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December 1, 2007

Molecular Paleontology — In search of the real Jurassic Park


Paleontologist Jack Horner is determined to find traces of dinosaur DNA among the fossils of Montana's badlands.

Most scientists think that's an impossibility.

Once upon a time they thought that about time travel, too — until Kurt Gödel sorted them out.

Here's Robert Lee Hotz's August 24, 2007 Wall Street Journal front page story about Horner and his quixotic, determined search for the past, captured.

    Dinosaur Hunter Seeks More Than Just Bare Bones

    Prof. Horner Searches For Traces of Blood, DNA; Lucky Break From T. Rex

    Prospecting in Montana's badlands, rock ax in hand, paleontologist Jack Horner picks up a piece of the jawbone of a dinosaur. He examines the splinter, then puts it back and moves on. It isn't the kind of bone he is looking for.

    Prof. Horner is searching for something that many scientists believe no longer exists: dinosaur bones that harbor blood cells, protein and, perhaps, even DNA.

    "Most people looking for dinosaurs are looking for beautiful skeletons," he says. "We are looking for information."

    This summer, Prof. Horner, 61 years old, is overseeing nine field expeditions, from Montana to Mongolia, looking for specimens intended not just for museums, but also for molecular studies. For more than a decade, he has been searching for soft tissue in dinosaur bones 65 million years old or more.

    His search for soft tissue places his fieldwork at the center of one of the most provocative endeavors in biology — the emerging field of molecular paleontology. With its emphasis on recovering ancient cells, the field offers the possibility of a chemical key that can unlock a living past, for any surviving cell could contain an organism's entire genetic blueprint.

    Until recently, the field was foundering on laboratory errors and spurious claims of genetic antiquity. So fragile is the chemistry of life that it can break down in a few months. But under just the right conditions, research now suggests, it can hold up for hundreds of thousands of years or more.

    Prof. Horner, a curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, is among the world's most influential and offbeat paleontologists. He pioneered studies of dinosaur parenting behavior, species variation and bone cells. He is dyslexic, a former Special Forces operative of the Vietnam War era, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, and a chaired professor of Montana State University who never finished a formal college degree.

    "The lenses that people normally use to look at stuff are broken in Jack," says Mary Schweitzer, an assistant professor of paleontology at North Carolina State University, who has worked with him for years. "That's what makes Jack such a good scientist. Every now and then, every field should get a renegade weirdo in it who challenges assumptions."

    By their nature, even scholarly dinosaur studies are leaps of imagination. So it was with Prof. Horner's search for dinosaur tissue.

    In 1993, just as the film "Jurassic Park" was making its debut, the National Science Foundation announced that Ms. Schweitzer, then one of Prof. Horner's graduate students, had found hints of red blood cells in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus rex that he had excavated in eastern Montana.

    "Nobody believed us," recalls Prof. Horner, who also was the film's technical adviser.

    Then in 2003, one of his colleagues spotted a bone jutting from a 40-foot sandstone cliff not far from that first site. It was another Tyrannosaurus rex. It took four members of Prof. Horner's team two weeks working with jackhammers to free the skeleton.

    Jacketed in a protective sheath of plaster, one leg bone weighed two tons — far more than the crew's borrowed helicopter could lift. It started snowing. At wit's end, they sawed the priceless specimen in two.

    "I had this terrible sinking feeling while I was breaking this bone," says field engineer Nels Peterson. From the bone's core, several brownish fragments fell. He wrapped them in tinfoil.

    It turned out to be a lucky break. Two years later, Prof. Schweitzer announced she had found veins in the specimens and what looked like intact blood cells preserved inside the leg bone. And this past April, she, along with researchers at Harvard Medical School, reported they had identified proteins found inside that massive dinosaur femur — the oldest such biochemical data ever recovered.

    The upshot: Against all scientific expectation, there was fresh meat -- in microscopic quantities, to be sure -- in the hind leg of a dinosaur that had been dead for 68 million years.

    Such discoveries can help researchers understand creatures dead so long that no one really knows exactly what they looked like or how they behaved. They can reveal relationships between species extinct and living. The proteins extracted from the Tyrannosaurus leg Prof. Horner's team discovered most closely resembled those of a chicken, solidifying the idea that modern birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. Minus its minerals, the bone from an emu was virtually identical in structure, orientation and color to the Tyrannosaurus bone.

