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...