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.