Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cool New Paleo Project

Darren Tanke, a technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, is probably one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to the history of paleontology in Alberta. I've known Darren for a number of years (and have co-authored several papers with him, including this one), and his enthusiasm for paleo lore is quite infectious. Stick around him for an hour or two, and you'll learn about the clues contained within quarry trash. . .discarded newspapers, plaster bits, sardine tins, and bottles are invaluable for identifying the original excavators of otherwise anonymous quarries. Many early paleontologists only kept the most minimal documentation, but thanks to Darren and his colleagues we now know the exact stratigraphic position for many important specimens from Dinosaur Provincial Park. This unglamorous service, a meld of archaeology, history, and paleontology, has done wonders for clarifying our understanding of Cretaceous ecosystems.

In the old days, vehicle access to places like Dinosaur Provincial Park was pretty darned difficult. In fact, many of the first expeditions were by boat, floating down the Red Deer River. Life is much easier for fossil collectors now. . .but in honor of these early expeditions, Darren is going to collect by boat once again! The Tyrrell's master carpenter, Perry Schopff, is presently working to recreate one of the AMNH's original scows. And come next summer, Darren and his crew of paleontologists will float in the footsteps of legends such as Barnum Brown - exactly 100 years after the first floating expedition.

In the spirit of open science, Darren and friends have put together a blog and Facebook group (search for "Dinosaur Hunting by Boat in Alberta, Canada") with all of the latest photos and updates. Here's to open science, and a successful field season in 2010!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Paleo Paper in PLoS ONE

Today, Victoria Arbour published a paper in PLoS ONE on ankylosaur tail club function, resulting from her M.Sc. thesis work at University of Alberta. As a quick reminder, ankylosaurs are those tank-like herbivorous dinosaurs, famous for having a big old lump of bone at the end of the tail (see picture at end of this post). Ms. Arbour estimated the impact force resulting from the tail clubs of several different ankylosaur specimens (belonging to the genera Euoplocephalus and Dyoplosaurus). The conclusion is that the largest ankylosars, but not smaller ones, could have generated enough force to crack the bones of an unlucky opponent. In other words. . .if the clubs weren't functional as weapons until adulthood, were the structures used for intraspecific combat, rather than defense against tyrannosaurs or other predators? There are clearly some great research projects in store along this line of inquiry! The paper is nice and detailed, with lots of math, figures, measurements, and other goodies clearly laid out for those who are so inclined.

So, go check out this new piece of dinosaur science! Because the work is published at the on-line, open access journal PLoS ONE, it is freely available. Furthermore, you can post comments on the paper at the journal site, rate the paper, and a whole host of other fun stuff. Do take advantage of these functions - it's a great way to contribute to the scientific process in a productive fashion.

This paper holds a special place in my heart, as the first manuscript that I took on after joining the PLoS ONE board of academic editors (this bit of information is identified on the up-front on the PLoS ONE website; not every journal has this level of editorial transparency!). Look for some more cool paleo papers in the very near future!

Arbour, V. M. 2009. Estimating impact forces of tail club strikes by ankylosaurid dinosaurs. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006738. Freely available here.
Life restoration of Euoplocephalus, as reconstructed by Arthur Weasley. Note the tail club, in particular. Licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported license.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Comments and Responses in the Literature

Recently, I highlighted the roles of mailing lists, social networking, and blogs in scientific discourse and discussion. Because I am so thoroughly grounded in the Internet age, I completely forgot to mention that old stand-by of scientific discourse, the Comment-And-Reply. Fortunately, the blogosphere has taken care of the issue for me!

First, refer to this simultaneously amusing and disturbing account of physicist Rick Trebino's experience trying to get a comment published on a paper bashing his work [PDF and the addendum PDF]. The issue at play concerns the sheer difficulty in correcting the literature when and if necessary. We're only seeing one side of the story here, but given the blatant idiocy of the anonymous journal's actions I am inclined to believe in the story's truth. Then, check out follow-up and commentary at Dynamics of Cats, Adventures in Ethics and Science, and Blog Around the Clock. Bora at BAC in particular highlights the roles that commenting functions at journals like PLoS ONE may play in streamlining scientific debate. Because these commenting functions are (hopefully) forever linked to the article itself, they may eventually supplant the blog and mailing list in this regard.

