Secret Summer Craft Project, part 1

January 10th, 2017

Now that the winter holidays have passed, I can finally reveal what I have been doing since the summer. What started as one project for my school turned into making things for fun for some friends. To preserve the surprise, only my family knew what was going on.

It started over the summer as the spring 2016 semester wrapped up. I left school with a thought in my head from the department chair: there was some funding to be had for any school-related projects. What could I ask for? The skeletal print-outs from eFossils was done already and only cost some glue sticks and fixative. Thinking bigger, I remember an article I read about the 3D printing of the skull of Homo naledi, a recently discovered fossil hominin. I was fortunate enough to teach in a classroom that has a cabinet of fossil replicas, and H. naledi would be a great addition. With the goal of having a replica made, I started researching the 3D printing process.

3D printing is a developing technology where objects are constructed using a stream of melted plastic that is computer-controlled, similar to a precise hot glue gun. The state of 3D printers now is similar to what consumer paper printers were like over twenty years ago: expensive, picky, and unreliable. A printer would have been too costly for me or the department (I imagine… I didn’t ask), but there is a service named 3D Hubs that connects people who want things 3D printed with those who have 3D printers. The file for the skull is freely available at Duke University’s MorphoSource, but it is a raw scan with far more detail than what a typical printer would deal with: enough to bring my hefty computer to a crawl. My aim then was to learn enough 3D software to work with the Homo naledi skull file so it is as easy to print for whomever I commission.

{ At over 6 million polygons, the wireframe view of the raw file is all wires. }

{ At over 6 million polygons, the wireframe view of the raw file is all wires. }

I settled first on Sculptris, but found out that it was no longer being developed. I then moved on to Meshmixer. My goals with the software were to pare down the number of polygons so that it is not more detailed than what a printer could print. 3D Hubs would also not accept the raw file size of 350MB. For my department’s sake, I also wanted to hollow out the model to reduce the volume of plastic and the cost needed to print it. Meshmixer was especially helpful since it has a hollowing function with a lot of flexibility. There were also functions that intelligently reduced the number of polygons for lower detailed regions, leaving a much smaller file size of 45MB. Even with the work done to manipulate the scan, the skull would be a challenging print due to its irregular shape and large size. After doing the best I could to the best of my novice ability, I sent the model file to a local printer to make.

{ I reduced the polygons to around 500,000. No visible detail lost with the print, hopefully. }

{ I reduced the polygons to around 500,000. No visible detail lost with the print, hopefully. }

The cost ended up at around $95 (without hollowing, it would have been $300). The rest of the Homo naledi replica story will be told another time, as it is still being printed, but working on this project just got me started on 3d modeling and printing. In the next part, I will talk about where I took my new interest!


Toast the New Year with Some Haterade

January 2nd, 2017

There is a feeling I have kept to myself for years, because I have never heard of a similar feeling in someone else.  Also, the feeling is rooted in hate, which is generally regarded negatively. It is not pure hate, though, since the feeling has led to positive life changes and fuels a lot of my ambitions. I call it: hatespiration.

An explanation starts a long time ago, in my undergraduate years. I had my share of bad anthropology professors who made students dislike learning and drove potential future anthropologists into other fields. As a former biology major, I had already been driven from one field into anthropology already, so it was disheartening to see poor teaching in my new home. I knew that I could do a better job if given the chance, and if I was right, I could have a real impact on anthropology and the community. The wonderful professors I have met taught me how to be a good instructor, but the terrible ones really lit the fire for me to want to be good.

Sidenote: I also got into making comics due to hatespiration: at the same time that I was underwhelmed by the worse professors I experienced, I also thought that I could make better comics than what was in the local paper. Thus, a hobby was born that continues even after the hatespiration has faded into the past and I found great positive inspirations to learn from.

Sidenote 2: Now I keep my distance from who I consider to be bad professors, so you’re safe. Maybe. 😉

Why bring this up now? In a tumultuous 2016, I think my relationship with hatespiration has become relevant and it is time to try explaining it and give it a fun name. The results of the presidential election in the United States left many anthropologists reeling as the candidate running on a platform of ignorance and hate became the victor. (That brand of hate tears down the innocent for personal gratification.) As anthropologists have dedicated their lives toward knowledge of humanity and the dispelling of misconceptions, the realization that there is still a lot of ignorance out there is disheartening. I think this turn of events is a mixed blessing, though. It is harder to fight against something when it is hidden, and after the victories of the past decades, there are fewer clear objectives that those fighting racial inequality can focus on. Anthropologists teaching the cultural basis of racial inequality might have felt overconfident that their message was getting out there as dissent was driven underground. The election brought racism back into the open so we now know that we have a lot to do still. It is time to be hatespired by the world around us and really aim to change it.

