Friday, 19 October 2012

Dino-art: The Art of Drawing Dinosaurs

Event at the Natural History Museum, London, 21 September 2012

The artists correctly predicted feathered dinosaurs back in the 1980s and 1990s - in the teeth of opposition from "ultra-conservative paleaontologists" - and guess who turned out to be right?

John Sibbick - probably the world's best-known " paleo-artist" - says he couldn't make a living without keeping his copyright.

Mass signing with high-speed dino-drawings. Steve White is on the left, Luis Rey is next to him.

Steve White and Darren Naish presented a talk at the launch of the book Dinosaur Art: the world's greatest paleoart - which Steve White edited - at the Natural History Museum in September. This is a very beautiful coffee-table book on the subject, and surprisingly good value. The other surprise was the publisher - Titan Books - best known for comic anthologies such as Judge Dredd and other 2000AD strips. This is as far as I'm aware their first hardback coffee-table art book.

Let it never be said that "paleos" (paleontologists) are dull - this lot were a lot of fun, Steve White in particularly had got a big following of his rather glamorous friends onto the "guestie." Many had smuggled drinks and plastic cups into the auditorium with them, and there was even a "wine fairy" circulating unofficially during the interval, I was told she was the one to ask about red wine.

Dinosaur Art contributor Luis Rey (striped hat) and paleontologist Darren Naish confer.

Also in the audience were several mother-and-son teams, the sons in their school uniform. They sought advice from the professionals in the break on how to launch their paleo-art careers. Check-out Deviant Art, and allow other users of the site to critique you on it, was their advice.

Paleo-artist Bob Nicholls says it isn't that much harder to make a living as a paleo-artist than in any other branch of illustration - but making a living an any kind of illustrator is hard enough anyway. His illustration of two big theropods running at a sauropod (the long-necked one) with such force that they could lift it off the ground is based on "controversial physics.

Bob Nicholls has depicted a lot of Mesozoic marine reptiles (while they were contemporary, they're NOT dinosaurs!) He does a lot of research before starting work, including looking at the original fossils if he can.

When artwork is commissioned, says Bob, you get a long list with the brief with what should go in it, what species you have to put in the artwork, "the more species you put in, the harder it is to keep it realistic."

A lot of his work is murals – "you lose weight up ladders" including the mural at the Rotunda in Scarborough, based on "very few remains." And also for the Leicester Museum, where his mural depicted a Liopleurodon ripping the front flipper off a plesiosaur. This was inspired by a fossil of a finned marine crocodile that had part of its front flipper severed in a similar attack, but the stump healed and it went on swimming with it for the rest of its natural life.

Nicholls builds dinosaurs too, and as a user of Milliput putty in models, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this material goes in to seal joins between sections of fibreglass-moulded model dino. Being a model-maker as well as a painter is crucial in getting him gigs. Just painting dinos is "like being a greengrocer and only selling turnips", he makes a living purely from paleo-art because he does "multimedia".

John Conway (shown here) and other artists signed copies with dino-illustrations done at lightning speed. Baryonyx was a popular request.

A Deinonychus with "not very flamboyant feathers"

John Conway was inspired by reading Richard Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies aged 12, which showed him that "scientists could disagree". His art is "getting away from scales and volcanoes" that traditionally appeared in dino-art. His feathered Deinonychus is the opposite of what Naish described as "zombie dinosaurs… with the exact lines of every opening in the skull."

John has swung the pendulum back the other way, to depict animals that showed "less of the skeleton" like many animals around today. He ended up specialising in "feathered theropods, probably just because they're cool." Around 2000 he moved out of actual dino-art as it was "too crowded" and went into pterosaurs (contemporary but NOT dinosaurs).He "sometimes actually measures fossils" and works in Photoshop.

Magnolias – one of the first flowering plants 130 million years ago - often appear in dino-illustrations "tucked into the corner", but Conway sowed us one of his paintings that had a magnolia brought it into the centre, with feathered Alaskan theropods under it.

"This is in China,"said Conway as he showed his painting with some sort of iguanadontian, then he zooms into it using animation software, to show a small, hairy pterosaur, and zooms further to show the fossil wasp it's pursuing, and further still to show a micro-fossil - the detail on the microscopic grains of pollen stuck to the "hairs" on the wasp. Pollen is "practically indestructible", explains Naish, but changes quickly, so it' s a good way of dating a fossil find.

