12 December 2008

What I Learned in 2008

  • Heinrich Harder is wicked awesome.
  • Even Mariners baseball can get boring if the team is inept enough.
  • Never volatilize cat urine.  Not even your worst enemy deserves to smell that.
  • Day trips from Eugene to the John Day Fossil Beds are feasible, provided you're willing to get up at 4:00.
  • There's never a dull moment on the Mariners blogosphere.
  • The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is everything the Experience Music Project wishes it were but will never be.
  • Going to a game at Autzen is much more fun when the Ducks win.
  • Getting funding is hard, at least under the Bush Administration.
  • Preparing for - and worrying about - comps is far, far worse than actually taking them.
  • There is no free lunch as far as camping in the Juntura area is concerned.  Unless you're a mosquito.
  • Lucy is well worth the trip to see in person.
  • American democracy is still alive and kicking.
  • Barack Obama is an exceptionally good speaker, especially in person.
  • Caucuses are more fun than primaries.
  • Horses > dogs >> squirrels, at least as far as their fossil records go.
  • Genghis Khan invented pants.
  • I still refer to Seattleites and Washingtonians as 'we' (and I probably always will).
  • Dave Niehaus really is a hall of fame-caliber broadcaster.
  • Pasadena is cool.  San Bernardino is not.
  • The Big Time Brewery has a long-lost twin in Berkeley.
  • Giving a talk at SVP is much better than presenting a poster.
  • I'm not the only one who thinks making a year-in-review bulleted list is a good idea.
Happy 2009, everyone!

10 December 2008

Swan Day: A Modest Proposal

One of the best things about living in the US is that you can travel between radically different cultures without ever leaving the country.  You could visit, for example, the Deep South and the Southwest and be forgiven for thinking you had just been to opposite sides of the globe.  While having such differences can sometimes lead to friction (see the last eight years for an illustration of this point), each region is unique, fascinating, and well worth celebrating.  In some areas, this admittedly well-worn axiom is taken at face value, leading to the development of regional holidays.  Sometimes these holidays were created to honor a person or event unique to a region (as with Kamehameha Day in Hawai'i or Patriots' Day in New England), and sometimes they evolve from ostensibly nationwide holidays that for one reason or another have strong local appeal (as with Leif Erikson Day in the Upper Midwest and New Orleans' Mardi Gras).  Any long-term readers of this blog can probably see where I'm going with this, so I'll cut right to the chase: the Northwest is conspicuous in its lack of a regional holiday, and I think I know just the day we should have one.
A month from today is the birthday of James G. Swan, one of the greatest - albeit least known - figures in Northwest history.  I could drone on for paragraphs about why Swan was an interesting person, but I'll leave that in the much more eloquent hands of novelist Ivan Doig, who's Winter Brothers is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Swan or, indeed, in the Northwest as a whole.  I'll just briefly outline why I think Swan embodies the best of this region.  First, he wasn't born here, but in Massachusetts.  This may sound counterintuitive, but when you consider that the region's history has been driven by exploration (e.g. Lewis and Clark) and immigration (e.g. The Oregon Trail) it's really very appropriate.  Second, unlike many of his contemporaries, his relationship with the many Native Americans he encountered was, it appears, mutually positive.  He saw the region's tribes not just as savages or anthropological curiosities, but as the complex, living cultures they were (and still are).  Third, and most importantly, he loved the Northwest and made this abundantly clear in his writing.  He lived On Willapa Bay, among the Makah on the Olympic Peninsula, and in Port Townsend on Puget Sound.  He travelled to Astoria in Oregon and the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, and he wrote glowingly of his experiences in all these places.  Few people have ever taken to an adopted home more enthusiastically and more wholeheartedly, and at least to my mind there is no date more appropriate for a Northwestern regional holiday.
Many of you may think this is some elaborate and long-winded - though not particularly funny - joke.  It's not.  I'd estimate that at least half of the posts on this blog are paeans to the cultural and physical landscape of the Northwest (which is why, incidentally, I'm not bothering to defend my assertion that the region deserves to be celebrated; there's plenty of that elsewhere on this site).  Many of you out there, of course,  are from elsewhere and don't feel any particular connection to Oregon, Washington, or BC, in which case there's no reason this should affect you.  However, for those of you who consider yourself Northwesterners, be you native or adopted, I suggest you mark January 11th on your calendars, and if you have friends who you think are likely to be enthusiastic about this hare-brained idea, mention it to them as well.  I'm not advocating anything extravagant here, mind you.  The last thing the world need is another made-up holiday when people are expected to throw money at cards, gifts, or fancy meals.  For many of us who call the Northwest home, though, I think there's a great deal to be said for recognizing what it is that we appreciate about it.

07 December 2008

Going Bowling

I usually try to stay away from opining about sports on this blog, since I know much of my audience (if I still have one) are more interested in other things.  However, due to current events, you all will have to put up with me writing about college football (fortunately, I can't force any of you to read my blog...yet).  The matchups for the 2008-2009 bowl season were announced today, which means that sportwriters across the country are indulging in their annual bout of whining about how a playoff system is necessary for the future of NCAA football.  As you may have guessed by my use of the word 'whining,' I am a staunch supporter of the bowl system (though not necessarily the BCS).  There are several reasons for this; these reasons are idealistic (Why should college sports, which are ostensibly played by amateurs, be so concerned about crowning a champion?), financial (bowls can be extremely lucrative for almost everyone involved), or traditionalist (a sport as steeped in pageantry as college football should maintain the system is has had for a century now) in nature, and admittedly some are much more convincing than others.  However, the best argument against a playoff system is, I would argue, purely practical in nature.
The main complaint leveled against the bowl system is that rankings are somehow intrinsically less fair than playoffs.  A few simple stats show that, in football at least, this is simply untrue.  For the sake of argument, let's assume that a really top-notch NCAA football team wins 60% of its football games against teams of the caliber it would meet in a playoff (this is awfully generous, I should point out, as the real underdog winning percentage in bowl games is roughly 50%).  Let's assume as well that in order to win the championship, a team would have to win three playoff games, just as a conference champion with a first round bye in the NFL would.  As we all learned as far back as high school, the chances of a team winning all three games to claim the championship are 60% x 60% x 60%, or 21.6%.  If we up the odds of winning a game to 70%, the odds of winning out rise to just 34.3%.  The reason odds like these are so problematic in football is that the sample size of one game is laughably small.  In baseball, basketball, or hockey, where playoffs consist of multi-game series, the odds of the better team prevailing are much greater (though even in these sports it can be hard to predict; does anyone really think the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies were the best teams in baseball the last two years?).
Opponents of the bowl system would interject at this point to argument that playoffs allow teams to control their own destiny.  This also is patently untrue.  The most compelling argument against this notion is that one team alone cannot control the outcome of a game; if that were the case, there would be no point in playing the games in the first place.  Besides, in any close football game (as the latter games of a playoff generally would be), it is generally factors well outside a team's influence that give one side an edge.  Weather, field conditions, fan presence (even in a "neutral" stadium, one team will have more fans than another, which really can make a difference in football), and, most importantly of all, human error on the part of the referees routinely affect game scores, as anyone who watched the Oregon/Oklahoma game in 2006 could tell you.
So, to return to my original point, college football has two choices for how it could run its postseason.  The supposedly "fair" playoff system is in fact governed by chance and the team that is crowned as champion at the end will almost certainly not be the best from the regular season.  The BCS, to be sure, has some flaws as well.  Most glaringly, there are too many bowls, and the computer rankings determining which teams get to go to the best games are, in a word, terrible.  However, the coaches' and sportswriters' polls that are compiled at the end of the bowl season tend to do a good job of reflecting which teams are the best, not based on a handful of single-elimination games at the end of the year, but over the course of the entire season.  Which system, then, is really more "unfair" and less likely to crown a "legitimate" champion?  It's worth thinking about.  If you care about this sort of thing.

