special is that Fiona was one of the speakers this time. She’s not a tetrapod zoologist, but a composer with a special interest in wildlife documentaries. She had half an hour on Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective, with examples of her own work. I thought it was superb, but then I would — I’m biased. I’ll hand over to Twitter for a more objective overview:


Darren Naish: Now at #TetZooCon: Fiona Taylor on music in wildlife documentaries. Fiona is a professional composer.

Ellie Mowforth: Next up, it’s “Music for Wildlife Documentaries”. I am SHOCKED to hear that not everyone shares my love for the waddling penguin comedy trombone. #TetZooCon

Nathan Redland: Nature documentaries are entertainment, not just education: and the composer’s budget comes from the studio, not an academic institution #TetZooCon

“If these shows were just a string of facts about animals, most of us wouldn’t watch. That’s why they carve out stories in editing, why they use intense music, and why they recreate the sound effects — because story-telling is what engages us.”
— Simon Cade.

Will Goring: Very effective demonstration; same image, 5 different scores = 5 different interpretations. #TetZooCon

… and here is the relevant segment of video, together with the script that Fiona used:

Picture of wolf

We’re going to play “What kind of wolf is this?” or perhaps a better question is: “what is the music telling us to feel about this wolf?” I written 5 brief musical clips in 5 very different styles I’m hoping will showhow very differently we can be led into feeling about one image.

  1. This wolf is bad, suspense, about to kill something cute.
  2. Preparing to spring into action, attack.
  3. This wolf is sad, it has just lost its pups, if it doesn’t eat soon, it will starve.
  4. This wolf is cute, and cuddly and very playful. You just want to stroke him.
  5. This wolf is noble, kingly, will survive because his race has always survived, with dignity.

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Provides detailed analysis of musical accompaniment in several documentary clips. Only a few seconds long each, but incredible amount of nuance and thought goes into these decisions.

Dr Caitlin R Kight: I responded exactly as she predicted and would have even without the explanation, but it was more interesting to know why I was feeling what I was, when I was!

Samhain Barnett: At 25 frames a second, a drumbeat has to occur within 2 frames of a nut being cracked, for our brains to accept it as in sync. Computers have made composers lives a lot easier here. #TetZooCon

(I’d like to show the video clip that that last tweet pertains to, but complicated rightsholder issues make that impractical. Sorry.)

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Given the power of music to influence emotions, documentary composers have responsibility to think about the effects of music. Peer-reviewed research has shown that musical accompaniment can impact motivation of viewers to contribute to shark conservation.

Here are two sketches from Sara Otterstätter, who did this for every talk:

First one: About music in Nature documentaries. Useful or manipulative? #TetZooCon #sketch #sketchbook

Second one: Show documentaries always reality? #TetZooCon #Sketching #sketch

And two final comments …

Filipe Martinho: Quite often the most interesting talks are completely outside my area. Fiona Taylor gave an amazing eye and ear opener on the role of music in nature documentaries and #scicomm. #TetZooCon

Flo: Thanks to Fiona Taylor I will from now on listen more carefully to the music accompanying wildlife docs. #TetZooCon #musicforwildlifedocumentaries


We both had a great time at TetZooCon. As I said in an email to Darren after I got home, “It made me wonder what they heck I’d been thinking, missing the last few”. I don’t plan to repeat that mistake.

Hearing the talks through the ears of someone without much background was an interesting experience. Some of the speakers did a fantastic job of providing just enough background to make their work comprehensible to an intelligent layman: for example, Jennifer Jackson on whales, Robyn Womack on bird circadian rhythms and Albert Chen on crown-bird evolution. There’s a tough line to walk in figuring out what kind of audience to expect at an
event like this, and I take my hat off to those who did it so well.

 

Just a quickie today. The 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress is happening this December. Where? Everywhere! Well, everywhere with internet service. There is no physical place to go attend. Talks, posters, discussions, etc. will happen online. Consequently, registration is extremely affordable at a whopping 5 Euros. Circulars are here if you want to know more.

I’m “going”, probably to present on the Haplocanthosaurus project–which only occasionally dips into realspace anyway–with a bunch of the folks who made it happen.

