Monday, June 23, 2008

80s Music Videos

I've been trawling about Youtube for 80s music videos. Again.

I saw one that I think was new to me: Van Stephenson's "Modern Day Delilah." Which, lets face it—with a video about an actual hairdresser is just to corny to be fer real.

Check out some Real Life too; one of my favorite 80s bands, and often mistaken for a one hit wonder. Most people remember "Send Me an Angel" thanks to about half a dozen movies that used it in their soundtrack, but they hardly put out a bad song. "God Tonight", "Face to Face", "Catch Me I'm Falling", "Girl Jesus" and the very creepy "Sister Sister" are among my other favorite tracks of theirs.

Their "Catch Me I'm Falling" is no relation to Pretty Poison's "Catch Me (I'm Falling)" although that's an 80s song that's good fer a laugh too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

David Hardy

Huh. The artist who did the two pictures I scanned and posted below: he's still kickin' around, apparently, and has a website with a lot of work on it. Some of them are from the book I just bought, but most of them are newer. Some of them are also unrepentantly retro, which I like.

Also, here's an unfortunately small image of an updated version of the Milky Way picture that I loved so much.

Used books

While unsuccessful in my goal of finding used copies of Dresden Files novels, my search of the used bookstores in the area did allow me to find two things I wasn't looking for. The first was Leigh Brackett's Outlaw of Mars which is a reprint of two of her earlier very slim novels (probably more properly novellas) The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman. Although I never had this particular printing of these under this particular title, I did have the two of them together as an "Ace Double Book"—although that has now been lost for some time, sadly.

The cover art on this book is really bad. It looks sorta like airbrushed van art with Eric John Stark as a vaguely humanoid creature sitting on the back of a dinosaur. He's pale and blonde with very stylish hair (for the late sixties or seventies); like some kind of Swedish ABBA groupie (nevermind that Brackett described as as extremely dark skinned; either an adaptation to or a consequence of a childhood spent on Mercury baking under the cruel sun.)

Despite the terrible cover art, I'm extremely gratified to replace my copy for only $2. The book is recently back in print again thanks to our friends at Paizo's Planet Stories line, but I haven't been to thrilled at buying a new trade paperback copy when I'd hoped I could find other copies used. An introduction by Michael Moorcock and better cover art aren't worth that much. As a testament to the quality of these two stories, this is at least the fourth time that they have been reprinted in book form. If you haven't ever read them before, buy the Paizo version, or trawl through Amazon for one of the older copies.

The other book I stumbled upon as a $6 well-maintained copy of The New Challenge of the Stars; a book that was quite formative to me as a child. The thrust of the book is that it attempts to apply science fact to science fiction about space travel. It does so in fairly non-technical terms (it was originally in the children's section of my public library as a kid). It was published in 1977 and at least some elements of this new (at the time) fangled hit movie called Star Wars can be found in it (Star Wars is mentioned two or three times in the text and the cover art is a not-so-subtle homage to the Dearth Star and Star Destroyers.)

Really, though, the book's easily worth more than the $6 I paid for it for the art alone. Every page has at least one—occasionally two—top class paintings on it. From scenes from H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds to pictures of pioneering lunar colonies, astronauts walking around on Mars, to planetscapes from worlds with closely paired binary twin suns and such sci-fi go-to concepts as generation ships made out of hollowed out asteroids.

Two paintings in particular stuck with me, and I've even mentioned them in posts here in the past. That surely merits me putting the book on a scanner and sharing a couple of the images. This first painting is a night time landscape from a planet outside the Milky Way, and the second on is a night time view from a planet inside a globular cluster.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Triassic Park

The more I read about it, the more I find the Triassic fascinating. When it started, 251 million years ago, the world was still reeling from the single most devastating mass extinction ever: "the day the earth almost died." For millions of years afterward—the entire Early Triassic epoch and possibly much of the Middle Triassic—the entire biosphere can be fairly called "impoverished." Some therapsids bounced back—Lystrosaurus was an early Triassic animal that's well known for it's astonishing recovery, and other dicynodonts seem to have followed in short order. Carnivorous therocephalians and cynodonts spread early as well. One very interesting development was the rise of the thecodonts. (I realize that under cladistic nomenclature, Thecodontia no longer exists. However, its often necessary to refer to paraphyletic groups and even paleontologists do it all the time. I also don't like having to use cumbersome technical jargon when an existing term works quite well. So rather than say "non-dinosaurian and non-crocodilian archosauriomorphs" I still use the word thecodont. I use therapsid and other terms the same way. Trust me: its better than the alternatives.)

Very early on, big-headed "red crocodiles" like the erythrosuchians became the apex predators of the early Triassic. Because environmental conditions were similar, this may have been like in the Australian Pliocene when pristichampsian crocodiles and giant komodo dragons became apex predators, lording it over the mammals. Very likely, these large thecodont predators were cold-blooded as well, although many of the therapsids may no longer have been.

