Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dinosaur colors–or, making my little nerd heart happy

I am a nerd of many things…those at the top of the list would probably have to be comic books, poi, and dinosaurs. Since I was a little kid, dinosaurs have fascinated me and at one point I’d envisioned for myself a career in paleontology. There’s something unbelievably cool to me about trying to piece together the lives of extinct animals via a slow trickle of anecdotal evidence. When I look at a dinosaur skeleton–I actually see the animal living and breathing before me in the same way I imagine a car mechanic looking at an engine can see the car driving around in their heads.

One of my favorite mysteries surrounding dinosaurs is what color they were–we’ve had many dinosaur mummies preserved but all of them display only the texture of the dinosaur’s skin rather than the colors of it. This is part of the reason that dinosaurs are traditionally portrayed as being mottled and scaly, which is odd because their immediate descendents (birds) are found in a variety of colors.

We mammals invest lots of energy and body mass into facial musculature and as such most of our cues are visual. We can tell a lot about another mammal by how they orient their lips, eyebrows, and cheeks. Birds and reptiles seem very foreign to us because they have other ways of displaying their cues to their fellow birds and reptiles, but in the case of birds much of this is visual. We can make a pretty good guess as to dinosaurs’ visual acuity based upon the startling diversity we find in their skulls. Whether carnivore or herbivore, many dinosaur species are immediately identifiable by the ornamentation on their heads, which suggests that this orientation is at least in part how each species identified each other. Though the notion of Triceratops and T-rex having a battle to the death, the Triceratops goring the T-rex with its horns is a powerful image, the lack of any evidence of trauma to the horns of the Triceratops skulls we have found thus far suggest it’s more fantasy than reality. Our best guess is that those marvelous horns told other Triceratops who their brothers and sisters were in what was likely a very crowded world of massive horned dinosaurs.

So we know that dinosaurs probably had good vision–it was a primary mechanism by which they identified each other. So why the dull color scheme? I think a lot of it has to do with pulling cues from dinosaurs’ other extant relatives, crocodiles, and a lack of direct evidence to the contrary. At least until now…

For years now, some of the most interesting fossils in the world have come out of limestone beds in China. Limestone is an awesome preservative sediment because the grains in it are so fine they can preserve impressions of some of an animal’s soft tissue. It was from limestone beds in Germany that we first learned that Archaeopteryx (originally classified as a dinosaur) had feathers and was thus reclassified as a bird. The fossils coming out of China are even more exciting because they expand the roster of feathered dinosaurs to relatives of Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus, offering tantalizing glimpses at a point in evolution where the line between dinosaur and bird was so blurry they were one and the same.

Then, two years ago, a study conducted on one of those fossils revealed that the level of detail in the limestone was so fine that scientists could make out structures they recognized within some of the fossilized feathers of these dinosaurs: melanosomes, which govern the color of feathers. We’ve known for quite some time which melanosomes are responsible for which colors in bird feathers all over the world–and now we can take that knowledge and explore the remains of these new fossils to answer a question that was considered unanswerable for most of my life: what color were dinosaurs, really?

The first fossil to be studied in this way was of a small theropod called Sinosauropteryx (the imaginative name translates roughly to Chinese lizard with wings…no I’m not joking. A side effect of being a dinosaur freak is that you wind up learning quite a bit of Greek and Latin along the way) that had a racing stripe-like cluster of feathers along its spine. A study of the melanosomes in these features revealed alternating bands of red and white and for the first time in history, we could say conclusively that we knew exactly what color an animal extinct for over 100 million years ways. It’s a stunning success of detective work and resourcefulness and it makes my little nerd heart soar 🙂

Now there’s another fossil that we’ve learned the melanosome structure for and it’s even cooler. I remember a couple years ago watching a NOVA special on Microraptor, another Chinese theropod that had been discovered with evidence of wing-like feature protrusions coming from both the arms and the legs, suggesting the road to flight as we know it had more than a few twists and turns. In that special, there were more than a few conjectural models made of the animal with earth-toned (and if I might say so, boring) feathers. Now, having studied the melanosomes in the preserved feathers from the Microraptor scientists have reached a different conclusion about its color scheme: it had black, iridescent feathers. And it is so freaking cool 🙂

I can’t wait to see more and more of these fossils studied and the diversity of color schemes among dinosaurs revealed. More than anything else, it’s just such a delight to see not how exotic some of these extinct animals were, but realize how much like the modern world the Mesozoic must have looked like. We may not have time travel, but for the moment I’ll totally take this.


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A sad week in sci-fi art

At the beginning of the week, we lost the man who was responsible for making Star Wars look so foreign and yet so familiar: Ralph McQuarrie.