A couple of things to note:

  • The abstract deadline has been pushed back from Sept. 20 to Oct. 8, so you’ve got a little time yet.
  • [UPDATE Sept. 17 – I shoulda waited a couple of days. The PayPal link is live and working. I know because I just used it.] Originally they were only accepting registration payments by bank transfer. I guess that’s a trivially easy thing in Europe to do from your smartphone. A lot of banks here in the States make you go to the bank in person, wait in line, see a teller, and fill out paperwork. Kind of a huge hassle for a measly 5 EUR. I brought this up with the organizing committee and they were already moving on getting a PayPal account set up to process registration payments. That should happen soon – I’ll update the post when it does.

So, er, see you there?

Imposter syndrome revisited

September 13, 2018

My wife Fiona is a musician and composer, and she’s giving a talk at this year’s TetZooCon on “Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective”. (By the way, it looks like some tickets are still available: if you live near or in striking distance of London, you should definitely go! Get your tickets here.)

With less than four weeks to go, she’s starting to get nervous — to feel that she doesn’t know enough about wildlife to talk to the famously knowledgeable and attractive TetZooCon audience. In other words, it’s a classic case of our old friend imposter syndrome.

Wanting to reassure her about how common this is, I posted a Twitter poll:

Question for academics, including grad-students.
(Please RT for better coverage.)

Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?
(And feel free to leave comments with more detail.)

Here are the results at the end of the 24-hour voting period:

Based on a sample of nearly 200 academics, just one in 25 claims not have experienced imposter syndrome; nearly two thirds feel it all the time.

The comments are worth reading, too. For example, Konrad Förstner responded:

Constantly. I would not be astonished if at some point a person from the administration knocks at my door and tells me that my work was just occupational therapy to keep me busy but that my healthcare insurance will not pay this any longer.

What does this mean? Only this: you are not alone. Outside of a tiny proportion of people, everyone else you know and work with sometimes feels that way. Most of them always feel that way. And yet, think about the work they do. It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Despite how they feel? From the outside, you can see that they’re not imposters.

Guess what? They can see that you‘re not an imposter, either.

More thoughts on SVPCA 2017

October 13, 2017

This morning, I and the other 156 attendees of SVPCA 2017 received a useful document, SVPCA report_for attendees, which collects and analyses delegates’ feedback on the meeting. It prompted me to mention a few more thoughts of my own.

First, I didn’t like the shortening of the meeting, from the usual three or even four days to two and a half (or just two if you ignore the macroevolution symposium). But it’s apparent from the gathered feedback that nearly everyone disagrees with me on this.

My position may be an artifact of my idiosyncratic status on the edge of the field: SVPCA is pretty much my only physical (non-blog) contact with the vertebrate palaeontology community, so by the time I’ve taken a week off work for it, the more of that time I can use for it, the better. By contrast, people who spend most of their work-hours with other palaeontologists don’t have that incentive, and see a longer meeting as a financial burden. I’m guessing that if the survey had specifically asked for opinions on meeting length and then compared those opinions with people’s career stage, they’d find a strong correlation between amateur and other unusual statuses, and preferring a longer meeting.

Sadly (for me), it seems pretty clear how this one is going to go: the meeting is attended overwhelmingly by professionals of various career stages. Since the majority of those prefer the shorter meeting, I imagine Birmingham’s abridged programme will become the new normal.

Second thing: a lot of people complained that the posters were only up for the dedicated two-hour session, and quite a few didn’t like having a dedicated poster session at all. Once more, I find myself in a minority here. As someone presenting a poster, I very much appreciated having time dedicated to it. And I also liked that it was restricted to a specific slot, so I didn’t feel I had to spend the whole meeting babysitting the poster. Wine was provided for this session, which made it feel like a friendly, bustling session with plenty of science going on, and time to go and physically fetch the people who I specifically wanted to discuss my poster with.

So I would definitely support a dedicated two-hour poster session with wine at future meetings; though I wouldn’t object if the posters remained up in the background for the next day, if that was logistically easy. (It wasn’t in Birmingham.)