    Even so, the Tyrannosaurus leg bone, the best preserved found so far, didn't yield any DNA. So much time in the earth had degraded the fragile biomolecules. For the foreseeable future, the idea of cloning a dinosaur is still safely science fiction.

    In tissue of younger species, though, scientists recently have pushed the boundaries of molecular paleontology further into the past.

    From a fossilized mastodon tooth found in Alaska, molecular biologist Nadin Rohland of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, extracted DNA between 50,000 and 130,000 years old, she reported this month in science journal PLoS Biology.

    In silt buried a mile deep in the ice cap of South Greenland, researchers in Denmark found DNA from pine trees and insects between 450,000 and 800,000 years old, they reported in Science in July. Before making their work public, the scientists made sure two other independent laboratories matched the DNA results.

    Earlier this month, researchers at Rutgers University and Boston University made public genetic sequences from the oldest DNA found so far. They extracted it from microbes 1.1 million years old, thawed after having been frozen in Antarctica. The DNA in bacteria from ice any older deteriorated quickly, they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Researchers think ice may favor preservation of fragile tissues and molecules of DNA, as also might extremely hot, arid conditions, like those found in the Montana badlands where Prof. Horner's teams are searching for soft tissue.

    "The chances of finding any [dinosaur] DNA are pretty low," Prof. Horner acknowledges. "I am still hopeful."

    In a field mostly outside the mainstream of federal research funding, Prof. Horner has a knack for attracting private grants. Star Wars producer George Lucas, Qualcomm co-founder Klein Gilhousen and Wade Dokken, a developer of Montana real estate, have contributed toward his research, the university says. Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures LLC, is helping to underwrite this season's fieldwork.

    This summer, in Montana's Hell Creek Formation, Prof. Horner is searching the last landscape inhabited by dinosaurs. More than 65 million years ago, this plain was a wetland where herds of horned Triceratops watered. Today, it is an arid outwash of boulders, cactus and sage. The red and gray soil is littered with white shards of petrified wood that ring like bone china when tapped together and countless crumbs of dinosaur bone.

    Packing 40 pounds of collection tools in the searing heat, Prof. Horner examines bones. The yellow bill of his "I Dig Dinos" baseball cap offers the only shade.

    Nearby, his crew is brushing sediment from the skeletal cowl of a Triceratops, too weathered to yield the pristine organic material that Prof. Horner seeks for cellular studies. Still, it is only the second specimen of such a young horned dinosaur known. It is museum-bound.

    Prof. Schweitzer is convinced that prehistoric molecules of cell protein — which are more robust than DNA and harder to contaminate — offer the most promising line of research. Prof. Horner keeps an open mind.

    "As long as you are not bound by preconceived ideas of what you can find," Prof. Horner says, "there are an awful lot of things you can discover."

December 1, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Magnetic Windshield Cover — Episode 2: Blast from the past


This item appeared in Episode 1 back on September 11, 2005, but in the past two years there's been a lot of turnover among joeheads so I figured it was worth another run, especially now that weather's getting scraper-worthy.

From the website:

    Magnetic Windshield Cover

    Heavy–duty plastic windshield cover holds securely to car with built–in magnets.

    Keeps windshield free from snow, frost, bugs, bird droppings, tree sap.

    Keeps interior cooler in summer, too!

    7–foot x 3–foot cover folds to fit in glove compartment.



Although not noted on the website, this device will not work if you own an Audi with an all–aluminum body.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: unless you are a stunt driver for Enterprise Rent–A–Car it would probably be best if you were to remove the cover from your vehicle before its scheduled departure.

Still $2.99same as it ever was.

December 1, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack



Are you paying too much rent?

Find out here.

December 1, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Multi-Function LED Christmas Lights


These are remarkably difficult to locate.

Sure, LED Christmas lights are the new new thing, available everywhere, but if you want the kind that twinkle and do all sorts of tricks, it's a whole other ballgame.

My crack research team just unearthed them.

The 16 functions of Christmas:

Steady On
In Wave
Stepping on
Fade On/Off
Slow wave
Rev fading

60 blue, red and green mini-lights are $14.99.


60 white ones, equally multifunctional, cost $14.99.

December 1, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Ghost speedways of yesteryear: Remembrance of lost dirt tracks past


In an interesting article that appeared on the front page of the August 14, 2007 Washington Post Metro section, Susan Kinzie explored the rapidly vanishing traces of the dirt tracks of Virginia, which once attracted huge crowds and made Friday nights memorable throughout the rural countryside.