N.B. For those of you who don't follow football, I apologize for pretty much everything about this post, and especially for not explaining what exactly I mean by the BCS and the bowl system.  The simple truth of the matter is that, love it or hate it, the selection process for college football's postseason is extraordinarily complex, and explaining it would have just about doubled the size of an already-overlong post.  Hopefully Wikipedia will suffice on this one.

28 November 2008

Lucy's Legacy

I'd like to put in a plug for my old stomping grounds, the Pacific Science Center.  This is old news to most of you, I imagine, but PSC is currently hosting 'Lucy's Legacy.'  Lucy is, of course, the best-preserved skeleton known of the early hominid Australopithecus and is the most famous fossil in the world.  This fame is well-deserved; while Lucy is physically not particularly large, she is a titanic figure in the story of human evolution; without her, much of what we know about our early ancestors could never have been learned.  What the Rosetta Stone, the Declaration of Independence, or the Dead Sea Scrolls are to our history, Lucy is to our prehistory.  In fact, in being quite literally unique, she may eclipse any man-made artifact in significance.  I'm posting this little soliloquy not just because I'm still a bit giddy from having had the privilege to see a fossil of such stature, but to encourage any of you who have the means to get to Seattle before March 8th to do so.  Unless you plan to make a habit of visiting Ethiopia (a plan that is sadly impractical for most of us), this is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  No doubt many of you will think I am blowing this out of proportion because I am myself a paleontologist that is easily excited by this sort of thing.  This may be somewhat true, but regardless of your opinions on fossils, it is not everyday a key figure in humankind's heritage is deposited for a few months right in our own backyard, and it would be a shame for anyone to pass up the chance to see Lucy in person.

04 November 2008


As established in an earlier post, the readers of my blog may be small in number but rich in brains, so I'm sure you were all aware that today is Election Day, and I imagine that most - if not all - of you have voted already.  Just in the off-chance that any of you had forgotten, though, consider this a public service announcement reminding you that you if you don't vote in an election of this magnitude (there may never be bigger in most of our lifetimes) you're ruining democracy for the rest of us.  Also, don't forget that there is more than just the presidency at stake; I know that all the west coast states have hugely important issues and races lower on the ballot, and I have no doubt the same could be said of states across the country.  Remember, regardless of what you think of our country's behavior in recent years and over the course of its history, it was founded on unimpeachably noble ideals, and today is your chance to celebrate the very best of what the US stands for.

20 October 2008

Lobbying for Paleontology

Last week was the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting in Cleveland.  It was a great conference all around: Cleveland is a much better city than it's made out to be (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is especially excellent, despite the exorbitant entry fees), there were lots of good presentations, and as always it was great to meet up with old friends and make new ones.  I should mention that every member of our lab group presented a talk or poster, and I think (and certainly hope) that we succeeded in our goal of announcing Oregon's return to the world of vertebrate paleontology.  My favorite thing about the trip, though?  The hotel lobby.  Honestly.  The conference was held in the Renaissance Hotel, which was built, and the lobby in particular is a throwback to the Gilded Age (an era that was, it must be noted, gilded for paleontologists as well as industrialists; when the Renaissance was built, Henry Fairfield Osborn was presiding over Barnum Brown and Charles R. Knight, and the "Bone Wars" of Marsh and Cope were a recent and palpable memory).  One of the points of scientific conferences is to give researchers a chance to discuss their current work with their colleagues, and there is no better atmosphere in which to do so than in marvelously soft couches with the sound of a fountain in the background and vaulted arches overhead (arches with spandrels, appropriately enough for a meeting of evolutionary biologists).  It helped that there was an excellent - if expensive - bar built in, complete with Great Lakes microbrews, which provide an exception to the rule that there is no good beer between the coasts (the Oktoberfest and Eliot Ness amber ales are especially nice).  Sitting around talking with your friends and colleagues in the Renaissance lobby makes you feel like one of the railroad tycoons or captains of industry the hotel once hosted.  Could there be a better place to hold a meeting for people who make a living of living in the past?

25 September 2008

My Name is Chin Trout

Say what you will about the journalistic quality of the Eugene Weekly; it introduced me to this fantastic application of modern technology, so it can't be all bad.