Hatespiration in our time extends past just the social science professors. The past few years have brought up a lot of understandable anger and resentment regarding the inequality seen in our institutions. While protests have a role in producing positive social change, a plan with more tangible effects is to tap into hatespiration and become part of the system that needs to improve. We need great people to become teachers, police officers, lawyers, politicians, and journalists. While there are already heroes in all of these fields, we really need more of best to overwhelm the worst of them. If we get new great people into these positions, all of the the problems in our society will be addressed.

My path to where I am today had strange detours and influences. I find myself trying to spread knowledge and understanding in a world that rejects it. We who want to see good people of all backgrounds succeed need to keep fighting against the injustice in the world. If you have a strategy or career path already, keep working on that. If you are still at crossroads, it may be time to find the one you will be best at. Be hatespired, inspired, whateverspired: just get out there and be good.


Fall Teaching Changes, part 2

November 21st, 2016

James Lang’s Small Teaching (2016) approaches improving one’s classes not with sweeping changes, but by making tweaks to the existing program. The book is divided into three areas of improvement: knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. The section on understanding got my attention the most, and I made a few focused changes this semester with Lang’s advice in mind. He divided the improvement of understanding into three sub areas of change: connecting, practice, and self-explaining. I will go over how my changes fit into each of these actions.

Forming connections across the course material is something that is crucial to an introductory physical anthropology, since it covers a wide variety of topics, from biological evolution to genetics to human osteology to forensic anthropology to modern primates to human evolution, they are all connected by the same pool of knowledge and scientific methodology. I made a more concerted effort to point out these connections in lecture, and spread out the use of key terms across many weeks of class. For example, I know that a lot of the illustrations in the end of the course use facial reconstruction to estimate what fossil hominins looked like in life. I then plant the first mention of this method in the middle of the course when we talk about forensic anthropology.

As I learn more myself, I see more of these connections that I can make. For example, at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I learned that naturalist Blumenbach was the first person to formally describe a chimpanzee. I could then bring this fact up in the modern primates lecture, which is weeks after the introduction to Blumenbach in the lecture on the history of race. One gratifying result of this interweaving of lecture topics is that students then make connections that I do not mention, or have not considered. For example, when linking the explanation of how the ancestors of Darwin’s finches ended up in the Galapagos Islands (Lecture 3) with the explanation of how the ancestors of lemurs ended up in Madagascar (Lecture 18), a student chimed in that these are both examples of genetic drift (Lecture 6).

While forming connections was something I intensified from previous semesters, promoting practice was a new activity. The aim of increasing practice is to make the students more comfortable with approaching problems from a reasoned and effective angle. For a lecture course with exams as a large portion of the course, increasing familiarity with solving test questions became my goal. Too frequently, I see students give up on a test without really thinking through the problem. Sometimes they admit defeat and turn it in when they still have upwards of forty minutes left to try.

My latest attempt to encourage students to really take the time to address tough questions is to work through an example multiple choice question at the start of almost every lecture. I also wanted to get the students thinking about solving a question on material that they have not learned. My idea was to show a harder question immediately before the lecture that gives its solution. This Pre-Lecture Question had a rocky start as I tried to integrate it into my existing lectures. The first attempts disrupted the flow I have been used to. I found it best to show the question with around five minutes before class starts. Once the lecture gets going, I talk about the previous pre-lecture question and how to solve it after the class announcements. The new pre-lecture question then reappears at the end of my class, when I have a short writing exercise. As the semester has progressed, the pre-lecture question worked its way into the schedule. Still, as I have to make a new question for every lecture in this initial run, I forget to do it roughly half the time.

Both highlighting links across lectures and explaining multiple choice questions have been received well by my classes. I will keep working with them to get them even more embedded into the rest of the course. Next time: a report on my success using the mobile quiz game Kahoot! as a midterm review exercise. Or maybe a little on the recent U.S. presidential election and its ramifications.