Now it looks like we’ve lost another titan of science fiction art–the french comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Though I’d venture that Moebius is the less well-known of the two artists, in my book he’s been vastly more influential. In addition to influencing the tone and scope of some of Neil Gaiman’s work on Sandman, he’s been a direct influence on a new generation of comic book artists such as Geof Darrow (who was the production designer on “The Matrix”) and Frank Quitely (who drew seminal work on both X-Men and Superman).

There’s the maxim from Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud states that artists frequently find, “that [their] favorite artist was actually just a watered-down version of an older, less-polished artist whom he had always taken for granted.” Moebius was that kind of artist. He’s the Velvet Underground of comic book artists. If you’re a fan of comic art that includes hyper-detailed, fantastical backgrounds with characters who appear human and yet alien at the same time, you’re living in a world that Moebius helped create.

Now the thing that’s got me terrified is if indeed celebrity deaths come in threes, who might we lose next? :-/

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On Kony and African Advocacy

Kony 2012 — that’s the name of a campaign that’s blown up on Facebook and Twitter this week. Its defining meme is a 30-minute video released by Invisible Children to try and raise awareness of Joseph Kony and the campaign to bring him to justice. I’ve seen a LOT of posts both pro and con in the past few days and given that I used to work for an organization that also raised awareness of atrocities in Uganda, I wanted to weigh in because the debate seems to be getting ever more muddied due to a variety of circumstances–many of which are among the reasons why I left the organization in the first place.

The video in question details the life and military campaigns of Joseph Kony. If you haven’t viewed it already, feel free to check it out below:


The bits about Kony kidnapping 30,000 children, raping young girls, and enforcing a variety of nefarious initiation rituals upon the children he kidnapped? All true…seriously, if I were to make a list of most evil human beings on the planet, Kony would be in the top 5 if not the pole position itself. He’s spent 30 years making life hell for people all across central Africa. That said, he hasn’t been a problem in Uganda since 2006. The LRA is now less a group of radical rebels and more a group of bush thugs that take advantage of the difficulty traversing terrain between Eastern Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Uganda. We don’t know for sure, but the smart money says he’s currently in either South Sudan or Congo. As for the 30,000 children he’s drafted to fight for him in the past 30 years? He likely only still has 200 of them.

What is being done to capture him? For one, last year President Obama signed into law the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act–a $40 million package to send elite US troops to Uganda to train and arm the local troops there to bring Kony to justice (the operation has also been expanded to DRC and South Sudan). The fact that Kony is an awful human being hasn’t escaped the world’s attention–the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest way back in 2005 (after Uganda referred the case to them) and there have been multiple attempts to bring him to the bargaining table and end the LRA’s operations in Central Africa. There’s no doubt that his influence has waned considerably in the years since and that his support is on the ropes. Is it likely that Obama’s effort will bring him to justice? Maybe…it seems as though there is a strong confluence of events in the region that may lead to his apprehension, including a new government in South Sudan eager for aide money and good relations with the US government, a desire for peace in Eastern Congo, and the stabilization of much of the Central African Republic.

So what about the video, then? Why put the screws to Kony in such a public manner when things are looking good for his capture? It’s possible they want to cinch the deal…or try out the efficacy of new social networking tools…or that they’re worried international focus will shift so far to the Arab Spring that Kony takes advantage of the shift in priorities and slinks away again. I can’t tell you for sure. What I can tell you is that the video isn’t terribly unique. Invisible Children has been producing videos to galvanize activism now for nearly 6 years. The organization started out with three young filmmakers who traveled to Uganda and documented the lives of the children they found there who had been effected by the fallout from Kony’s disastrous campaign in the region. They took their film on the road to raise awareness of the situation in Uganda and built a non-profit organization dedicated to taking Kony down and rehabilitating many of the children he’d kidnapped.

They’ve taken heat for many of their advocacy techniques–among them that they’ve spent only 32% of the money they’ve raised over the years on efforts back in Uganda while the rest has been spent to continue advocacy efforts. I’m not terribly concerned by this–it’s not unusual for advocacy organizations to have budget structures like this. For example, the One Campaign spends nearly three-quarters of its budget on its outreach efforts. People who are greenhorns at international activism frequently have the expectation that when they give to an organization involved with crises abroad that that money is going to find its way directly to the people affected by said conflict. When it comes to advocacy this isn’t always the case: frequently the money goes to raising awareness of organizations that are doing the on-the-ground work or lobbying for increased federal funding to go to these efforts. Whether this is a more effective means to provide support is a long, long debate that doesn’t have any kind of clear answer remotely close to being in sight. What we do know is that well-executed advocacy measures can increase funding to charitable causes, but they can have some awful side-effects.