22 September 2008

2008-2009 Pac-10 Vertebrate Paleontology Rankings

It being football season, I got to wondering how the different Pac-10 schools would stack up if they competed for paleontological rather than athletic prowess (this was clearly a list that needed to be made, and also a testament to my seemingly limitless powers of procrastination).  I decided to see how things stood by tallying up the number of talks being presented by researchers from each university at next month's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference (this means, of course, that I was measuring the influence of vertebrate paleontologists only, but this isn't rocket science, after all).  Without further ado, here are the rankings (numbers of talks are shown in parentheses after each school):

1. California (21)
2. Washington (11)
3(t). Oregon (7)
3(t). USC (7)
5. UCLA (6)
6. Stanford (5)
7. Arizona (2)
8(t). Arizona State (0)
8(t). Oregon State (0)
8(t). Washington State (0)

It's no surprise to see Berkeley comfortably atop the list, given that it has long been one of the world's best universities for paleontology (appropriate for a school who's mascot is an extinct animal).  The Huskies' distant second finish is a testament to Washington's paleontological renaissance in recent years.  From my point of view, it's gratifying to see Oregon tie with USC (though in fairness, the Trojans probably deserve the tiebreaker due to their connection with LA's natural history museum, which is also sending some speakers); for those of you who might be reading this in Eugene and think that seven sounds like an awfully large number, two of those talks are accounted for by paleoprimatologist Stephen Frost in the anthropology department.  Rounding out the field, UCLA and Stanford make solid showings, as expected, and Arizona stays out of the cellar by sending a geochemist to talk about isotopes from fossil hominids.  Sadly, the Sun Devils, Beavers, and Cougars have some serious recruiting to do if they want to have any hopes of moving up the rankings in the foreseeable future.  For those of you who prefer charts to lists, try this on for size; if nothing else, it drives home just how good Berkeley is:

I've taken my share of stats classes in my life, and I'm well aware that this is probably not the most robust technique for ranking universities.  If you are taking this post seriously enough to complain about my methods, you are missing the point.

12 September 2008

Just Deserts

People often refer to most of the American West as 'desert,' but strictly speaking much of it is not true desert, but scrubland.  It's a minor difference both ecologically and semantically, but much of Oregon falls into the latter category.  However, the southeast corner of the state is true desert by anyone's standards (it's the northern reaches of the Great Basin Desert, for those of you who are sticklers for this sort of thing), and that's where I spent the last week.  I was there with the rest of the U of O vertebrate paleontology program (all 5 of us); our main goal was to re-locate several sites collected in the 1950s and '60s that have since fallen into neglect.  I'll confess that at first I was not too thrilled with the idea, partly because I'm never too happy about leaving my cat behind, partly because I much prefer lab work to field work (the lab is where real science is done, after all), but also because I find deserts oddly unsettling.  This is probably because the desert is so radically different then the wet, temperate climates in which I've spent most of my life.  To give just one example, rain west of the Cascades is at worst an annoyance, at best something to be welcomed because it keeps everything so green.  Head east of the Cascades, though, and rain can kill you if it comes down hard enough to trigger flash floods (to say nothing of the lightning that often accompanies it).
There are plenty of other differences as well, of course, and it is by that same token that deserts also hold a strange fascination for me (the list of things that simultaneously creep me out and appeal to me is a long one).  As a kid, my favorite nature programs were those set in Arizona or the Sahara, largely because the wildlife was so radically different than anything we saw in western Washington.  The animals (and to a lesser extent the plants) of the North American desert are still the main attraction for me; there's something to be said for living in a state in which you can drive only a couple of hundred miles and find yourself in a completely different ecosystem filled with exotic organisms.  I especially like the bestiary of biting, stinging, and prickly animals (though I also realize that these are the main complaint about the desert for most people).  It's always a bit of a thrill to come across a rattlesnake, scorpion, or black widow (none of which are a particularly great threat to a healthy adult, especially if viewed from a prudent distance; the only desert animals I would just as soon avoid completely are the giant Pepsis wasps which lay their eggs in living tarantulas and can inflict the second most painful injury - and most painful sting - of any insect).
I'm happy to say, that on balance, this trip fell more towards the interesting rather than the nerve-wracking end of the spectrum.  The weather was perfect (though there was one afternoon of looming rain clouds that had me a bit nervous), the wildlife was present but unthreatening (with the exception of the clouds of mosquitoes that descended upon us nightly; that's what we got for camping in the wettest spot in the area, I guess), and the paleontology was, on the whole, successful.  While our main goal was to locate old sites and get a sense of the regional geology, we also spent a fair amount of time prospecting for fossils.  We came back with a respectable haul of camels, horses, mastodonts, and lots of catfish; one of our crew even found a dog jaw that I'll be able to use in my dissertation research.  In the end, then, it was well worth it, but it may be some time before I'm ever truly comfortable in the desert.

26 August 2008

Corvid Appreciation

In pretty much any part of the world, crows, jays, or magpies - the group of birds known as corvids - are a daily fact of life, animals so common that most people don't even notice them.  This is especially true in Seattle, which is rumored to harbor the world's largest population of crows (either the American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, or the Northwestern crow, Corvus caurinus, depending on who you believe).  Whether or not this has ever been reliably demonstrated, it is a fact that Seattle is home to a remarkably large number of the animals, most of which roost directly above the house of one of my best friends from middle school.  At my family's house, our backyard was frequented by a more colorful relative, the electric-blue, crested Steller's jay.  When we went camping in the mountains, we were invariably plagued by gray jays ("camp-robbers," as they're aptly known to many people) and Clark's nutcrackers, and if we headed east of the Cascades we saw more than our share of black-billed magpies and Northern ravens.  I've always had a certain fondness for corvids, not only because I saw so much of them while growing up, but because they are among the smartest animals on the face of the planet (there are, of course, lots of angsty people out there who identify with crows because they are seen as dark and misunderstood; the irony of this Gothic fascination is that corvids in general - and crows in particular - are intensely social animals). Corvids maintain extremely complex social structures, have been observed using tools, are inveterate problem-solvers, have remarkable memories, and are apparently capable of quite sophisticated communication.  Further proof of the intellectual capabilities of crows and their relatives was provided this week by John Marzluff at the University of Washington, who suggests that not only are Seattle's crows capable of remembering people's appearance, they are able to communicate the appearance of individuals perceived as dangerous to other crows.  I'm more convinced of the first point than the second, but read the article and decide for yourself; regardless of the extent of their skills of recognition, the study is another testament to the complexity of the corvid mind.  Most of us will never have the opportunity of seeing chimps or gorillas in the wild, and while dolphins are nothing new to many of us, few people ever get to see them up close an in their element.  Fortunately, we all (unless we live in Antarctica) have the opportunity of observing animals on nearly a daily basis that belong in the same brainy category as primates and cetaceans.  Bear that in mind next time you see a jay foraging in your yard, a murder of crows in a tree, or even a magpie raiding a trash can; each and every corvid out there is a remarkable animal, as will become quickly apparent if you spend even a little time observing their behavior.

