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Dino, From Dragon To Lounge Lizard

The Deinocheirus used its gangly arms to grasp prey.
The Deinocheirus used its gangly arms to grasp prey. (Pixeldust Studios)

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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dinosaurs are like presidential candidates: The more you learn about them, the less impressive they are.

Back when I was a kid and everything I knew about dinosaurs was wrong, they were awe-inspiring creatures, giant behemoths that could eat the entire Sahara Forest for breakfast, then use a cave man as a toothpick while strutting over to Japan to star in a movie about the monster that ate Tokyo.

Nowadays -- as National Geographic magazine points out in a wonderful cover story called "Big Bad Bizarre Dinosaurs" -- paleontologists are finding creepy, nerdy dinosaurs that look like mutant freaks or Dr. Seuss drawings or lizards designed by Liberace. Some of them have body parts that are so preposterous that even the scientists can't figure out their purpose. These creatures are so bizarre that National Geographic brought in novelist John Updike to make sense of them.

"Before the 19th century, when dinosaur bones turned up, they were taken as evidence of dragons, ogres, or giant victims of Noah's Flood," Updike writes. "After two centuries of paleontological harvest, the evidence seems stranger than any fable and continues to get stranger. . . . Contemplating the bizarre specimens recently come to light, one cannot but wonder what on earth Nature was thinking of."

To illustrate how these newly discovered dinosaurs might have looked, the Geographic commissioned something called Pixeldust Studios to create computer-enhanced pictures of the beasts. The pictures are beauties but the critters are uglier than aardvarks.

The Epidendrosaurus was a sparrow-size bird with huge hands that included one ridiculously long finger, as if the little twerp was flipping the bird to the universe.

The Masiakasaurus was a German-shepherd-size meat-eater with a huge mouth and ridiculous buck teeth that could keep an orthodontist busy for an entire career.

The Carnotaurus, with its huge body and teeny, tiny arms, looks, as the caption points out, "as if nature had set out to design a perfect killing machine but ran out of funding."

And then there's the Parasaurolophus -- a huge beast with two long pipe-like bones extending out of its skull. At first scientists theorized that these bones were used as snorkels when the dino swam. Now, they think the pipes might have been used like a trombone to make noise. Either that or it was some sort of "sexual display" that caused members of the opposite sex to say, "Hey, get a load of the pipes on that Parasaurolophus!"

What does Updike make of these strange creatures? He figures they're no more bizarre than the humans he's chronicled in his 22 novels.

"How weird might a human body look to them?" he writes. "That thin and featherless skin, that dish-flat face, that flaccid erectitude, those feeble, clawless five digits at the end of each limb, that ghastly utter lack of a tail -- ugh. Whatever did this creature do to earn its place in the sun, a well-armored, nicely specialized dino might ask."

Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 200 million years. Humans have been around for barely 200,000 and Updike is not optimistic that we'll ever catch up: ". . . for all its fine qualities, Homo sapiens is befouling the environment like no fauna before it."

Chicanery in Cambridge

The magazine 02138 covers Harvard University generally in a breathless and fawning manner. But the current "Sex! Greed! Scandal!" issue contains a wonderfully acerbic expos┬┐ that reveals how some of Harvard's hotshot celebrity professors actually produce their books: They do it "with the help of a small army of student assistants who research, edit and sometimes even write material for which they are never credited."

Take the case of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who seems to be on TV more often than Regis Philbin. Dershowitz has published 12 books since 2000. How does he do it?

"Dershowitz generally employs one or two full-time researchers, three or four part-timers and a handful of students who do occasional work -- all paid at $11.50 an hour," writes Jacob Hale Russell. And, Russell adds, "he also repackages his own work; 'Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence,' released this year, is his 2003 book 'America Declares Independence' almost verbatim, with a few new chapters tacked on."

The funniest -- and most damning -- anecdote in this piece features Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor who admitted in 2004 that his book "All Deliberate Speed" contained six paragraphs taken verbatim from a book by a Yale professor named Jack Balkin. Here's how Ogletree explained this error:

"Material from Professor Jack Balkin's book . . . was inserted . . . by one of my assistants for the purpose of being reviewed, researched and summarized by another research assistant with proper attribution. . . . Unfortunately, the second assistant, under the pressure of meeting a deadline, inadvertently deleted this attribution and edited the text as though it was written by me. The second assistant then sent a revised draft to the publisher."

Hmmmm, very interesting.

"In other words," Russell writes, "at least some of Ogletree's manuscript was sent to his publisher without having been read by the person supposed to have written it."

If Harvard students handed in term papers written by somebody else, Russell points out, they would be subject to expulsion. Apparently, the rules for their professors are more forgiving.

Sewer Talk

Texas Monthly is America's finest regional magazine, covering Texas politics, Texas culture, Texas cuisine, Texas controversies and Texas celebrities. The December issue also covers . . . Texas sewage.

Writer Nate Blakeslee spent a great deal of time and effort investigating nearly every aspect of sewage in general and the sewerage system of Austin in particular. His editors rewarded his hard work by headlining his article, "Everyone's Poop."

It's a fine article, no doubt the best story I've ever read about sewage. I highly recommend it, although I would not advocate reading it while eating breakfast -- or any other meal for that matter. It contains an unforgettable disquisition on the visual and olfactory effects of major sewer-pipe backups that really cannot be adequately summarized. Suffice it to say that the pull-quote in that section of the story reads: "I mean, it was a foot up on the sides of their houses."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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