John Sibbick, possibly the world's best known paleo-artist. "Hands up who's still got David Norman's Encyclopeadia of Dinosaurs from the 1980s!" (illustrated by Sibbick,) said Naish.

Sibbick talks us through a favourite subject in dino-art - you can't depict Tenontosaurus without it being ripped apart by a pack of Deinonychus

John Sibbick recently worked on a Scelidosaurus illustration for the Bristol Museum, a very complete specimen that had probably drowned in a flash-flood, with "unexpected scutes on the leg" and goat-like horns at the back of the skull. Naish said that some of the "crazy amount of armour" that's turning up on some individuals of this species could be due to them getting "spikier as they got older," or there could be different species. Sibbick worked very closely with "paleos" on the Bristol assignment, he had "two phone calls" with one of them.

Sibbick hangs on to copyright – "the first of two books I did with David Norman" he had "no copyright" – the book's "still out there, other illustrators out there are adding feathers" to later editions. "I can only earn a living if I keep copyright," says Sibbick. "From day one, keep copyright. You can share copyright" but "I wouldn't have survived 30 years without owning my images."

Sibbick talked us through his 1992 image of a Tenontosaurus being attacked by a pack of Deinonychus. Since a skeleton of Tenontosaurus was found having apparently rolled over and crushed a pack of Deinonychus, Naish says "you can't show Tenontosaurus without it being ripped apart by Deinonychus."

Sibbick photographs lighting and water effects all the time, but he "can't do digital" as he now suffers from eyestrain. "I like to think it's science more than art" – like Nicholls, he measures specimens before he starts work on illustrating them in life. "I do get bored with dinosaurs sometimes" he confessed, to cries of "Shame!" from a not-too-serious audience. "Somebody had to say it," retorted Sibbick, who regularly goes off and does "Invertebrates, fantasy, general illustration" instead.

I met Luis Rey in 1998 when his feathered Oviraptor caused a scandal - now they're very mainstream. Now he's chief artist on Dorling Kindersley's latest Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and you can see the possible influence of Rey in the latest generation of dinosaur toys that depict feathered therapods.

Some typically dayglo acid-coloured Luis Rey theropods. "But all my colours are from nature, he explains

According to paleo-artist Luis Rey, art collector Joseph Lanzendorf created the term "paleo-art" and bought up everything in the genre that was going, but then he "lost interest, sold his collection to a museum, paleo-art was dead." Rey started on "fantasy terror comics" but "wanted to do something for science."

He says he was "blacklisted" in the 1990s, his paintings were considered "too science fiction". Feathered dinosaurs were being depicted in the 1980s and 1990s before the evidence proved them right, says Naish. If anything, those early, controversial attempts at feathered dinosaurs weren't "flamboyant enough", given the bizarre menagerie of smaller feathered theropods that keeps coming out of China.

Quilled dinosaurs?
One of Rey's paintings of a fight between a tyrannosaur and a Triceratops has the latter with short, thick, hedgehog-like quills on its back. Naish notes that early ceratopsids (the group to which Triceratops belonged) had quills in their tails. Naish also notes that pterosaurs had some kind of hair-like fuzz, theropods had something like feathers, could this point to the ancestor of the dinosaurs having had some kind of skin covering?

Naish feels Zallinger and Burian are still beautiful. (Readers aged well over 40 may recall Zdenek Burian's black-and-white postcards in sale at the Natural History Museum, Rudolph Zallinger's much-reproduced murals in Yale's Peabody Museum date from 1941. They both depict bulky, lumbering, sprawled-limbed dinosaurs dragging their tails.) Nicholls said "A lot of what you do gets out of date," says Nicholls. Or as Rey put it, "many of our artworks are part of history."

Conway says digital "makes it easier to update", but also increases the pressure from clients to turn out work faster. While Ruiz uses 3D printing to make basic models which he then draws from different perspectives,Sibbick doesn't "do digital", his eyesight's not good enough these days. He makes plasticene models as the basis for his drawings.