18 August 2008

What I Learned in California

With the words of Muhhamad in mind ("Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled"), here's what I learned during the last three weeks in the Bay Area and LA.

  • The University of California Museum of Paleontology is much, much more than just a pretty website.
  • Squirrel fossils are less common than you might think if you looked only at the Oregon and Washington collections.
  • You should never try to go to the De Young Museum on a summer weekend.  The Palace of the Legion of Honor, however, is well worth the trip: it has free organ concerts some afternoons, an odd but interesting penchant for juxtaposing Rodin and Dale Chihuly, and perhaps the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
  • Monkey Head Ale is shockingly drinkable given its alcohol content, and the Triple Rock brewpub is a dead ringer for Seattle's Big Time Brewery, minus the shuffleboard tables in the back room.
  • Berkeley does monumental architecture very well.  Santa Cruz does landscaping very well (hard not to when your campus is literally in the middle of a redwood forest).  USC...not so much.
  • A distant relative of mine was honored by having a fossil dog from the La Brea tar pits named after him: Canis orcutti.  The relative in question was William Warren Orcutt, an oil man who, among other things, discovered the first fossils at La Brea and was also the namesake for Orcutt, California.  Sadly, C. orcutti has since been lumped into the species C. latrans, the coyote.
  • If you can only visit one of the California missions, it should be La Purísima, near Lompoc.  If you can visit a second, it should be Santa Barbara, because that's probably what heaven looks like.
  • The San Bernardino County Museum has a surprisingly good fossil collection, but you have to really want to get there.
  • LA remains a sprawling, polluted tumor of a city that guzzles up water and power at an alarming rate.  That said, it does have a larger number of things going for it than I'd previously appreciated.
-It has a trio of art museums (The Getty Center, The Norton Simon Museum, and the LA County Museum of Art) that, while they may not rival Madrid's 'Golden Triangle' are as good as anything on this continent and the equal of many European cities.
-The Getty Center is as ethereally gorgeous in the evening as it is at midday.
-LA rapid transit has gotten significantly better with the construction of many light rail lines, though people still tended to look at me funny when I said I was taking the train in to the natural history museum every day.
-Speaking of the natural history museum, it's fantastic, if a bit dated in places (though really, that's what I liked about it; more about that in a later post).
-Pasadena is gorgeous and is a shining example of what the region could - and probably should - be, though one wonders how much longer they'll be able to keep it so green.
-Union Station is really cool and, incidentally, an exemplary transit hub.
-The Griffith Observatory is great regardless of whether you like sweeping views, Art Deco architecture, astronomy, or free museums.

  • Merychippus gets old very quickly, especially when it's not identified down to the species level.
  • Driving all the way up the Central Valley is more of an ordeal than you might expect, not just because it's really flat and boring, but because there's a decent chance traffic will be stopped by a wildfire on the median.

22 July 2008

Big Day

I have been waiting all day for something big - good or bad - to happen. It's my dad's birthday, which is fairly big in and of itself, but this date has been a red-letter day for other reasons the last couple of years. Without going into any personal detail, July 22nd, 2006 was one of the more miserable in recent memory. On the other hand, on July 22nd, 2007 I and some of my classmates from the Analytical Paleobiology course took a whale-watching cruise out of Santa Barbara and saw several blue whales. Marine mammal viewing might not register as an epochal event for most people, but seeing the largest animal on Earth had long been on my list of things to do during my life; it was, however, one of those things (like receiving a knighthood) that I assumed would never actually happen. So, with the last two years still fresh in my memory, I have been waiting with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation for something to happen today. However, it's now 11:00 and the odds of anything taking place in the next hour are pretty small, so I guess that two year run was a flash in the pan. As relieved as I am that nothing bad happened, I'll admit that in a strange way I'm a bit disappointed; guess I'll just have to wait 'til next year.

01 July 2008

Selection's Sesquisentennial

"Evolution is only a theory" is a popular phrase with the "intelligent design" and creationism crowd. Far brighter and more articulate minds than mine have taken up pen and ink (or keyboard) to expose the glaring ignorance, both semantic and scientific, that underlie this motto. Evolution is, of course, a theory, but a theory is more than just an educated guess, as the Discovery Institute and their cronies would like us to believe, but a scientific fact, and it has been so since this date 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace jointly presented their theory of natural selection to the Linnaean Society of London. People often credit Darwin and Wallace with coming up with the concept of evolution out of the blue, but this is not the case; what they did accomplish was to take a somewhat amorphous idea and bring it solidly into the realm of science. In fact, prior to 1858, the creationists might have had a point: evolution was not a theory, but an as-yet unproven hypothesis. It has been suggested by some that the earliest glimmerings of the idea occurred to Linnaeus himself who, after a life of categorizing organisms, may have realized that some natural force was responsible for the nested patterns he observed. This is all conjecture, but, whatever its beginnings, the concept had, well, evolved into nearly its present form by the early 19th Century. The most famous proto-evolutionist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who looked a the same patterns and correctly identified them as evidence of biological change over time. Lamarck's only major failing, and the reason he is often scoffed at by scholars today, is that he was unable to establish the mechanism underlying evolution. Darwin and Wallace, then, were not starting from scratch, but this in no way diminishes their accomplishment. It is one thing to come up with a hypothesis, quite another to move that hypothesis into the realm of theory (which is to say, again, fact). To do so requires a mechanism (in this case natural selection) and mountains of supporting evidence. Darwin, of course, collected much of his evidence on his voyage around the world in the Beagle, and then spent the next several years studying organisms closer to home, most notably pigeons and barnacles. Wallace spent many years in the jungles of Malaysia and the Amazon, often low on both money and luck (his entire Amazonian collection was lost at sea on the return to England). Both men independently came to realize that variation and differential survival were the driving force behind the diversity of life on Earth. Darwin was the first to recognize this fact, but held off on publishing it because he realized the ramifications it would have. When he realized that his younger colleague had come to the same conclusions, he was finally spurred into publishing, and on July 1, 1858, the two men presented natural selection to the world by way of the Linnaean Society (some have suggested that this apparent act of camaraderie masks the fact that Darwin's behavior upon learning he was about to be scooped was less than honorable; the historical record is murky upon this point).
The social shock waves were soon to hit, just as Darwin predicted. It is a testament to the soundness of natural selection, though, that its main detractors were social entities (the most vociferous of these being the Church of England) rather than scientists. The evidence compiled over the years by Darwin and Wallace was so substantial and well-presented that the scientific community flocked to it remarkably rapidly (a few well-known and outspoken opponents such as Richard Owen notwithstanding). Any scientific critique of the theory was ultimately shown to be flawed, and several well-timed fossil discoveries (Archaeopteryx and Java Man chief among them) helped cement natural selection as fact beyond any reasonable doubt. Social criticism continued, and is still very much in force today, but even the most vehement creationists must admit that the theory of Darwin and Wallace is a milestone in world history. July 1st has the misfortune of falling within a week of the anniversary of another epochal date and for that reason (among others) it is often overlooked. However, as this year marks the sesquicentennial of what may be thought of as science's watershed moment, I encourage everyone out there to take just a moment to give a tip of the hat (literally or figuratively) to Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and their theory of natural selection - still standing tall and proud after 150 years!