 

References

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.


Fall Teaching Changes, part 1

September 12th, 2016

Now that we are a few weeks into the semester, I have a little time to reflect on how my course has changed. I have tweaked the Introduction to Physical Anthropology course in a few ways to further make the experience for students more comprehensive and ultimately more memorable. Two of these ideas were started when I was teaching a six-week course over the summer, but refined a little more:

  • A Related Media page accessible from Blackboard. Rather than use Blackboard’s system (as the school is switching to Canvas anyway), I set up a Google Doc that has an organized list of online media related to each class topic. The most frequent sources of these media are SciShow episodes on Youtube and BBC documentaries on Netflix. A future change may be to move to a spreadsheet format for its sorting ability, though this might look more sterile and actually less inviting for students.
  • A professional Twitter feed, accessible from that site or viewable in Blackboard. This change solved a nagging problem for me: I see a lot of interesting articles online that are directly related to class topics, but I can only share so many in Blackboard announcements and at the beginning of class. While I still share some choice discoveries in these places, now I have a place to share the many other links I find. I had several followers of the Twitter feed during the summer session, but only a handful across my three classes now. I never mentioned the feed to my summer course and I have not brought it up to my current classes. Perhaps the greater focus on Blackboard allowed more online students to find it on their own.

One unexpected wrinkle that came up during the implementation of the Twitter feed was the dilemma of whether I should follow my student followers back. In general Twitter subculture, following back would be the polite thing to do, but I chose not to do so to keep some distance from my students’ personal lives.

Another complication of this Twitter account changed a secondary goal I had at the start: to give reminders for class deadlines. This idea became unusable because my three classes this semester do not go by the same schedule: I have Monday-Wednesday classes and Tuesday-Thursday classes. Also, the Labor Day holiday threw these two schedules out of sync, so the Tuesday class is first new lecture I give each week. Tweeting deadlines for these two class setups would probably cause mass confusion with me and my students, so I opted to save deadline reminders for in-class and twice weekly emails. While this systems works, it means that the Twitter feed is more for fun and not as critical for students to view.

Next time, I will bring up some other changes I have made that were inspired by reading Small Teaching by James Lang (2016), a very rewarding and inspirational book.

 

References

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.


Why We Need Zoos

June 27th, 2016

I have seen a distressing anti-zoo sentiment linger in social media so I wanted to make a few points about why zoos are absolutely necessary in modern society. To be clear, I am arguing against the stance that all zoos are unethical. I am not defending the for-profit freak show type of zoo, especially those with no conservation program. Instead, I am explaining my support for the many zoos I have had the pleasure of visiting: San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, St. Louis Zoo, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, Memphis Zoo, and Parque de las Leyendas in Lima. I focus on the importance of zoos as a way to bring the public and animals together, how this purpose fuels conservation in the wild, and also the idea that life in the wild is inherently better than life in captivity. I then end with ideas for making the best zoos even better in the future in light of recent events.

As an attraction for the public, zoos uniquely bring animals from distant places to visitors who otherwise would have little opportunity to witness in person. While zoos may not impart factual information to the public as well as they should, the experience of being in the presence of animals is profound. As part of my physical anthropology class, I have students watch the San Diego Zoo ape cam to observe unfiltered primate behavior. Some students opt to go to the zoo itself to do the assignment. Either way, though especially in person, I have had many students express how seeing non-human primate behavior live really showed them our common relations as primates and living things. My instructions state a minimum observation time of twenty minutes, but some students spend hours watching primates. I can show my students as many diagrams, photographs, and video clips of primates as I can fit in the semester, but those media pale in comparison to just being present near other primates.

My students’ experience that watching primates live is more impactful than learning about primates that live on another hemisphere is just one example of how people care more about what is close and less about what is far. Zoos cannot simply switch to an all-wild conservation plan because the funding depends on people engaging with and thus caring for the zoo representatives of these distant animal populations. If zoos did not exist, their associated conservation programs would also vaporize as most critically endangered organisms are out-of-sight-out-of-mind. This is why the biggest zoos place millions into renovation plans (besides updating their enclosures for the benefit of the animals): the hope is that the investment will bring in even more money to do the things that visitors cannot see out in the wild. A high profile zoo with ever-expanding exhibits can bring in money through attracting visitors from all around the world.