A copy of Dino-Art surrounded by (left to right) Darren Naish, Luis Rey, Bob Nicholls, John Conway, Steve White, John Sibbick, and a skull I correctly identified as Allosaurus.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jonathan McGowan's Big Cat large cat update

A display of evidence of large cat kills gathered by McGowan over the years - bones showing bite-marks and chewing that could only have been made by something like a puma, leopard or lynx. (This photo's from an earlier Weird Weekend but his display was back again this year.)

After 25 years in the field, Jonathan McGowan now prefers to call it "large cat research" - he prefers the term "large cats" to "Big Cats" because they're "not technically Big Cats, some of them… One third, maybe, of all these animals do not fit" the Big Cat description. (See a write-up of McGowan's Weird Week 2007 talk on British Big Cats.)

McGowan - speaking at the CFZ's 11th Weird Weekend in August 2012 - thinks some of the large cats sighted may be a hybrid between pumas and large feral domestic cats. Some of the black cats spotted do not have the "behaviour of leopards." Some are "big black cats with small heads" while others are heard "yowling" – very un-leopard-like. But McGowan has also heard the leopard's distinctive "coughing" alarm call to its cubs in the British countryside.

Now he's "bogged down" with the data that continues to come into him, people contact him with "up to a dozen reports a week, some are accounts of encounters dating back to the 1920s."

Says McGowan, "Deer are the key to big cats… Throughout Britain, wherever there are deer in large numbers, there a large cats. "sika deer are great breeders" and, like the large cats and "a third of our wildlife" aren't indigenous." Leopard, puma, lynx are - he believes - "a recent additive to our fauna – there are no reports before the (19)50s, 60s' 70s."

"Large cats are Houdinis... If you were to release two cats on the edge of London, they'd be in Cornwall in two weeks' time, says McGowan. They would "let themselves be known" to each other by scent-markings and scat"(poo).

McGowan talked us through slides of "cat scrapes" – visual signs when they do a wee or a poo. Sometimes these are in the form of star-shaped zigzags to mark territory. I know from taking my own domestic cats into the forest for a walk in Suffolk (see here for evidence that I'm not making this up) that doing a poo in the woods and the way they cover it up is a very serious business indeed for cats.

Apologies for my rubbish illustrations at the time (below), but McGowan also demonstrated the clear differences between dog and cat tracks. The toes on either side of the dog tracks will be level with each other, while the toes of cat tracks are not level with each other, the arrangement of toe prints is asymmetrical, in the way that the fingers on our human hands are of different lengths.

Large cats "hide behind gorse bushes to pounce" ... Heather in particular is "Big Cat country." Reedbeds are "ideal habitats for our sika deer" and therefore for large cats. And you can even find evidence of "pumas and leopards in the same territory" in some parts of the UK.

"US servicemen have admitted to releasing puma mascots" in or at the end of World War Two," claims McGowan. I'd heard that there's good evidence for this in Australia, but I'd not heard this claim made for the UK and I'd be interested to see the evidence. As a history graduate I'd be happy to follow up. The USAAF and US Army units based in the UK all have regimental archives that would point to the existence or otherwise of mascots – official or unofficial. Regiments have associations of veterans, many of whom are still alive and contactable.

He also alleges of the recent furore over a deer carcass on National Trust land in Gloucester, of which a DNA analysis came back as "fox", that the National Trust "hid data from the deer carcass" indicating it had been nibbled by some kind of cat.

If the big black cats in the UK countryside are black leopards, and breeding, then surely we should be seeing some spotted leopards as well, commented Ronan Coughlan from the audience. McGowan has heard "more and more reports of normal spotted leopard" from Kent. And there is also at least one "chocolate brown leopard in the UK." (Grey or brown "clouded leopards" are known from Borneo, where they are rare but numbers are known to be in four figures, and there's a grey clouded leopard cryptid, the pogeyan, said to be in the north of Kerala state, south India.

McGowan's as ever excellent talk was rounded off by CFZ director Jonathan Downes announcing that a new CFZ database of 5,600 UK Big Cat sightings would soon be ready, and inviting members to come up with requests to run past it. I will be putting it through its paces before long, as my next book after the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants will be Mystery Animals of Suffolk, which will look at Big Cats such as "Paws" in the 1990s as well as more recent sightings of something black in Brandon, on the Norfolk border.

