Category Archives: Comment

On Dreams Made Real

[SPOILER ALERT – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

When I was four years old a film was released that has since been a wonder for millions all over the globe, it had some of the most innovative special effects in film history, and did more to update the public perception of palaeontology than any museum or university field program could ever hope to achieve.

(if my memory serves me correctly) I first saw Jurassic Park in 1995, when I was six, when it first aired on the TV here in England. Besides knowing that I hid behind our family sofa from the T-Rex when it was gorging on lawyers and smashing up cars on that magically appearing concrete cliff, the one emotion that abides with me even now is one of childlike wonder and excitement at the creatures on the screen. They were so real, so present that I could not believe they were anything but extant, living beings. No longer extinct creatures confined to the rocks in Montana and the Isle of Wight.

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

I’d loved dinosaurs for as long as I could remember at that point, in no small part thanks to the VHS tapes that my parents bought for me (speaking of which, I must convert those to DVD soon). But as I grew older I learned about acting, CGI became so common in movies that you aren’t even sure the actors are real any more, and I watched as science enhanced our knowledge of the dinosauria beyond anything we could have dreamed of in 1993. We now have theropod dinosaurs – incuding some pretty big ones – with fillamentous integument (proto-feathers), we even know what colour archaeopteryx’ feathers would be. We’ve seen palaeoecology take off wildly, and study of the dinosaurs in relation to their environment as well as just their bones. And we’ve even managed to find out the colours of the insects that they shared their world with.

And over time, the magic dulled.

It’s never gone away  of course, I can still feel it whenever I watch the original film, and even to an extent when I watch Jurassic Park; The Lost World (I won’t speak much of JP3). But as I’m sure you may imagine, when I heard about Jurassic World I had some very high hopes… the question is, would it deliver.

Let’s just stop and talk about some of the inaccuracies though, before we get onto whether or not my expectations were met. Darren Naish published a very good (and frankly spot on) criticism of Jurassic World last week on the CNN website which captures my biggest problem with the backpeddalling from feathered raptors in JP3.

What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters – Dr. Alan Grant, JP3

Yes, Yes they did, they’re not “real” dinosaurs so we (presumably the palaeontological community) should shut up about it. This is the line that the film takes when it comes to the accuracy of Jurassic World’s creations, incidentally it’s also the line that TellTale’s Jurassic Park PC game took (don’t play it, the control scheme is awful) which is fair enough, the film-makers may be able to shut the scientists up but they can’t ignore them.

However, for a film series whose legacy to the world was bringing the public’s perceptions of dinosaur science out of the 18th century and into the 20th, it has, through a desire to make money/maintain continuity (or something like that) kept the public’s perception very much in the 1990’s as far as the look of the dinosaurs goes. I suppose we can all be thankful that the BBC’s excellent “Walking with” series’ picked up the baton and ran with it long before JP3 ever entered production, let alone Jurassic World.You might be able to say that they up-played the raptor’s intelligence, or that they got better at the herd behaviour. but that’s not what people will remember, they’ll remember trikes dragging their tails, pterosaurs flying off with people, and a mosasaur that is at least twice the size of any known mosasaur.

Add to all this the attempts the film makes to shoehorn in some “comedy gold” cliche – the cinema did erupt into laughter at it but it was terribly immersion breaking – and the at times strained nature of the militarisation of raptors story line, and it could have ruined the film completely.

So why didn’t it?

In a word; Magic.

I’m probably not going to be able to put this very well, but I spent the first half of the film trying to be cynical and watch the film objectively. But at some time around the half-way point Zach and Gray – this film’s Lex and Tim – are stumbling through the forest after escaping the Indominus rex and they come across an old, overgrown door; Instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the first film.

And suddenly it’s as if I am six years old again, I felt all the same emotions and feelings as I did watching Jurassic Park for the first time. The magic was back, If I hadn’t read somwhere that the original visitors centre from the first film was destroyed by a Hurricane after the first film’s release, I would swear the film crew had just walked in after the forests of Kauaʻi had reclaimed it. Anyway, the inaccuracies didn’t matter so much any more.