Anatomical clues suggest that the thecodonts may have been developing warm-bloodedness throughout this time as well. By the time they became true archosaurs, they may well have already been well on that path, since crurotarsians and ornithodirans both show anatomical evidence associated with warm-bloodedness. Certainly later ornithodirans had it; birds, dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

Modern crocodilians are a strange case, and throw a potential monkey wrench in the idea of warm-blooded archosaurs since they are a fairly late group and are clearly cold-blooded. However, they also have several anatomical adaptations that serve no purpose for a cold-blooded creature, and Triassic crocodilians have even more such adaptations (fully erect gait, active terrestrial lifestyle, etc.) Most likely, as crocodilians inherited the semi-aquatic ambush predator role from their cousins, the spectactularly misnamed phytosaurs, they lost their warm-bloodedness as a result.

In fact, that constant state of transition is characteristic of the Triassic and what makes it so fascinating. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous, individual species and genera may have had a relatively rapid turnover, but entire dynasties did not. We see, for example, a steady, uninterrupted progression from primitive ornithopods through iguanodonts and on into duck-billed dinosaurs; an arc that lasted well over 100 million years and that was full of highly successful animals throughout. While this is probably the most extreme example amongst dinosaurs, the basic pattern is visible throughout—dinosaur dynasties were long-lived. Crocodilians even have them beat; they took over the semi-aquatic ambush predator role at the very beginning of the Jurassic 200 million years ago and still have the niche locked up.

This was not true of the Triassic. Looking at the big picture, of course, the Triassic is the story of the gradual replacement of therapsid-held guilds with thecodont-held ones. As the Triassic wound down, both megadynasties produced their best designs: specifically mammals and dinosaurs respectively. The dinosaurs inherited (or wrested control of) an empire that their thecodont ancestors had built over the course of less than 40 or so million years and held it for over 160 million years while the mammals—who's ancestors had been so dominant since the Permian—lost theirs and had to bide their time until the post-Cretaceous extinctions opened the door for them to spread again.

But on the smaller scale, dynasties turned over with astonishing frequency during the Triassic. The semi-aquatic ambush predator guild was held by presterosuchids and champsosuchids in the early Triassic, who gave way to the only distantly related phytosaurs by the mid-Triassic, just a few million years later, who themselves ceded it to the crocodilians by the end of the period. Apex predators at the beginning were erythrosuchids who ceded to rauisuchians (themselves possibly a polyphyletic group) and ornithosuchians who moved over for therapod dinosaurs. Large herbivores were initially dicynodonts who faded quickly to be challenged by aetosaurs and others, who in turn were challenged by the rhynchosaurs, who in turn were replaced by revueltosaurs and silesaurs, which were replaced by true dinosaurian prosauropods and ornithischians.

Everywhere you look during the Triassic, we see churn and change. Entire dynasties rise up only to last a few million years before going extinct and being replaced by unrelated (or at beast very distantly related) new ones. There's also still a lot we don't know about the Triassic. The relationship between various thecodont groups is poorly understood and entire clans like the revueltosaurs and silesaurs were completely unknown and unguessed at as recently as five years ago—their importance to the larger faunal picture even less time than that—at most a year or two.

Although compared to the gigantic and dramatic fauna of later dinosaur eras the Triassic seems understated, in my opinion its got a unique and very compelling charm all its own.

Shotgun

Wow. Yeah, busy. I started the notes for that last post at least two weeks ago, and never finished it, and never posted it. Now I've got a lot of topics to hit scattershot.

I just said that I thought an inherent weakness of the comic book medium was its inability to express strong emotion. Then I read the story arc in Ultimate Spiderman where Norm and Harry Osborne are killed. I'm gonna hafta retract my earlier statement. Comics can pack an emotional punch.

Part of the reason I've been so busy is that I've finally broken down and picked up The Dresden Files and found them great fun to read. I charged through the first three books before running out of what was readily available at my local libraries, and rather than wait for #4 to get turned back in, I think I'm gonna trawl through the local used bookstores to see if I can find a copy on the cheap. I find it very amusing that Butcher—who wanted to write high fantasy and only penned the first Dresedn novel to prove a point; namely that it'd be formulaic and terrible—was caught quote off guard by the success of the series.

In general, I think that's a mistake our society often makes; discounting formula. Those formulae exist for a reason: namely because they're brilliant. They work. They've been repeatedly tried "in the field" and proven themselves over and over again. Writers ignore formula at their peril. That doesn't mean it should be strictly followed either, but it should never be ignored. In general, I'd much rather see a well-done execution of formula—with a twist—than something innovative that doesn't work and is barely readable.