This brings me to a second piece of criticism I’ve seen floating around related to Invisible Children: the founders cozying up to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Was posing for the photo a dumb move? Yes, absolutely…just the kind of dumb move that three young men traveling through Africa for the first time are likely to make. Is the case, as one blogger suggested, “Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting?” Yep, absolutely. No belligerent army of the past 100 years has not been accused of rape and looting…including the United States military. In the case of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, they were fighting against a military force from North Sudan that was accused of vastly worse atrocities both there and in its Western region of Darfur.

And here’s where the question of advocacy gets really sticky, because there’s an overwhelming truth that is impossible to ignore if you do any amount of background research into conflicts in Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, or any of the Central African nations that have been host to destructive and appalling loses of human life in the past 30 years: there are no angels. It’s exceptionally difficult to put together a narrative that galvanizes people to action that doesn’t overlook this fact–and it can be tremendously damaging. For example, in Darfur there has been a long-standing narrative of a powerful North Sudanese military executing a campaign of mass human rights atrocities on members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit tribes of the region, and by and large it’s true, but not a full picture. The conflict exists due to a civil war between Darfuri rebels that have fought a guerilla war in the region for nearly 8 years. Due to diplomatic pressure from the United States, among others, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has frequently signed peace agreements with different rebel groups from the region that are seldom honored for very long due both to some rebel factions abstaining from the negotiations and the tendency for rebel groups that do sign the agreements to have splinter groups that refuse to honor the stipulations of these agreements. The cycle then begins anew: fighting breaks out again, the US sends diplomats to get the two parties back to the bargaining table: lather, rinse, repeat. Part of the issue is that there has been a great deal of US grassroots support to pressure Bashir to end the conflict, but thanks to the simplified narrative used to galvanize such support, these efforts frequently ignore the role of the rebels in making a lasting peace happen and tend to drive the cycle anew.

This is the dark side of advocacy: poorly thought out narratives or programs can have catastrophic effects. One such example is the Conflict Minerals campaign promoted by the Enough Project. This campaign began by suggesting that the video game system boom of the early aughts helped drive a destructive civil war in DRC by filling the coffers of militias who were taking a cut from sales of essential minerals coming of out mines in Eastern Congo. The meme then expanded to include cell phones and other electronic devices, driving home the point that the computer you are using to read about conflicts abroad might be having a role in exacerbating said conflict. Two years ago, the campaign led to a provision of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that required electronics manufacturers to disclose the supply chains for their electronic devices and avoid trading in sources of minerals that had come out of Congo. Aside from being incredibly difficult to enforce (melt down ice cubes from two different refrigerators and then tell me where the resulting water came from), it also put a stranglehold on mining operations in Eastern Congo, which as it turns out was also a legitimate form of employment for thousands in an incredibly poverty-stricken region of the world. While these miners have been put out of work, belligerent militias in Eastern Congo continue to terrorize the populace and support themselves with protection money gleaned from a variety of sources, including cattle farming, banana farming, and money laundered over the border from Rwanda. Not only has this measure failed to halt violence in Eastern Congo, it has also contributed to continuing poverty there.

So, here’s the question you get left with: clearly, there are awful things happening in the world. Invisible Children is raising awareness of these things, even if they’re leaving out a few key facts, what can you do when you want to help? While clearly ill-informed advocacy can have drastic effects it’s also just as bad to have a nation of people ignorant of the problems of the world. Honestly (and you’re going to hate me for this), the answer is to do your homework. Think about the amount of research you put into reading up on cars or houses before you’ll buy either one of these things. If you buy the wrong car or house, it could cost you thousands of dollars down the road or possibly put your life in jeopardy. If you put any less thought or research into efforts to help people in crisis on the other side of the world, it can be vastly more dangerous and put many thousands of lives at risk. You wouldn’t buy a house just because someone put together a half hour video telling you that you needed to buy a particular house. You’d ask your friends, you’d consult an agent. You’d get a lot of conflicting data, for sure, but in the end you’d know you did your due diligence. And here’s the other important component: if that house turns out to be a lemon (and yes, I’m still using this as a metaphor), there’s no shame in admitting that this call was a bad one and working to fix the problem. This is my biggest problem with the non-profit world currently. There is so much stigma attached to failure that such things don’t exist: even if a program is a catastrophic failure it is still promoted as a success to keep donations coming in to an organization. There are no simple answers to any of the problems I’ve outlined above. Every one of them will require a lot of time, energy, and effort to solve. There are no silver bullets…if you’re fired up and want to do something to help, do your homework, accept all viewpoints, make the most informed decision you can, and be willing to admit it when you were wrong. That’s the best advice I can give.

So should you take part in Invisible Children’s campaign? I wouldn’t, but I’m far from the last voice on the issue. There are people vastly better educated than myself that are taking part in it. What I can do is point you to resources of people I regularly read and respect who do work in Africa:

And by the way, if you’re horrified by Kony, you should really look up some of the stuff going on in Syria right now. They need your help and they need it fast!

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Filed under Activism, Africa, Uncategorized