There were other redeeming features to this film as well, the eccentric CEO, Simon Masrani, brings many of the endearing characteristics of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond to mind, while obviously having a similar vision for the park, and his own foibles… Who else would fly a helicopter into a combat situation without being able to autorotate? The fact that the man dies due to the actions of his creations was a lovely nod to the books and the people who actually read them as well (wherin Hammond is killed by the compsognathus’).

The character of Lowery also harkens back to characters from the previous movies, Ray Arnold and Ian Malcolm, and his workstation reminded me of the character Wash from Firefly… He’s probably my favourite of the film’s main characters, in no small part for the way he’s clearly a convert to Hammond’s initial vision.

So yes, the film has more than it’s fair share of errors in the science department, and it’s quite possible that my fanboy-ism and nostalgia are holding more sway than four years of a geology degree and three and a half as a “professional” palaeontologist. But you know what. I don’t care; nobody in palaeontology ever took me seriously anyway.

“What they did, it was real…” – Lowery, Jurassic World

If only it were.

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“Have yourself a very Merry Christmas”

Hey everyone!

I hope you are all well and looking forward to a great holiday, in lieu of a Christmas card this year, I have recorded you all a little christmas update; I hope you enjoy it…

From your friendly neighbourhood scrooge 🙂

Ben

21st  December 2014

Some Thoughts on the Scottish Referendum

“So the United Kingdom is safe it seems, for now. However the notion of a British identity is forever tarnished.”

Those were my words at five o’clock this morning when the majority of votes had been counted and the Better Together campaign (finally) looked to have carried the day.

At the end of the process however, nobody should be celebrating this result.
Understandably the Yes campaigners and voters will be disappointed with their failure to convince enough people that Alex Salmond’s vision was anything more than a vision.

On the part of my fellow Unionists north of Hadrian’s Wall, and of the MP’s in Westminster it must be understood that the United Kingdom has dodged a bullet, and we’re talking a high velocity .50 cal bullet. This referendum has been the single biggest challenge to UK’s sovereignty and legitimacy, and the Establishment, and unionists all over the UK were caught napping in the closing weeks of this campaign.

As for British Identity, I consider myself to be British before English, and never before has a political event scared me as much as this referendum. After all, while nobody can argue that this decision could have been taken any other way, it guiles me that 4.4 million people can suddenly decide to pull the rug out from underneath the other ~60 million Britons in terms of their nationality.
However, it hasn’t happenned and so that identity is safe for now, but after the animosity of the last few weeks, especially with Alex Salmond’s constant demonisation of England and the English, there are going to need to be a lot of bridges built that had been burnt down.

Are there any positives to talk about today? Certainly there are, firstly there has been a massive turnout in this election, and with a General Election guaranteed to happen next year, I am hopeful that the rest of the United Kingdom will step up to the plate and turn up to vote when the day comes along.

Secondly, given how close we have come to the effective dissolution of the union, there is now an opportunity for the UK Government to fundamentally change the way our great nation is run. This is especially so given some of the noises coming out of Wales, Northern Ireland and some English Regions regarding the possible adjustment of the Barnet Formula and the ‘West Lothian Question’. For my part I think it is high time that the UK took a long, hard look at federalism.

Summary of Results:

Here’s the collated list of results, more or less in chronological of their declaration.
Clackmannanshire votes No – 54%
The Orkney Is. vote No – 67%
The Shetland Is. vote No – 64%
The Western Is. vote No – 53%
Inverclyde votes No – 50.08%
Renfrewshire votes No – 53%
Dundee City votes Yes – 57%
West Dunbartonshire votes Yes – 54%
Midlothian votes No – 56%
East Lothian votes No – 62%
Stirling votes No – 60%
Falkirk votes No – 53%
Angus votes No 56%
Aberdeen City votes No 59%
Dumfries and Gallowa votes No 66%
East Renfrewshire votes No 63%
East Dunbartonshire votes No 61%
North Lanarkshire votes Yes 51%
South Lanarkshire votes No 55%
Perth and Kinross votes No 60%
Glasgow votes Yes 53%
Scottish Borders vote No 67%
North Ayrshire votes No – 51%
South Ayrshire votes No – 58%
East Ayrshire votes No – 53%
Aberdeenshire votes No – 60%
Edinburgh votes No – 61%
Argyll and Bute votes No – 59%
Fife votes No – 55% (Referendum Mathematically Over at this Declaration)
Moray votes No – 58%
Highlands vote No – 53%
TL;DR:
National Result
NO 55.42% – 44.58% YES