The third thing, which I forgot to mention on my feedback form, is that lightning talks need to be all together in a single session. These talks didn’t really work at Birmingham. By tagging two or three of them on the end of a regular session, they simply came across as a lesser versions of regular talks — tail-enders with no particular merit of their own.

But I do think lightning talks can work well: I’ve been in conferences (admittedly in computer science and library science rather than palaeo) where the lightning-talk sessions have been the best in the conference. The key is keeping all of them together in a single, dedicated session, and really keeping the pace up: whizzing through each talk within a strictly enforced five-minute time limit, and leaping from subject to subject. It can be exhilarating.

(There were specific reasons why it couldn’t be done this way at this year’s meeting — paucity of lightning-talk submissions, people’s difficult schedules and unexpected withdrawals all meant that the original plan couldn’t be adhered to. But I would hate to see lightning talks dropped from the conference because of their underwhelming impact this time around.)

The fourth thing is that I was not wholly convinced by the symposium. Given the scarcity of talk slots, their limited length, and the carefully blinded abstract review process, it seems inimical to invite a special anointed class of speakers who get twice as long and don’t have to go through review.

I might have been convinced despite this, had the quality of the talks been uniformly higher. But as one respondent to the survey wrote: “I was alarmed and disappointed to hear one presenter say that they had put their talk together the night before, and it showed”. It really did. Surely if being invited to give a double-length talk is anything, it’s an honour. People in receipt of that honour should either do their job to a level that merits it; or, if they don’t have time, politely decline and let someone else have the slot.

Finally, and least important, the annual dinner. This was a curry, with a good selection and far more food than we needed. But the report says “there have been a few comments […] that more people might attend if the food was more of a meat-and-two-veg type affair, and that some people would like to see a more formal, or more ‘special’ dinner”. For whatever it’s worth, I threw my hat in partly because it was a curry. In my experience, attempts at catering “special” dinners for large groups tend to produce mediocre food tarted up, which is why my group tends to skip the dinner.

But I’m glad I went this year. I liked the sense of being part of an ongoing community, of seeing the handover to next year’s host (Rob Sansom), hearing who the winners of the prizes were, and so on.

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

After my short post on what to leave out of a conference talk, here are few more positive thoughts on what to include, based on some of the SVPCA talks that really stayed with me.

First, Graeme Lloyd’s talk in the macroevolution symposium did a great job of explaining very complex concepts well (different ways of mapping morphospace onto phylogeny). It was a necessarily difficult talk to follow, and I did get lost a few times. But, crucially, Graeme offered lots of jump-back-on points, so I was never out of the game for more than a minute or so.

I think that concept of jumping-back-on points is important (albeit clumsily named). It’s easy, if someone is describing for example a detailed osteological point about a bone in basal tetrapods that doesn’t even exist in the animals we know and love, to tune out and lose the thread of the rest of the talk. There is an art in making it easy for people in this situation to tune back in. I’m not sure how it’s done: it might be more a matter of style than of content. I’ll think more on this one.

Also: several times as I watched Graeme’s talk, I internally raised an objection (such as low explanation-of-variation values of PC1 and PC2 in the plots he was showing) only for him to immediately go on to note the issue, and then explain how he deals with it. This should not be too difficult to emulate: anticipate possible objections and meet them in advance. This is something to have in mind when rehearsing your talk.

It was a talk that had obviously had a lot of work put into it. Another talk, which I shall not attribute, had very obviously been thrown together in 24 hours, which I think is flatly unacceptable. When you know you’re going to have a hundred professionals gathered in a room to listen to you, do the work to make it worth the audience’s while. Putting a talk together at the last minute is not a ninja move, or a mark of experience. It’s simple unprofessionalism.

Neil Brocklehurt’s talk was based on a taxon that was of very little interest to me: Milosaurus, and the pelycosaur-grade synapsid group to which it belongs. But his presentation was a textbook example of how to efficiently introduce a taxon and make it interesting before launching into details. There is almost certainly video out there somewhere — the SVPCA talks were filmed — and I recommend it highly when it becomes available. For fifteen glorious minutes, I was tricked into thinking that Carboniferous synapsids are fascinating. And it’s left me thinking that, hey, maybe they are interesting.