Regarding the unethical nature of keeping animals in captivity, I present another point of view just as unprovable as the idea that any captivity is mistreatment: being cared for in captivity is the best thing to happen to most animals. Considering the many dangers of living in the wild that are removed by living in a zoo: predation, habitat loss, environmental hazards, poaching, starvation – living in captivity has great benefits to one’s well being. Furthermore, the concept of wild versus captive is a human concept that other animals may not have. While it is impossible to probe the opinions of non-human animals to gauge their philosophical stance on captivity, from my point of view it seems that animals just deal with the situation they’re in without discriminating between free or not. It follows that animals would have no stance that being in the wild is naturally a better state of being than living in captivity, especially if being in captivity alleviates so many of their usual hardships.

Zoos can be improved to make them even more effective at their goals of education and conservation. The zoos that have lagged behind in updating their enclosures to the latest standards of providing comfort and stimulus the captive animals need to put the resources into upgrading. This includes certain parts of otherwise top tier zoos, such as the Center Street of the San Diego Zoo, where bears still live in concrete pits. To limit the harassment of animals by misbehaving visitors, dedicated security guards may be necessary at hot spots. I think of the art museum model of visible professional security who take no crap when they see someone breaking the rules. These and any other solutions need money, and the money comes from either direct or indirect public support of zoos. Being unilaterally anti-zoo will bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy of crippling our zoos and making them worse at caring for the animals in their care and worse at their conservation efforts.


Putting Together eFossils’ Life-Size Skeleton Printouts

May 23rd, 2016

While the classroom has an extensive collection of replica fossils, there was nothing that conveyed a sense of the full stature of our ancestors. I found some cool life-sized printouts at the eFossils site for Lucy, Nariokotome Boy, modern human skeletons. While the layouts are fantastic, the graphics have been enlarged a great deal. This means that the lines are very blurry and would look odd up close. Having access to Adobe Illustrator, I used the Live Trace tool to smooth out the skeletons. I used the text tool to replicate the copyright statements and some of the instructions. The results look great at any distance now:

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Turning the graphics to vector also shrank the file size by over half. Yes!

The printouts were intended only for a temporary use, such as taping to a wall or laying on a table, but I also wanted a more permanent construction. I cut cardboard pieces to fit the individual sheets, used a glue stick to attach each printout to a cardboard sheet, and taped them together with transparent packing tape. I taped key joints both front and back to allow some flexibility: the Lucy skeleton printout actually folds up into just one sheet’s area!

{ Hominins in disguise. }

{ Hominins in disguise. }

The Nariokotome Boy printout is larger, so there were some complications. Since it was three sheets in width and around six sheets tall, it was too thick to fold into one sheet. Instead, one column has to be the oddball and stick out and make the folded version two sheets wide and an irregular height. The bottom sheets, for the foreleg, are uneven and have to be cut to match for the obsessive. The right sheets, for the Boy’s left side, are also printed smaller than the other sheets so they have to be trimmed separately. They do not look noticeably thinner than the left sheets, which s good.

{ Nariokotome Boy hanging in the classroom. To-do: make two blank sheets to fill out the lower right corner. }

{ Nariokotome Boy hanging in the classroom. To-do: make two blank sheets to fill out the lower right corner. }

For an added layer of protection, I sprayed Krylon Protect It! on Nariokotome Boy before taping. It did slightly color the sheets slightly, and curled the unglued edges, but it should offer some protection for the ink.

My class this semester was mildly impressed (whelmed?) as I unfolded them with a flourish by holding the head sheets and letting the rest drop out. Some students did remark that they help convey the sense of scale which does not otherwise get across in lecture.

Since these skeletons will see the outside world only two or three days out of the year, they should last forever. Many thanks to eFossils.org for making these files available.


Let the Games Begin!

April 25th, 2016

The ‘Games’ part of my blog’s title gets very little attention, but a new game came out this year that is of great anthropological interest. I’m surprised that it has not gotten much attention at all in the hip anthropologist community. I mention it now as a possible start for a future project here.

The latest Far Cry game takes the open world faction shooter gameplay to Mesolithic Europe. While this could have come out very poorly in terms of reflecting what anthropology knows, the game developers did their homework and added some nice touches, such as basing the languages of the game on Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed language of that time. This link has a nice interview with the linguists hired for this job, Andrew and Brenna Byrd.

