Thursday, January 31, 2008

Eye Candy

Dinosaur Classification

There were thousands of different types of dinosaurs. Scientists have divided these types into a number of groups, based on the ways the different species were related to one another.
Dinosaurs are divided into two major groups. This distinction is based on the shape of the hipbones. Saurischians have hipbones similar to modern reptiles, such as crocodiles and crawling lizards. Ornithischians, however, have hipbones more like birds.

Confusingly, bird-hipped dinosaurs are only distantly related to birds. The ancestors of modern birds are actually the saurischians. Ornithopods were all plant-eaters. The basic bird-hipped dinosaur dinosaur was a nimble herbivore which walked on two legs. Some, however, walked on four legs and developed heavy armor, like the stegosaurus and ankylosaurus.

The saurischian dinosaurs are further divided into two groups: the theropods and the sauropods. Theropods were bipedal meat-eaters dinosaurs with powerful jaws and grasping hands with sharp claws. Everybody's favorite, Tyrannosaurus Rex, is the most famous theropod. The sauropods, however, were plant-eaters. They had long necks and heavy, lumbering bodies.
While ornithischians and saurischians are distinguished by the shape of their hips, theropods and sauropods are classified by the shape of the animal's foot. Theropods had feet like modern mammals, and sauropods had feet more like a lizard's.

All the meat-eating dinosaurs belonged to the theropod group. They had compact bodies and walked on two legs. The head was held out in front, and was balanced by a heavy tail. This is the ideal shape for a hunter: having the teeth and jaws up front means they are the first parts to make contact with its prey.
The legs are muscular and fast for short distances. We know that at least some of the theropods were warm-blooded.

As a group of dinosaurs, the sauropods include the largest land animals ever to walk the earth. These were the big plant-eaters of dinosaur times, with heavy bodies, long necks, and whip-like tails.
The sauropod's heart had to be especially strong, to be able to pump blood up through the long neck. The teeth were purely for plant-eating: they were small and serrated, like a vegetable shredder. Some of the sauropods weighed more than an entire herd of elephants.

For my previous posts on dinosaurs, click here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Eye Candy

One of Ours

One of Ours, by Willa Cather
$9.95 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0760777683
This is the story of a farm boy from a dreary Nebraska town whose life finds meaning when he joins the army and enters World War I. It earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its author.
Willa Cather was a very interesting person, and is considered one of America's greatest writers. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and other brilliant "Lost Generation" writers, Willa wrote about the last pioneers in a country that was quickly becoming industrialized. Her books are often set in bleak towns, isolated in the vast prairies of Nebraska.
Claude Wheeler, our young hero, is finishing his idyllic childhood in just such a town. He's seventeen, and excessively sensitive at the story's beginning.
His father and all the other men on the farm are grizzled, boisterous, macho men with whom he's somewhat embarassed to be seen. He's frightened to go into saloons (not that I blame him, I'm sure the fights could get pretty nasty).
So he's a little out of place. 
His family is loving and understanding, but a bit overbearing. Being 
oppressively tied down to a dirt farm is starting to look like a nightmare to Claude, and it's a recurring theme throughout the book.
He goes to a nearby religious college, which seems like a waste of time and money. Religious colleges in 1910 Nebraska don't have much to offer in terms of pedigree or future career opportunities.
He makes some close friendships, though, particularly with a young man named Elrich, a genuinely caring person who helps make Claude a bit more worldly. When Elrich leaves, it starts a chain of events which eventually leads Claude to go to war in Europe.
It's interesting how positive Cather's view of war is. There's no shocking bloodshed, in fact the entire war is written with an almost Hardy Boys feel to it. Please understand that it was written by an old lady to be read as a boyhood adventure story. This is not Band of Brothers.
Despite its almost total lack of violence, it's an exciting and enjoyable war story. The protagonist is just as sweet as apple pie, and Cather's setting in the last of the American prairie is heartbreaking and lovely.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Eye Candy

The Elements

Another post on the Periodic Table of Elements. Today we focus on three metals, all discovered within a decade of one another at the beginning of the 19th Century. They each had an important part to play in the Industrial Revolution, and many of our modern techno-gadgets would not exist without them. Most people probably don't know too much about them, so please allow me to illuminate...