14 June 2008

The Wide World of Paleontology: Spring 2008

At the end of last quarter, I summed up the high points of our department's paleo discussion group. While the group didn't meet this spring, I thought that it might be fun to sum up the major developments in paleontology during the last few months for the sake of whoever out there still reads this blog. Enjoy!
  • The term "missing link" is generally frowned upon, and with good reason, but it can't be denied that discoveries of transitional fossils are always exciting. It may not have the glamor of Lucy or Archaeopteryx, but paleontologists from the University of Calgary described an animal very near the common ancestor of salamanders and frogs this May. Dubbed Gerobatrachus, it lived in the Permian and looked very much like what a salamander/frog would be expected to.
  • South America and Australia are both island continents (or at least South America was until Panama appeared on the scene in the Pliocene), and as such have been of interest to paleontologists as long as there has been a science of paleontology. This spring, two papers showed that the continents have more in common than many people may realize. A Cretaceous dinosaur from Victoria and an Eocene mammal from Queensland both show affinities with South American animals; this is no shock, as the two continents were connected until relatively recently, but the results are nonetheless biogeographically interesting. Other extinct Australian organisms to make the news this spring were the giant marsupial Diprotodon, which may be represented by only one species rather than several as had previously been thought, the placoderm fish Gogonasus, a specimen of which was found with an unhatched embryo preserved within it, and the so-called Tasmanian tiger, from which genes were isolated and inserted into a mouse embryo.
  • Northwest fossils also found their ways into the headlines in the last few months. Dinosaur bones found in British Columbia several years ago have been revisited by a University of Alberta student, and they may represent a new species. The paleoecology of BC's most famous fossil site has also been revisited, and the result is a food web for the Cambrian Burgess Shale fauna. While not entirely paleontological, coprolites from eastern Oregon have yielded the oldest human DNA from the New World and show - not surprisingly - that the earliest Americans were genetically similar to Siberians.
  • The seemingly inexhaustible quarries of Liaoning, China just keep on producing exquisitely-preserved fossil birds and feathered dinosaurs. The early bird Eoconfuciusornis was described by researchers at the University of Bristol, including my former master's supervisor. A former Bristolian made further paleornithological waves by describing a fossil parrot from the Eocene of Denmark, which he nicknamed "Danish Blue" after Monty Python's famous 'Dead Parrot Sketch.'
  • My favorite paper this spring was the one that suggested the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus and its relatives did not, in fact, spend much time in the air, but were likely terrestrial predators. This is an interesting hypothesis, as the diet of giant pterosaurs has long been a matter of some debate. It is not unheard of for flying animals to become predominately land-living hunters; the most spectacular example are the flightless, extinct phorusrhacids, but modern storks, secretary birds, and seriemas live similar lifestyles, making the image of Quetzalcoatlus as a predator is at least plausible.

12 June 2008

I'm back and you're all brilliant!

blog readability test
I have no idea what precisely this means; if you click on the banner above, it will take you to a website that tells you the reading level of your blog. This 'genius' rating means either that the language I use here is far too stilted or that my audience, small though it may be, is the intellectual cream of the crop. I choose to believe the latter.
Incidentally, if any of you are reading this post, it means you are not only very bright (apparently), but very patient as well. I have been terrible about posting lately, and in the off-chance that any of you look to The Oregon Trail for part of your day's entertainment or edification, I will try to be much better about updating things. Welcome back to my weird little world!

10 May 2008


The Northwest certainly isn't the only part of the world in which rhododendrons grow (the middle stretch of the Appalachians, I understand, has some particularly nice groves), but they do seem to disproportionately common in gardens here. Presumably this is because our climate mirrors that of the Himalayan foothills where the greatest diversity of wild species occurs; whatever the reason, rhododendron blooms are perhaps the most spectacular symbol of spring in this part of the world (a fact that Washington has recognized by declaring a native species, Rhododendron macrophyllum, the state flower). On the premise that there are few better subjects out there on which to test my "new" camera's macro function, I spent an hour or so today in the gardens at Eugene's Hendricks Park photographing rhododendrons. The result is the slideshow below (which also includes shots from my trip to Seattle a couple of weeks ago); I'm no Ansel Adams, but if you've had a hard time believing that spring has actually arrived, I hope these photos do their part to get you in the spirit.

07 May 2008

Happy Music Day!

Today marks the 184th anniversary of music's acme. On May 7th, 1824, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was premiered in Vienna. The Ninth and it's signature Ode to Joy (based on a work by poet Friedrich Schiller) has routinely been recognized as the greatest piece of music ever written, and I'm not about to second guess received wisdom in this case (especially when you consider that Beethoven was stone deaf when he wrote it). The same concert also saw the premier of Die Weihe des Hauses and Missa Solemnis, both brilliant works in their own right. If that weren't enough, today is also the birthday of two musical giants, Johannes Brahms (whose eponymous lullaby you've heard many times even if you don't listen to classical music) and Peter Illych Tchakovsky (long a personal favorite of mine). So if you, like me, regard music as something near a religion, I hope you had a chance to enjoy what would undoubtedly be one of the faith's high holidays.

22 April 2008

Beer Here

I'm well aware that I'm prone to hyperbole, especially when writing about the Pacific Northwest, but it looks like there is at least one category in which an unbiased third party also believes we belong among the elite. The results of the World Beer Cup were announced recently, and the region did disproportionately well. The Oregonian has a nice blog entry on Oregon beers, but several entries from Northern California, Idaho, B.C., Alaska, and Washington placed very high as well. I very much doubt we will ever surpass England, Germany, or Belgium in terms of beer quality, but it's nice to know that we at least belong in the same league.