That is not to say that liberties are not taken on what we think life was like back then. The player can befriend a number of animals, from saber-toothed cats to owls, and even ride a wooly mammoth. And while humans were definitely in a lot of danger, they were not “the bottom of the food chain” as the promotional material says.

I have gotten into live streaming myself playing video games on Twitch, and one of my dream summer activities would be to play Far Cry: Primal and talk about anthropology while I do it.


Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 2

February 10th, 2016

A little while ago, I received a present that I secretly wanted: an excavation and model kit of Australopithecus afarensis. After a short break to rest the fingers, the next field season continued the amazing discoveries of the first. One surprise from last time was the existence of a hair in the gypsum matrix. Further excavation revealed more hair in separate locations.

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }

Wait…

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Could this be one giant hair? Interested scholars quickly formed into single-hair and multi-hair camps with no room for a middle ground. Revealing more and more of the hair(s) showed that it led into one of the foot impressions that was being preserved. With a heavy heart, I broke through the impression to see where the hair went. The single-hair camp won out in the end as it became evident that we are dealing with one rather long piece.

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{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }

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{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }

From there the project got a bit old so excavation proceeded more quickly. While the documentation showed that the skull had to be assembled from three pieces, it was found whole. While convenient, the skull did have to be partially separated into its constituent parts in order fit it to the vertebral column.

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A wash in the sink removed the bulk of the gypsum matrix from the skeletal remains. The parts easily fit together into a complete skeleton with little effort. Pegs on the feet went into the display stand. (I tossed the hair: it’s gross). One surprise was that the shoulder and hip joints were rotatable and the skull was very possible due to the ball joint.

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

As you can tell, this model kit was a lot of fun to excavate and produced a good looking model for the price. I wouldn’t be opposed to checking out more of the Geoworld line, though I may speed up the excavation in the future.


A Little More Keeley: Comic Hero Extraordinaire!

January 19th, 2016

My comic got a little attention this break as I finished two pages, bringing the total to 10 (out of 20 for this issue). Pages 7-10 are new to the web. To be continued spring break, perhaps?


Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 1

January 15th, 2016

As December rolled around, I found myself on Amazon browsing for good gifts. I settled on a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for my brother (which looks amazing) and was ready to shut the browser window, when Amazon dangled another model in front of my eyes: an Australopithecus afarensis (e.g. Lucy) model! I had already gotten myself something so I begrudgingly surfed away without buying it. As luck and a great significant other would have it, I got one for Christmas even though I told no one about it! It has been a long time since I was on an archaeological dig, so I wanted to do this block of plastic bones justice. First, the unboxing:

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The model is branded “Cave Girl” since it is ostensibly a female afarensis, not because the toy was made for girls. In fact, as Megan McCullen pointed out, the metadata for this model states that it was intended for boys. Another bit of marketing sexism: there is a “Cave Man” model, of a Neanderthal. “Girl” versus “Man,” :/.

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{ Brochure of the different models. The sea, flying, and ice age sets are especially neat. }

In any case, the cover is a flap that opens to reveal the actual block of stuff that encloses the model pieces, as well as three plastic tools.

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The tools are sturdy, much hardier than what comes with a Halloween pumpkin carving kit. There is a hammer/scraper, chisel, and brush. The brief instructions state that the hammer and chisel are the way to go, but I found the scraper to be much more accurate and effective at removing the gypsum matrix. As a good archaeologist would do, I started at the surface and slowly dug away as evenly as possible.

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{ The newspaper was very worth it. Dust got everywhere, including my hands and phone. }

A few pieces appear! The light brown piece was puzzling until I realized that it was the display stand, upside-down. An excellent find, since the stand should have lots to say about the bipedalism of this species.

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A hand emerges, and to the right of it, another plastic bone and a hair! Maybe we can DNA test the hair and do an isotope study of the keratin for any dietary clues.

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The display stand has text imprinted on it. Early language?!

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Taking the stand away reveals an impression of an impression of the feet. They may be worth preserving so I started excavating around them.

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As I wrap up after around three hours (I went slow over two days), a lot of skeletal elements can be identified. All limbs are visible, as well as the pelvis, sacrum, and ribcage. I am definitely getting my money’s worth out of this kit. So far, I highly recommend getting one for yourself or the young person in your life. Who knows what future excavating will uncover!