Science Summaries

This evening I was sitting at my computer casually minding my own business (i.e.: downloading the Kerbal Space Program Update), and all of a sudden found myself drawn into a conversation on Twitter about science communicators and scientists – as one does when one follows the sort of crowd I follow.

Anywho in the course of this conversation I ended up having what my nerd-fighter friends would call a brain-crack (an idea) and tweeting it out loud:

Now I pondered that for a few moments as the conversation continued with some good points raised about getting scientists blogging, aggregators like SciSeeker and so on.

And at this point it hit me that this could be a very easy thing to accomplish, even using something as simple as this blogging system I’m using here (WordPress). – oh; and please stop me if it’s been done

Simply canvass scientists to submit a 200-400 word lay-summary of their new papers, add links to their personal websites and the Journal article at the end of the summary, and boom. science communication just got a whole lot easier, journalists could look up the summaries for articles without having to slog through a paper, interested amateurs could do likewise without having to pay £30-90 per article to read them, and school children could instantly learn something cool and amazing.

There are, as with anything like this, pit falls..

  1. Getting scientists to write lay summaries. – Let’s face it, scientists aren’t always great at sci-comm, those that are, that blog or tumbl or tweet will probably jump on such a thing like a cheetah on an impala; but what about the other 90% of scientists? Many journals don’t even require lay-summaries, many more aren’t even open access anyway.
  2. Ensuring that they are lay summaries and not abstracts (there’s a difference y’all) – there’s a big difference between an abstract which can contain as much jargon as you want, and a lay summary that can’t! (more on this here, or try this.) I guess one solution is get keeno amateurs to read them before they get posted, but who’d volunteer for that?

So anyway, that’s the brain-crack put down on (virtual) paper, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, has this already been done* (link please 🙂 )? is it a terrible idea? if not, what pitfalls have I missed, or how could we make such a thing work?

Ben Brooks
17.03.2013

*I know that, for example the UK Science Media Centre or NHS Direct does this sort of thing for news-grabbing science, but why not make somewhere for all science?!

Thanks to @JonTennant, @WarrenPearce, @andrewjlockley and @McDawg for the stimulating twitter convo and links too!

Other Resources/Links (I will add any from commments below as they come!)
http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/2013/03/14/making-an-impact-how-to-deal-with-the-media/ (see point 5)

Some Museum-ey Stuff and The PodQuest

Hullo everybody,

My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.

The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!

That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up  every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!

N.B.: I took and stitched the photos together, labelled and scaled the image; so I think this isn't copyright infringement.

Lyme Regis Museum’s Hidden Gem – a Temnodontosaurus sp. Ichthyosaur.

In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.

That's Right, I can do graphics when I need to!I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.

Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.

I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.

Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂

Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!

Until next time

Ben Brooks
15/03/2013

We’ve completed another Orbit!

In other words, Happy New Year!

Also, while I’m at it; Happy Chanukkah, A Very Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to you!

We’ve managed to survive yet another so-called apocalypse, London survived the Olympocalypse and our planet’s combined scientific exploits have done us proud once again, from the landing of Curiosity on the Martian surface to the statistically significant and probable discover of the Higgs Boson.

As for me, I’ve dug up Dinosaurs in Montana, Catalogued almost an entire museum collection, Monetised my Youtube channel… (so far making me a total of 44 cents US), Attempted to write a Novel, and totally and utterly failed to find a lasting, paying Job.