McGowan told me he'd seen a puma by the side of a big road near Ipswich about two years ago. My antennae also started twitching at McGowan's mention of reedbeds, heather and gorse as Big Cat country, there are abundant habitats of all three in the Suffolk coast, and the establishment of a wildlife corridor in the north of the country means these habitats are about to get bigger. Deer are so abundant in Suffolk they're becoming vermin, (their great numbers are impacting badly on woodland bluebells in particular in the county) and while there's no established sika deer population in the county yet, they're known to be moving in and out of the county from Norfolk, and it's only a matter of time before they make Suffolk their permanent home.

(See also my review of Big Cats Facing Britain for Fortean Times.)

My on-the-spot illustrations from Jonathan McGowan's talk, based on slides he projected. They show the difference between the more symmetrical prints of a dog – the toes level with each other – and the asymmetrical prints of a cat – with each toe at a different height.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

"Sexual predator" police officers use police databases to find victims

People often say, yes, so the police have gathered data on you even though you have no criminal record, but if you have done nothing wrong, what have you got to fear? Here's another reason to be fearful of police data-gathering on all of us.

The abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence is the title of the report published on 20 September jointly by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

As the Guardian had commented earlier on sexual predators in the police force, "the problem is to a large extent hidden, as no official statistics are kept and few details are released about internal disciplinary action in such cases.(Guardian 29 June 2012.) All we get is the anonymised details of those who were caught - either convicted of criminal charges or booted out of the force, or at least disciplined. There are probably many more.

Some of the cases of sexual predation by police officers were the result of being able to pray on the vulnerable while they were in police custody, or police officers were pursuing and harassing women they'd encountered after getting their personal details following call-outs after they'd reported a crime, and so on.

But in many other cases, coppers had used the numerous police databases that are available to them to identify vulnerable people (usually women, but men in one case) who they could prey on. A recent FOIA request by the Guardian revealed millions of people with no criminal records are showing up on police databases (some because they were the victims of crime, had reported a crime, or - as in my case - had just been on a demo.)

In most cases there were no restrictions at all on any copper getting a peek at all this deeply personal data - something like 50,000 cops could just help themselves to the data with few if any obstacles.

The report in September arose from an earlier 2011 investigation which “included cases in which officers or staff had misused police computer systems in order to target individuals who might be vulnerable to abuse.”

In the new report, there are three "case studies" which are clear examples of police officers using police database to prey on the vulnerable - all shorn of any identifying features, of course, which is ironic given the obsessive way that police intelligence units collect the most intimate details on activists. No dates, nor even the gender of the officer are given, although their genders can be inferred by word like "his". The "case studies" make chilling reading.

Case study three - "an officer was dismissed from the police service for misusing police computer systems" after the IPCC and social services rumbled them. "The investigation found that the officer carried out 176 unauthorised checks on females over a three year period. Forty-eight of the checks were carried out after (my emphasis) the officer received a written warning for misuse of police computer systems relating to checks on himself, his vehicle, and his family."

Social services first got on this unnamed officer's case regarding "a possible offence of engaging females under the age of 16 in sexual activity. It found no evidence to support this. However, the existence of robust IT audit mechanisms identified additional unauthorised checks undertaken by the officer concerned... In common with some of the other cases in this report, the police officer involved misused police computer systems to identify women. It is conceivable that his behaviour would have escalated in the same way as the other cases discussed had it not been discovered."

In Case study five, two complaints from "members of the public" triggered an IPCC probe which led to a copper being "convicted of five offences of misconduct in public office and received a prison sentence." Other police investigated the officer and "identified a pattern of behaviour whereby the officer would use police computer systems to search for and target individuals who might be vulnerable to abuse, and then attempt to develop a sexual relationship with them. The investigation identified four women with whom the officer had had a sexual relationship. Three of these were considered to be in a vulnerable position."

One of these dated back 20 years. It was a relationship with "Ms B," then aged 17 and at the time "living in a hostel for vulnerable adults with drug or alcohol dependencies and mental health issues. On several occasions the officer gave Ms B money, which was seemingly used to buy alcohol. He requested sex, which was refused. A friend of Ms B complained to a local inspector about a police officer."

The officer in question already had "two previous disciplinary findings against him.