Pictures which accompanied the Post article appear above and below; the story follows.

A Race Against Time

With the Help of Former Drivers, a Professor Hits Back Roads To Document a Vanishing Part of Va.'s History: Dirt Speedways

Summer, season of warm memories. Remember Bermuda shorts? Sitting under your grandma's mimosa tree drinking iced tea with the aunts? The swimming hole? The carefree simplicities of life are so dear, yet so perishable. This year's Metro summer series continues.

Sometimes when professor Brian Katen is looking for an old racetrack, he can feel himself walking around a banked curve. Then he sees it, his eyes adjusting to what used to be there. Instead of an empty field dead in the middle of nowhere in southwestern Virginia, he can imagine motors roaring on summer nights, dust flying and adrenaline spiking.

Some people look for Atlantis. Some people look for arrowheads. Katen looks for lost racetracks.

At this particular moment, the professor is standing at what used to be Hillsville Speedway, in Carroll County, Va., staring at a pasture fence with one Peanut Turman.

"I banked on the third turn, went right over that fence," Turman says. "Got in the driveway and kept running. I just busted me another hole" through the fence and back into the race.

"Looking at it now, you'd never know there was a racetrack there," Turman tells the professor. "But back then, there'd be 3,000 to 4,000 people watching."

Dirt tracks were the heart of many small towns in the days before television, with crowds cheering every weekend for drivers with such names as Snowball and Leadfoot, Fireball and Dude-Boy. Local races spread soon after the car was invented, were wildly popular in the 1950s but gradually faded in the 1970s and '80s.

Most of the tracks have long since been plowed under, paved over, built up or torn down — but not forgotten. The old racetracks are difficult to find. It's like the line from "Moby-Dick," Katen said: "It is not down in any map; true places never are."

There are true places all over: The sliver of park in Capitol Hill that doesn't show up on most maps but is always full of children shouting, dogs chasing balls and neighbors catching up as the sun sets. Or the patch of woods unmarked by any sign where generations of families have camped, summer after summer. Or the shack where watermen used to gather after the boats came in, playing cards all night.

They're the spaces in between, the places people live their real lives.


Katen, a landscape architecture professor at Virginia Tech interested in the culture, history and structure of place, studies those hidden worlds. They might look empty, he said, until people start telling stories.

Katen, who is 60, grew up in Washington and Northern Virginia. But when he moved to southwestern Virginia to work at Tech about 10 years ago, he was struck that NASCAR was no longer an afterthought, buried deep in the sports section. It was front-page news.

He was curious, so he went to a race at Motor Mile Speedway near Blacksburg, one of the few local tracks left.

Generations of families and old friends had come — to race, to work on cars or to root for their favorite drivers. He happened to sit down next to Turman's family and got to talking with them.

Turman, now 66, had raced in the 1960s, gaining a local following and running moonshine to fund his obsession.

He had photos of races from that same track, one with his navy-and-white 1937 Ford shooting past a turn right into a pond. By the time he got the car out, Turman said, "I bet there was five or six ton of mud in it."

Like most drivers back then, he built his car from junkyard scraps. He raced different tracks every few nights. Thousands of fans would watch from hillsides or pastures.

Katen was fascinated. All those places had vanished. So he started looking for tracks using clues from newspaper ads, aerial photos and people's memories. He drove back roads to find them, especially in the summers when he had more time to wander.

He has found more than 120 tracks in Virginia — although by his count, only about 18 remain. He is building an archive of stories, photos of drivers and speedways, tickets and posters, filling in a part of the everyday history of Virginia that might otherwise be lost.

Some tracks closed because they didn't make money, then were sold to developers or turned back into farmland. People became busy or lost interest, maybe staying home to watch NASCAR on TV instead. Some tracks are covered by lakes. One is underneath an Alexandria subdivision. Some are just ghosts, Katen said, a faint tracing in the grass where the dirt was compacted by all those spinning tires.

Along the way, Katen has found something else: a network of friends, local people he never would have met on campus.

One recent summer day, he and Turman set off on a road trip through the mountains around Blacksburg. Katen knew he was getting close to Hillsville Speedway when he saw the sign: Old Racetrack Road. Turman recognized the lay of the land. His first race was at the speedway — he was 24 — and he got hooked. "It's kind of like sex," he said. "I can sit and tell you about it for a week, but till you got that steering wheel in your hand and your foot on that throttle, you just don't know."