31 March 2008

The Voice of Summer

The Northwest has seen some bizarrely unseasonal weather over the course of the last couple of weeks, but the gray pall of winter gets thrown off today. It is, of course, Opening Day for my beloved Seattle Mariners, signaling the onset of Spring for all of us fans. This opener is sweeter than most, not only because the M's expectations are higher than they've been for years, not only because of the optimism and anticipation of warmer weather that are always engendered by the return of baseball, but because the heart and soul of the franchise will, at long last, be going into the season as a hall of famer. For many of us growing up in the Northwest the voice of Dave Niehaus has been as integral a part of summer as blue skies, idyllic temperatures, and hours upon hours of daylight. He has been a finalist for the Ford C. Frick Award (the broadcaster's equivalent of a Hall of Fame induction) for several years now, and this winter he was finally recognized as belonging among the game's great orators (he'll be inducted alongside Goose Gossage, meaning that for the first time two Mariners will be recognized in one year...sort of). I have listened to enough broadcasters to be able to state with conviction that Dave truly deserves this honor. For my entire life - indeed, for the entire life of the Mariners franchise - he has been synonymous with Northwest baseball and, for that matter, with summer. His approach to calling a game is a very narrative one, approaching each game as an unfolding story. Because of this, people sometimes complain that his style is rambling and unfocused, but to those of us that grew up listening to him, his voice is as familiar and his stories are as welcome as those of a grandfather. There is no Mariners fan out there that ever gets tired of listening to his calls from the 1995 postseason, in particular "The Double," a seminal moment in Northwest sports history. Here's hoping Dave gets a chance for an encore performance this Fall.

18 March 2008

Obama on Race

I have waxed poetic about Barack Obama several times on this blog, but I think in this case it's best just to let him speak for himself. All I'll say is that this is probably the best speech any US politician has given in my lifetime. They'll be talking about this one for a long, long time.

The Wide World of Paleontology: Winter 2008

This quarter saw the return of our department's paleontology discussion group, and over the course of the last few months we've gone over several papers of note. Here are some of the paleontological highlights from the first quarter of 2008:

  • Two of my former MSc supervisors, Sarda Sahney and Mike Benton, published a paper on faunal recovery after the Permian-Triassic extinction. Their research yielded two particularly interesting results. First, extinction at the P-T boundary was the last of three extinctions that occurred during the late Permian. Second, ecological recovery took much longer than had previously been thought. Though some organisms - in particular the pig-like reptile Lystrosaurus - survived the extinction and thrived afterwards, ecosystem complexity remained low until 30 million years into the Triassic. You can read Sarda's much more detailed explanation of the paper's findings on her blog.
  • My current advisor, Samantha Hopkins, has also published a paper this year. It deals with the issue of rodent body size estimation. In particular, it emphasizes that previous estimates likely overestimate the size of the giant South American rodent Phoberomys, which had been described as "buffalo-sized." Just before this paper came to press, an even larger South American rodent was reported: the cumbersomely-named Josephoartigasia, which was estimated by the authors to weigh 10,000 kg (11 English tons). Unfortunately for fans of giant rodents, this reckoning is likely also too high, though it still would have been a massive animal, far larger than any rodent alive today (as is made abundantly clear in the picture at right at which the skull of Josephoartigasia is compared to a living rat).
  • On the paleoclimate front, Wolfram Kürschner and his colleagues published a study of Miocene plant stomata, orifices in leaves that allow carbon dioxide to enter the cells. The density of these openings varies with atmospheric CO2 content, and as such they provide a proxy for climatic conditions. This line of evidence is significant because marine and terrestrial isotopic studies show different climate signals. Stomatal data confirm the pattern observed in the terrestrial isotopic record, showing a period of global warming (the mid-Miocene climatic optimum) between 17 and 15 million years ago, followed by a prolonged period of global cooling.
  • Perhaps my favorite paper of the quarter was a description of the Eocene fossil bat Onychonycterus. Before the discovery of this specimen, all fossil bats looked for all intents and purposes like modern forms. This was frustrating, as these fossils told us nothing about the early evolution of bats. Onychonycterus effectively settles one major debate that had been raging in the paleochiropteral community; its ear showed none of the features associated with echolocation in modern species, demonstrating that bats took to the air before evolving "sonar." Even more interesting are the implications for the evolution of bat flight. Onychonycterus has wings similar to those seen in modern bats that fly by intermittent fluttering and gliding. What's more, it had relatively long legs and large claws on its wings, both of which would have made it an adept climber. Taken together, these lines of evidence suggest that the first flying bats were climbing trees and gliding rather than evolving wings from the "ground up" to help them catch insect prey. Another glimpse of early bat evolution was provided by fossil from the Fayum of Egypt, where - among others - a giant species was recently described.
  • There were several other stories in paleontology that we didn't discuss in our group that deserve mention anyway. Fellow Bristol and Chicago alumnus Steve Brusatte has described two new carnivorous dinosaurs from Africa. Dinosaurs weren't the only big things around in the Mesozoic, though, a point underscored by the discovery of a giant, dinosaur-eating frog (shown at right). Our Primate ancestors seem to have been part of the dinosaurs' world for longer than expected as well, and our own species seems to have evolved into more diverse niches than we had previously realized. One thing our species is not, according to a U of O anthropologist, is a duck-killer. The debate over how old ducks and their relatives really are rages on, but at least one contentious issue seems to have been solved: if a modern lion and an extinct marsupial "lion" got in a fight, who would win?