Both concerned inappropriate sexual behaviour. These were not considered when he applied for a role in the force’s public protection unit." Despite this history, the unnamed police officer was still allowed unrestricted access to police databases. As a result of the case, it was suggested to the police force in question (even the force isn't named!) that they should consider (not "should" or "must" but "should consider") "implementing a tiered access system to personal telephone numbers of
individuals held on intelligence systems so that there is no general access for all police staff. The fact that the officer’s behaviour continued for a number of years raises questions regarding the kind of supervision he was subject to," if any.

"Robust auditing of computer use could have identified the officer’s misuse at an earlier stage," concludes the report. When I talked to a salesperson for Memex, the company that produces most police databases (Crimint Plus, Patriarch, etc.), he told me they come with an easily accessible audit trail - it's a simple task for a police force to find out who's been accessing what data how often, when data was last amended or deleted, etc. Rocket science it ain't.

Finally, Case study six - an officer resigned from the police service and was later convicted of a number of computer related crimes" as a result of an investigation triggered "after a man made allegations of sexual assault against the officer." (So men who think they're unlikely to be targeted in this way can stop being complacent now.) "Insufficient evidence" meant the assault case went nowhere, but "auditing of the police force’s computer systems... found that the officer had improperly accessed police computer systems on hundreds of occasions over a significant period to check information about a number of individuals."

When interviewed "the officer admitted these searches were entirely for personal use; to find the home addresses of the persons searched, view photographs and, in some cases, contact the individual in order to pursue a sexual relationship. A number of these individuals were considered to be in a vulnerable position as a result of their individual personal circumstances."

"The police officer was able to make hundreds of improper searches of police computer systems over a significant period of time to target individuals for sexual purposes. What is different here is the officer targeted men. Though this type of crime disproportionately affects women and girls, some victims will be male or transgendered individuals."

Not only was there apparently no supervision of this officer and his many years' worth of "improper searches" on police databases, but "Every time the officer in the case conducted a search a warning about misuse appeared on his computer screen, which the officer felt able to ignore." He knew he was acting illegally, but also knew he'd probably get away with it. He was eventually convicted and booted out of the force.

There were some bullet points at the end of the report, on "learning", with "questions" aimed at police forces. For example, "Does your police force have the capability to monitor access to IT by individual officers, for example police national computer and other checks apparently targeting particular groups?" As the man from Memex told me at a policing exhibition in Manchester a couple of years ago (Dave Powell, who was apparently on loan to Memex from Surrey Police when I talked to him back in July 2010), the digital audit trail on most police database isn't hard to do.

I asked the Information Commissioner's Office if they had any comment to make on the revelations in the Abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence report. An Information Commissioner's Office spokesman told me "Police officers and civilian staff can have access to substantial collections of often highly sensitive personal information. It is important that they do not abuse this access and only use the information for their policing duties. We expect police forces to make substantial proactive efforts to check that any access to their records is for legitimate police purposes and to take action where they discover wrongdoing. Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act."

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Radical reforms empower Kurdistan's universities

This article appeared in the EL Gazette, April 2012.

Matt Salusbury talks to Kurdistan Regional Government higher education minister Professor Delewar Al'Adeen about how the autonomous region of Iraq has transformed its higher education sector.

Photo: Kurdistan Regional Government flag, Serchinar, Iraq, 2004, copyright Matt Salusbury

Monday, 8 October 2012

Talk on 'A History of Dog-headed Men' regrettably cancelled

Update (23/10/12): This event has now been CANCELLED. The demographic of people who are (a) interested in dog-headed men (b) not doing anything over Halloween and (c) living in and around St Albans is regettably an unfeasibly small one, it seems.

I will be giving a talk on 'A history of dog-headed men' at Verulamium Museum, St Albans, on Friday 26 October. (Half an hour by train from St Pancras.) This is part of their "Superstitious" season which is why it's around Halloween.

What's the connection between St Albans and dog-headed men? It turns out that John Mandeville, author of influential pre-printing bestseller travelogue The Travels, which features dog-headed-men, was a St Albans local boy.

For background on dog-headed men, see here. This will be an update, as there's a lot more where that came from!

I last went to the Verulamium Museum on a school trip when I was about seven. All I can remember was the impressive packed lunch in a strong paper bag with a handle, and some broken pillars in a field. It's possible I mis-remembered. They say our memories aren't really our memories of the event itself, but our memory of the most recent occasion on which we remembered it again.