In addition to the Dresden books, I've just read the first four Myth Adventures (RIP Robert Asprin) books again as well as some nonfiction—a book that posits that the evolution of the first eyes and an active predatory lifestyle is responsible for the Cambrian Explosion as well as a big encyclopedia-like dinosaur book by Thomas Holtz. Dr. Holtz's text tries to strike a balance between being sufficiently technical while still being accessible to "readers of all ages" and I don't know that it always works—its probably too dense for kids or casually interested laymen, and for more serious laymen (like myself) the tone sometimes inadvertently feels condescending. The appendix which lists every dinosaur genus known up to the date of publication (2007) plus time, location and a few other details, however, is priceless.

It's also heavily (and exclusively) illustrated by Luis Rey, who is an extremely talented paleoartist, albeit one who occasionally frustrates me. He's well-known for some fairly bold moves—even an illustration of little Eoraptor has protofeathers, for example, a decision I applaud and an idea I enjoy. However, his use of colors and textures is often staggering; he loads his dinos up with so many bizarre colors, feathers, wattles and frills that many of his illustrations look like killer turkeys or peacocks that just went through a crash course clown school. I'm also not a fan of his frequent use of facial closeups with extreme perspective on the rest of the body. Kinda like looking at a dinosaur through the peephole in your front door.

One thing that I hadn't quite put together on my own, though, was the correllation between carnosaur and the really large sauropods; I guess it hadn't occured to me that somewhere between the Cenomanian some 95 million odd years ago (when Acrocanthosaurus, Giganotosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus lived) and the Santonian some 85 million years ago, the size of the sauropds drastically reduced. If the relationship between carnosaurs and gigantic sauropods is indeed that strong, its no wonder that as the larger sauropods faded away that the carnosaurs ceded their top predator niches to tyrannosaurs and abelisaurs. And maybe that's why I like carnosaurs so much; Tyrannosaurus chasing down a Triceratops or a hadrosaur is cool enough, but to me carnosaurs vs. big sauropods is the most iconic dinosaur imagery. So, from the early Gasosaurus vs. Shunosaurus to later encounters like Giganotosaurus vs. Argentinosaurus or Acrocanthosaurus vs. Sauroposeidon or Carcharodontosaurus vs. Paralititan, those are my favorite "dinosaur moments."

And really; nobody does them better than the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. The Morrison is our own homegrown formation after all (my mom grew up in Cleveland, UT—literally within walking distance of the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry.) It was one of the first described dinosaurian faunal assemblages, and remains one of the best known. Its also one of the most diverse, and it has some of the worlds most famous dinosaurs. Depending on how picky you are about accepting new names for similar animals, you've still got a very diverse assemblage. Tons of both bony and lobe-finned fishes lived in the rivers and lakes, as did frogs, salamanders and turtles. A number of crocodilians lived there, including terrestrial, cursorial crocs like Fruitachampsa. Although preservational bias works against them, half a dozen or so pterosaurs are known as well. Lizards, sphenodonts and champsosaurs round out the reptilian non-dinosaurian fanua while various types of primitive mammals (docodonts, multituberculates, triconodonts, symmetrodonts and dryolestoids) polish off the list.

The dinosaurs are—of course—the most famous and dramatic critters from the Morrision though. Carnosaurs like Allosaurus, Epanterias, Saurophaganax and possibly Marshosaurus were joined by megalosaurs Torvosaurus and Edmarka to make up most of the large and medium-sized meat-eaters, while Ceratosaurus and Elaphrosaurus hint at the future diversity of the abelisaurs and noasaurs yet to come. There's even some interesting small predators like Coelurus, Ornitholestes, Tanycolagreus, early troodontids like Koparion and the poorly known Stokesosaurus. Only recently with highly developed cladistic tools and good comparative specimens like Dilong and Guanlong have we come to realize that "Old Stokes" is actually a very early (and primitive) tyrannosaur.

Tyrannosaurs aren't the only group to make early appearances in the Morrision. Although Europe's Callovosaurus is marginally older, the Morrison's Dryosaurus and Camptosaurus are among the earliest well-known iguanodonts. Gargoyleosaurus and Mymoorapelta are among the first ankylosaurs. Stegosaurs and hypsilophodontids were fairly old hat by the time the Morrison rolled around, but are particularly well-represented with two species of Stegosaurus itself plus Hesperosaurus shoutin' out for the former and Drinker, Laosaurus, Nanosaurus, Othneilia and Othnielosaurus for the latter.

The most dramatic dinosaurs from the Morrison are definately its dizzying variety of sauropods however. Haplocanthosaurus, Atlantosaurus, Dyslocosaurus, Dystophaeus, Eobrontosaurus and Suuwassea join such famous names as Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, Diplodocus, Seismosaurus, Supersaurus and the mysterious Amphicoelias which may have rivalled Argentinosaurus for largest land animal. Ever.

Orcses

Yup. I've decided. Orcs. Goblins. Hobgoblins. Those names need to be something else. Thurses? Probably not. But I'll think of something.

Meanwhile, I still haven't made the updates to my novel material because I've been so busy.