17 March 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I've been waiting months to post this video. Enjoy!

04 March 2008


The big news in the Seattle area yesterday was the arson of a group of suburban houses, apparently by the Earth Liberation Front. This is not the first time ELF has gone and done something stupid (their torching of the Urban Horticulture Center a few years back still baffles and angers me), but this time it really stings. For all their zealotry, ELF was apparently protesting the unchecked sprawl that has gobbled up most of the rural landscape of the Puget Sound lowlands, which is a matter of genuine concern. By resorting to criminality and terrorism, though, they have done more harm than good, marginalizing those of us who think that sprawl is just one symptom of a much bigger problem that needs to be addressed. This is a topic I've been mulling over quite a lot since I was up in Seattle over Christmas, and this seemed a good opportunity to put it into writing, awkward as the segue may be.
I should preface everything by saying that, though I currently live in Oregon, I was born and raised in Seattle, and there is a lot I really love about the city. First off, it has one of the most fortunate geographic settings in the world, on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with sunrises over the Cascades' most spectacular peaks and sunsets that silhouette the Olympics. It also has a much richer cultural heritage than it gives itself credit for, especially in regards to music (which goes back a lot further than the grunge bands of the '90s). It has an enormous Vietnamese population, salmon runs through the Ballard Locks, a beautiful baseball stadium, a series of Olmsted parks that rival New York's for scenery, and is - for some inexplicable reason - the best place in the country to get a hamburger. It's a city built on boats, both those of Scandinavian fishermen and of the so-called "Mosquito Fleet" that kept the city in business after its upstart neighbor Tacoma was named the rail terminus for the region. Seattle succeeded against all odds, cementing its role on the national stage during the Klondike gold rush and on the world stage during the dot-com revolution. It has, however, become a victim of its own success after a quarter-century of unchecked growth. The most obvious - and ugliest - change has been in the suburbs. Farms have been plowed under, forests have been leveled, and once-rural towns have become soulless bedroom communities for the big city. This is the trend that was apparently being "protested" by ELF in the most ineffectual and destructive way possible, but things have been changing for the worse in Seattle itself as well.
An article that I read in the Seattle P-I over Christmas is what really got me thinking about all this in the first place. The story was about a jury from the American Institute of Architects giving the city a failing grade on its new architecture. The main argument of the author was that Seattle's greatest failing was its lack of vision. A sudden influx of money led to myriad new construction projects that were not necessarily ugly or useless, but that lacked any distinctly local style, leading to what the author referred to as "a watery Dallas." Ouch. This may sound trivial, but a lack of foresight or desire to retain the city's original character has cropped up many times over the past few decades. Voters have several times rejected measures to fund transportation that the city now desperately needs (the new South Lake Union Streetcar is a nice idea, but
the route is almost comically short and no more effective than a bus line), as well as an initiative to create what would have been one of the world's great urban parks in a former warehouse district. Several urban neighborhoods are thriving, which is nice, but almost everything that made those neighborhoods interesting to begin with has disappeared. I am thinking in particular of Ballard, which almost overnight went from a Scandinavian community to a hipster enclave; it's still a perfectly nice place, but with barely a hint of Nordic heritage.
All this may seem ludicrously petty to someone who didn't grow up in Seattle. The region's economy was in the tank during the '70s, only to be rescued by Microsoft and the high-tech industry of the '90s and it may seem as though I have a lot of gall to complain about the city's near-miraculous turnaround just because it made things change from the way they used to be. That, however, is not the point I'm trying to make. Cities should try to grow their economies, of course, and development in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is the change that is necessarily attendant on that development. However, I know the reason I loved growing up in Seattle was that it was not just a nice place to live, but it was genuinely unique. I also know I'm not alone in this, and that one of the major reasons the city's economy exploded in the '90s was that people wanted to work somewhere that was not a carbon copy of so many other urban centers across the country. The irony, of course, is that so many people wanted to live somewhere different that they wound up building over many of the things that made Seattle stand apart. For years, Seattleites have put the blame on new arrivals to the city, in particular those from California. Scapegoating is easy, but I think it's time we recognized the problem lies squarely on our shoulders. The people and the government of Seattle had plenty of chances to allow development within a framework that preserved the city's heritage, but we failed to do so. We need only look to Portland, which has managed to balance economic success and local identity spectacularly well, to see how effective such a framework can be. It is my fervent hope that someday Seattle will follow the lead of its southern neighbor and finally make itself a city worthy of its setting and of its own history. The miles of suburbs aren't going anywhere, and places like Ballard and Fremont will likely never return to the way they were, but there's still a lot of Seattle worth saving.

01 March 2008


The trial run of my blog poll is over, and the people have spoken (all sixteen of you; is that really the extent of my audience?). Apparently there's no consensus on which southern continent would be most fun to visit, with four votes each for Australia, Antarctica, and South America. Poor Africa didn't get a single vote, though for my part it's an easy second choice. I've decided to try again, this time with only two options. The question is simple: what is the greatest comic strip of all time? What this really comes down to, of course (and with apologies to fans of Peanuts), is a debate between the often arcane nerd-humor of The Far Side and its cartoonist, Northwest native Gary Larson, and the often cynical philosophy-humor of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes. Frankly, this is an argument in which I'm not sure I can take sides: both were an integral part of my childhood, and I still find myself laughing just as hard as ever when I read them today. I'm curious to know what the rest of the world (or at least the infinitesimal portion of it that reads this blog regularly) thinks. So please, chime in on this hugely important issue. I can't think of any other big voting-related events going on right now that might distract you...

18 February 2008

It's Easy Being Green...

...if you live in the Pacific Northwest. This news is a few days old now, but I couldn't help but brag about the region's strong showing in Popular Science's list of greenest cities. Congratulations are due to Portland in particular, which edged out San Francisco for the #1 spot (further proof that Portland is the best city in the world). Eugene shows up at #5, and is rated as having the most environmentally-friendly electricity in the country. The third top-ten finisher from the Northwest is Seattle in the #8 spot. Surprisingly, Seattle's strength was its transportation, which has to be one of the most woefully underfunded and underdeveloped systems in the nation (though it must be admitted that Metro does a very good job with what little they're given). Northwesterners - especially Portlanders, Eugenians, and Seattleites - should give themselves a pat on the back for showing that, despite all the changes we've seen in the past several years, we still deserve our reputation as leaders of the pack on environmental issues.