After saying all that, I should note that I had a very good experience recently with writing a comment on a recently published paper in Naturwissenschaften (not open access, sorry. . .). The journal was quite speedy in review and publication - the original article was published on March 10, our comment submitted on April 2, accepted with review on April 7, and published by May 7 (easier, of course, for a monthly publication with advance on-line publication). The authors of the paper upon which we were commenting were collegial in their published response, even though they disagreed with our critique. Never have I felt more keenly that "this is how science should work!"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review of the Eee PC 901

A few months ago, I decided that I needed a computer to take into the field. My primary laptop, a two-year old Dell Latitude DE1505 (which I love!) is steadily losing battery charge capacity. . .I'm lucky to get more than an hour out of it when unplugged. Because my primary field camp is relatively remote and without electricity, I needed something with a little more juice to it. Buying a new battery seemed a little expensive, especially for a laptop of that age (and I wouldn't gain that much in battery life anyhow). So, I started looking around for options.

I very quickly found the Asus Eee PC line as an interesting option. They're tiny, energy efficient, cheap, and run Linux easily. Who could ask for a better combination? So, I plunked down about $300 for the Asus Eee PC 901. . .I am writing the bulk of this blog post from my tent in a remote corner of Utah, if that is an indication of a worthwhile purchase! In this post, I'll discuss my experience using this little machine under paleontological conditions.

First, the physical characteristics of the Eee PC 901. It's really a netbook, which means small, small, small, measuring 8.8 inches in maximum width! This is great when you want something that's easily transportable, but the tiny keys on the keyboard take some getting used to. Additionally, many keys such as PageUp and PageDown are accessible only through a key combination (for instance, “Function” plus the “Up” arrow for PageUp) rather than as their own keys. After a little bit of practice, I got the hang of it. The track pad is small but adequate – for serious use, I'd probably plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, but it's more than enough for field use.

The screen is also small, but very legible. I find that when I'm typing in a word processor, particularly when reclining in my tent, it's helpful to zoom in a bit to get a good look at the text. Not unexpected for a netbook, again. The screen brightness is pretty good, although as with nearly any laptop it is tough to read in direct or bright indirect sun.

Now on to the nuts and bolts. Because I bought a Linux model, it came with a 20 gigabyte solid state drive (essentially, a USB stick for a hard drive). The solid state drive allows the computer to eke out every bit of battery life, because it doesn't have to keep a hard disk spun up all of the time. That said, 20 gigs isn't that much space these days, so I bought an 8 gig SD card for extra file capacity. The Eee PC has an SD card slot on the side, which is a major bonus!

The default operating system for the Eee PC is either Windows Vista (blech) or a custom build of Linux based on the Mandriva distribution. Open source paleontologist that I am, I went with the latter option. The factory Linux OS is adequate and intuitive, but I was frustrated by the difficulty in installing custom software or even updated packages of some key systems. I want 3.1, not 2.7! So, I installed a distribution called “Easy Peasy.” Despite (or perhaps because of) its cheesy name, “Easy Peasy” runs pretty much flawlessly on my machine. The desktop environment differs from Ubuntu in having nice large buttons on the desktop rather than a drop-down menu—a simplification, but a good one for something with a screen of this size. It's easy to install or upgrade applications (same method as with Ubuntu), and the default applications are comprehensive and up to date.

When within wi-fi range, the wireless card in my EeePC works flawlessly. In fact, I usually get better signal pick-up and connection reliability than the Windows or Mac users working alongside me (this is a hallmark of most Linux laptops I've worked with). Unfortunately, it does not seem to be particularly easy to turn off the wi-fi card with the default settings in Easy Peasy. So, I installed eee-control, a little utility that I highly, highly recommend for anyone using an EeePC. This fixed the problem quite elegantly! Unfortunately, I didn't find this piece of software until after I got back from the field.

I haven't completely run my battery down out in the field, but the battery life estimator indicates around 4.5 to 5 hours on a full charge. I suspect I could get longer life by turning off wi-fi (and I'll have to see how eee-control helps out in this regard), but this is still pretty darned good! I purchased a power inverter in order to charge the netbook as needed from our field truck's cigarette lighter. This setup has been working well.

In the field, I've been using my EeePC to keep track of the specimen field catalog as well as working on various writing projects (including this blog post) after hours in my tent. All told, the machine is more than adequate for these tasks. I'm not running my computer during the heat of the day, so I can't speak for its behavior at 100 degrees, and I am careful to store it away from any major sources of dust or grit. As mentioned above, it is tough to read anything on the screen under bright lighting conditions.

In the end, I would rate my Eee PC 901 a solid A-. The very portable size and long battery life for a good computing experience. The only things preventing me from issuing a completely glowing recommendation is the rather limited default Linux operating system (an easily rectified problem) and the initial problems with turning off the wi-fi card in Easy Peasy. I wouldn't recommend this as someone's primary computer (the tiny keyboard would probably give you hand cramps after awhile, and the processing speed and hard drive space are minimal for any real multimedia tasks or storage), but the affordable price makes the EeePC 901 a quite attractive option for a travel or field computer.