Titanium:
Atomic Symbol: Ti
Atomic Number: 22
In the 1950s, surgeons noted that titanium metal was ideal for pinning together broken bones. It resists corrosion, bonds well to bone, and is not rejected by the body. As a result, titanium is now used for replacement hip and knee joints, bone plates and screws, and pace makers, which remain in place for up to 20 years without maintenance.
Titanium dioxide is similar to white lead, but safer because titanium compounds are not poisonous. Because of its outstanding covering power, it is used in paints, enamels, and food coloring. For the same reason it is added to lipstick. A typical lipstick contains 10% titanium dioxide.

Vanadium:
Atomic Symbol: V
Atomic Number: 23
This element is named after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty. Vanadium made steel stronger and lighter, and made it possible for French war planes during World War I to be equipped with canons, rather than just machine guns. 
The famous "Damascus steel", fashioned into the prized daggers, scimitars, and swords that were unsurpassed in their day was due to the presence of vanadium in Syria's soil. The vanadium just happened to be an impurity in the source of iron ore they were using, and when the supply ran out, steelmakers could not understand why their methods no longer worked.
Henry Ford based his popular Model-T car on vanadium steel because of how hard and light it was. Between 1913 and 1927, over 15 million cars were produced with vanadium gears, axles, springs, and suspension.

Chromium:
Atomic Symbol: Cr
Atomic Number: 24
Chromium can be polished to become very shiny, and resists oxidation in air. Its main uses are in alloys such as stainless steel (15% chromium), and in chrome plating. All that is needed is a 1 microgram thick layer to give metal a silvery mirror coating.
The precious gem alexandrite, birthstone for July, seems to change color because it contains chromium. It appears as a beautiful bluish-green in daylight, but changes to a deep red when seen at night under artificial lights.

My posts on the preceding elements can be found here.

There's an excellent book of reference called Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, available in the Hansisgreat Store.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Eye Candy

The Year of Eating Dangerously

The Year of Eating Dangerously, by Tom Parker Bowles
$15.12 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0312373783
Tom is a member of the British royal family (nephew of the Prince of Wales, in fact). He's incredibly handsome, well-connected, and has a great personality; all of which make him an outstanding moderator and tour guide in this rather peculiar excursion around the world to sample the planet's most interesting, exotic, and delicious cuisine.
That's right: this book is about food.
Our hero grew up eating the rather bland fare for which Britain is famous. Not only does he sample the foods from all corners of the earth, but he also gives us an interesting synopsis of where this food often comes from. How does it get 
from the field, lake, or ocean to the consumer's dinner plate?
Naturally, in the interest of telling a good story, he eats a lot of things most westerners would find revolting. Some of his entrees even threaten to crawl off the plate. 
In the first chapter, he does some research into the edible eel industry. Now, I've never eaten an eel in my life, and don't intend to start doing so now. Still, I enjoyed reading about this suave British playboy on a raft in the 
middle of the night, catching slimy sea serpents for sale to restaurants. Most eels come from farms, it seems. There's a lot more to the eel industry than I would've supposed.
There's a chapter devoted to the chili pepper, and its popular derivative: Tabasco Sauce. Poor Tom nearly burns his tongue out sampling some of the spiciest pepper dishes at the World Chile Festival in New Mexico.
My very favorite parts of his travels take him to Asia. He visits Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Laos. Here he enjoys dishes  such as duck blood soup, items containing the penises of various animals, and a shrimp salad served under a glass dome so the live prawns don't 
hop off the table. There are  foods which contain crickets (which he says, taste rather like Pringles potato chips), ant eggs, and even the gall bladder of a King Cobra.
So there's plenty of weird and (to me) disgusting food, the descriptions of which made me crinkle my nose and smile. Most of it, however, sounds positively delicious. In fact, his entire one year journey sounds like a blast, and I enjoyed living vicariously through him.
This book is an outstanding choice for the food aficionado, or for someone who enjoys travel. 
The background information on the various industries was interesting and informative, and with each chapter it's another staple in a new and exciting locale.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eye Candy