They stopped to visit Carl "Kiser" Davis, who got his start at a race when a guy told him he had a car but no driver. "I said, 'I never drove, neither.' He said, 'Let's try it.' I finished third."

Davis, wearing cowboy boots and a hearing aid at 85, said he misses the old drivers something awful. "All of 'em dead but me — am I really living or just a ghost here?"

After rattling down a rocky road, past battered trailers, barbed wire, brambles and cattle fences in Ivanhoe, southwest of Blacksburg, Katen and Turman met the family that had run the New River Speedway in the early 1950s.

At the first race, Aline Ogle recalled, so much dust flew that people said it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.

The women would spend all day Saturday cooking food to sell at the races Sunday, ham sandwiches, biscuits and caramel cakes. It was fun, time to catch up, Ogle said. The men would hook speakers to a pickup and drive through the small towns, blaring messages about the race.

Her nephew Barry Lawson said that as a little boy, he would watch the drivers swig moonshine before the race, then pour some into the gas tank. Turman laughed, remembering the zip his car got from a shot of moonshine.


They walked across the lawn to an opening in the woods, where trees had grown up around the oval track, defining the shape. Katen asked whether he could copy a photo, a beautifully clear old black-and-white shot of the track. When they returned to his Volkswagen, he pulled a scanner and laptop out of the back.

"Oh, we enjoyed it," Ogle said. People got together more back then, she said. "There wasn't that much other things to do at that time. I don't get out in the community like I did... I've lost track."

Katen and Turman drove on, winding past horse trailers, aluminum swing sets, piney woods, rusted 1950s trucks, vegetable gardens. Turman told stories the whole time, about having to dodge cows on the track or about his first wife's reaction when someone told her he'd had a wreck: She kept right on knitting. Didn't drop a stitch.

They drove past an old general store, a yard full of goats, a tin sheet with "Jesus" painted on it, nailed to a porch.

The first time Katen tried to find Ararat Speedway, near the North Carolina border, he asked a boy working in a yard whether he knew where it had been.

Yes, he said, his grandfather had built it. He led Katen to the site.

"I've met lots of nice people, just stopping in small towns, along the road," Katen said. "There's not much occasion to do that — unless you're looking for something."

Now he's coming back to meet the new owners of the Ararat land and a couple of drivers who want to see the old track.

"Peanut! The Outlaw!" said Anthony Terry, who used to race against Turman.

Their boots sinking into red mud, they walked down the hill where the race cars would come in. Pine trees and pokeweed had grown up around the track and crept through the crumbling cement bleachers.

Two thousand people would be sitting in those stands, Terry said, "and another 1,500 perched in the treetops. If there was a tree they could climb, they'd be up in it like buzzards."

His cousin, 75-year-old Bernie Epperson, stuck his hands in the bib of his striped railroad overalls and said, "This was the first and last race my brother-in-law ever ran."

Terry laughed. "He never did straighten up on that straightaway — he wound up out in the holler. Oh yeah, he took a ride."

One time when he was racing at Ararat, Turman told them, he hit a wet spot, spun, then kept on down the straightaway. The announcer hollered over the PA system, " 'Peanut, this fellow up here has $25 says you can't do that again — do a 360 and not stop.' All right! I went back out there, I done him two of 'em. I said, 'Do I get $50?' "


The landowners invited everyone back to their house, old friends already. "Back when all that was going on," Terry said, before TV and video games and mills closing and people moving away, "we had time to visit. Now, we don't have time to visit. It brings back some real good memories to see that track again. And — it's kind of sad."

December 1, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Authentic U.S. Government Red Tape Paperweight


Who knew?

From the website:

    Authentic U.S. Government Red Tape Paperweight

    At last — a government term that means exactly what it says.

    Official United States documents were once bound with red twill tape that had to be "cut through" to gain access.

    This encased bit of "red tape" is from Civil War documents found in the records of the Union Army by volunteers of the Civil War Records Conservation Corp at the National Archives.


December 1, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The origin of 'My bad' — my claim to fame


A reader in Greece emailed me that my February 10, 2006 post on the subject is the second result of 457 million on Google when you put "my bad" into the search box.

You could look it up.

If you don't have the time because you're a very busy person, you can look at the graphic up top, then move on.

Nothing to see here.

December 1, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What is it?


Answer here this time tomorrow.

December 1, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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