15 February 2008

Heinrich Harder & the Art of the Prehistoric Landscape

While I was in Germany a couple of years ago I took the train from Berlin to Hamburg. I had a few hours to kill in the morning, and since the Berlin station is directly across the street from the world's largest zoo, I decided I'd pay it a visit. Without a doubt, my favorite part of the zoo was its aquarium/reptile house, not just because of the animals within it, but because of the building itself. It was built in 1913 and is covered in a series of colorful murals of prehistoric animals. I remember thinking at the time that the reconstructions were nicely done, if more than a little dated, and wondering who had painted them. Fast forward to earlier this week; I was looking for paintings of fossil horses that I could use in a presentation, and serendipitously stumbled across those same murals on the Internet. It turns out that the artist's name is Heinrich Harder (who, if nothing else, gets points for being alliterative) and he was quite a prolific painter of prehistoric life. "Paleoartitsry" is a term that has been coined to describe visual depictions of past life, and it is a field as old as paleontology itself. Working in the opening years of the 20th Century, Harder would have been one of the earliest paleoartists; he would, in fact, have been a contemporary of Charles R. Knight, widely recognized as the old master of scientific illustration. Where Knight was known for his detailed knowledge of anatomy and his ability to paint animals in active, lifelike poses, Harder's strength appears to lie in placing his subjects in interesting landscapes. According to what little biographical information I was able to track down, Harder was particularly inspired by the countryside of northern Germany and Scandinavia, as is apparent in his painting of a cave lion, though more exotic landscapes were well within his abilities as well; I particularly like his Hyaenodon in an Everglades-like swamp. I am sure this all seems very arcane and possibly uninteresting to most of my audience (such as it is), but I confess I have always had a soft spot for prehistoric landscapes. It was, in fact, the gloomy, expansive landscapes of Czech paleoartist Zdenek Burian that really cemented my interest in paleontology as a child; I always felt a mixture of excitement, wonder, and a tinge of melancholy when looking over his re-creations of an Ice Age taiga or a wind-blown Carboniferous swamp, and I knew then - as I still do now - that nothing could be as fascinating as reconstructing the world as it once was. Harder's images have a similar effect on me, and I thought I'd do my small part to share his work with the world by way of gratitude for reminding me that, even now, when you can barely turn on the TV without coming across some new series featuring computer-animated dinosaurs, a much simpler work inspired by genuine imagination can be more evocative by far.

13 February 2008


For some time, I have harbored the delusion that if this whole paleontology thing doesn't work out, I could make it as a travel writer. In many ways it seems as though it would be an ideal life: wandering around the world and telling people about what you saw. Of course, there's much more to travel writing than just describing a trip, and if I ever actually tried my hand at it, I would certainly be a miserable failure. That said, I was thrilled to learn the other day that Lonely Planet has introduced a feature called Bluelists that lets the general public take a crack at travel writing. I couldn't help myself, and wrote a couple of lists about Oregon (describing the state's "seven wonders," both natural and cultural). There's nothing particularly remarkable about them, but the ratings I've gotten so far suggest that people seem to like them, which is gratifying. If you take the time to go read them, let me know what you think; while I enjoy rambling on about places I've visited, it'd be interesting to know how helpful or interesting that rambling is to other people.

12 February 2008

It's Darwin Day!

Happy 199th, Charles R. Darwin! If you have a subscription to Nature (or work somewhere that does, in the case of you academics out there), check out this article by Kevin Padian summing up Darwin's achievements and looking forward to next year's bicentennial (and On the Origin of Species sesquicentennial) celebrations.

07 February 2008

Vote, then vote again!

No, I'm not advocating that anyone double-dip our electoral system; I just have two topics I want to address in today's post that both happen to be related to voting. First, I want to draw everyone's attention to The Oregon Trail's newest features: the snazzy photo of Heceta Head at the top of the page that replaces the lackluster witticisms I'd previously posted there, a whole bunch of new links to sites that I think are worthwhile, and most importantly the new poll. Blogger introduced a new feature that lets you post questions that your visitors can answer, and I thought that sounded like a good time. So, each month you'll get a brand new, off-the-cuff question from the random-most reaches of my brain. This month's question, as you can see, is about which southern continent you'd most like to visit. With only six votes in, it's quite a tight race, so please do chime in on this frivolous and entirely meaningless debate!
My second topic today is addressed to my audience in Washington (though the rest of you are welcome to read it as well, I suppose). What with Super Tuesday turning out to be entirely indecisive on the Democratic side (though the Republican race seems to be over; congratulations to John McCain, the first GOP candidate in years that I genuinely respect), the Great State of Washington is all of a sudden hugely important on the national scene. The state's caucuses are on Saturday, and I urge - even beg - everyone who's able to go to do so. I urge this regardless of which candidate you support, because as I've previously remarked, caucuses are democracy as democracy should be. That said, I am partisan, and at the risk of proselytizing, I encourage everyone out there to consider Barack Obama. I've already stated why I think he's the best choice out there, and I won't be repeat myself except to say that he's the only candidate we have that truly understands how our system of government is supposed to work and who has any shot at turning the tide away from political dogmatism and special interests. On a more practical level, McCain's apparent victory on the Republican side means that the GOP will be fielding a candidate with significant appeal to independents. Of the two Democratic candidates, only Obama has shown that he has strong support outside of the traditional Democratic base, and as such has a much better shot in the general election. For those of you that are going to the caucuses this weekend, regardless of who you support, it's always good to go in with more than empty rhetoric to back up your candidate; to that end - and, again, because I'm biased - here's a link to Obama's stances on major issues. Of course, if you're a supporter of Clinton, McCain, or any of the other candidates, they all have similar sites that you can look up. Just remember: this is a big deal. It's the first time in a while that Northwest voters will play a major role in determining the course of national politics, and we (by 'we,' of course, I mean 'you;' Oregon doesn't get to vote until May) should make sure we take the responsibility seriously by using the caucuses as a forum for informed debate and rational decision-making. That said, enjoy them as well; the 2004 caucuses were lots of fun because I got to argue politics with complete strangers. As I recall I even changed a few peoples' minds and that, of course, is one of the greatest feelings in the world...

05 February 2008

Welcome to Orcuttopolis!

A year or two ago, before the realities of life as a grad student set in, I was considering putting together an honest-to-goodness web page rather than just this blog. Because I'm creatively challenged, I discussed my idea with Michael, creator of The Planet Mike and one of the most creative people I know. He recommended an urban motif, suggesting the name Orcuttopolis. I loved the idea, particularly because the theme lent itself to clever ways of naming sub-pages (my "About Me" section could have been the Chamber of Commerce, and my photos could be displayed in the Art Institute of Orcuttopolis). I even went so far as to download several drawings of buildings from cities in which I've lived and put them together in a cityscape. The web page will likely never see the light of day, but I thought it was a shame to deprive the world of a glimpse of Orcuttopolis' skyline. I'm especially proud of the somewhat cryptic city motto on the road sign.