As for the next twelve months, I’m hoping to change that last thing, but I’m also hoping to do a lot of other interesting things. This month I plan to start working on digitising Lyme Regis Museum’s Geological collections, which means I’ll be learning how to use Modes 1.99…. oh dear…. but I’ll also be learning how to improve my specimen photography and digital image manipulation. In a similar vein I hope to take up arms against LYMPH 2006-72 again soon, hopefully with more success and less worrying about writing “the wrong thing”.

The Connecting Awesome ‘G.L.O.B.A.L’ blogging project is ramping up nicely; despite a little service interruption over the holiday period, if you haven’t done so already, go check out the other bloggers involved and give them all some hearty encouragement. This week the topic appears to be local events, so my post today will be about the Fossil Festival, and if I can think of something I’ll cover a more generalised British event – though currently I’m at a loss as to what that might be.

More new projects including a podcast are on the horizon, but I’ll not be sure what’s going on with those for a while as they do depend on other people.

Anywho, I just thought I’d drop in and wish everyone the best of the season, even if I’m a week or so behind the curve. Make 2013 a good one everybody!

Ben Brooks
09/01/2013

A discussion of failures.

For me November has been a month of new experiences and learning curves.

I started this month with the high minded idea (along with thousands of other people all over the world) of writing a 50,000 word manuscript for a novel in under a month. I failed; miserably. After the first week and a half I just plain ran out of steam… no pun intended. At this point I’d written 14,021 words – almost double that of either of my university dissertations – and had managed to get all my main characters from their starting points to the main first focus of the story, but then I hit some brick walls.

I determined on Nov. 1st that I would not jump around my story and write all the fun bits only to end the month in a dull drudgery of filling in gaps, I’ve seen my good friend Tom trying to write a book this past year and failing for precisely this reason. This meant that I got to a “boring bit” but couldn’t push through it in under a day, meaning I lost a lot of heart. This probably could have been side-stepped but something else got there first. What finally killed my NaNoWriMo experience was a job interview that needed a week of prep-time in which I couldn’t justify the writing for NaNoWriMo – but more on this later.

What did I learn from the experience? well firstly and most impressively I can write fiction – no mean feat after four years of “the observer is separate from the observed” training, and the depressing way that creative writing is “taught” in school. Even more baffling perhaps is that apparently it’s not “bad” writing either; an acquaintance of mine who writes for a living very kindly looked at my first ten thousand words and commented that:

“I was able to forget that I was reading a draft and enjoy it as much as if it was a finished product. That’s a huge achievement for a beginning writer — in fact I’m quite jealous, because I couldn’t have done anything like this… when I was your age!”

Which I’m taking as one massive pat on the back, the other thing I’ve learned is that I should have planned more. It’s no understatement to say that I had only the vaguest idea of plot and characters by the end of October, and I’m pretty sure this didn’t help when enthusiasm hit a low point in week two.

Finally, I’ve learned that not only can I write fiction, but I really enjoyed doing it. Even though I haven’t succeeded in meeting the quotas for the NaNo event, I’m not going to give up on my novel, but will do some more planning and come back to it afresh in a few weeks time after the end-year glut of job applications have passed.

Speaking of job applications, the one that de-railed NaNo for me was another new experience, both one of being 100% qualified for the job (a rare thing without a PhD in my sector), but also of being a strong candidate for the post. I didn’t get if of course (this would be a very different post if I had), but I came second. That was initially quite a galling thing to be told when I received the phone-call the day after interview; but by an equal measure a huge encouragement too, as I now know that it’s not my interview technique that’s bad, or my applications, or even my CV. It actually is just that we’re in a recession and the fact that so many more people are applying for the same jobs than if it was a booming economy – and believe you me, I was beginning to despair.

Might I also add at this point that despite popular opinion; no matter how many times your friends or parent’s say “Don’t worry; something is bound to go your way eventually.” it never actually makes a positive difference to your mood, at least it doesn’t to mine. I know this is always meant as a kindness, but if anything it just blackens my mood.

So anywho, November has been a month of apparent failures for me, but as with all things there were silver linings to be found, and for once; they were easy to divine.

Ben D. Brooks
01/12/2012